Things do not go much worse for the Steelers than what occurred Sunday at Heinz Field.
"You know, it's bad ... It was terrible. It was ugly," tackle Marcus Gilbert said.
It was 1988-ish, and no Steelers team wants to go through another season like that one. Losing at home, 16-9, to the Tennessee Titans in the season opener is one thing, overcoming the loss of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and veteran linebacker Larry Foote, their defensive signal-caller, for the season might just be too much.
The Steelers now have a starting center in tackle-guard Kelvin Beachum, who never played the position in his life before this spring. Their new starting inside linebacker, Kion Wilson, was released by two teams and was not on an NFL roster in 2012, his third season.
"Losing [Foote] is going to be big just because, who's behind him?" safety Ryan Clark said. "I just learned the names, like, this week."
Halfback LaRod Stephens-Howling has a torn ACL and will miss the season. The team will re-sign Jonathan Dwyer today to take his place.
They also must find a replacement for an offense that put on one of the most feeble displays in the history of Heinz Field. They almost were outscored by their special teams, who took a 2-0 lead three seconds into the game when Tennessee's Darius Reynaud decided to take a knee for a touchback after fielding the opening squib-kick by Shaun Suisham, who hurt his hamstring in pregame drills.
The problem for Reynaud was, one foot was over the goal line, so a safety was awarded. The many problems for the Steelers would follow.
The Steelers did not score again until their no-huddle offense moved 75 yards on nine plays, and Jerricho Cotchery finished it when he caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger with 1:23 left in the game.
Tennessee recovered the onside kick and that was that.
In between, Isaac Redman lost a fumble on a botched hand-off from the 6 in the first quarter, mainly because the Steelers botched the alignment. The ball popped into the end zone, where Tennessee recovered for a touchback.
Roethlisberger also threw an interception and was sacked five times, which puts him on pace for 80 sacks, not quite how the Steelers hope to keep their 31-year-old star healthy.
Roethlisberger actually did yeoman's work, considering the constant pressure he came under and the fact he got virtually nothing from his ground game. Roethlisberger completed 21 of 33 passes for 191 yards. His runners provided him with just 32 yards on 15 tries, plus another fumble by Redman that he recovered.
"Our quarterback was getting hit some," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "It wasn't a clean pocket. Obviously, we had Kelvin Beachum in there at center. We needed to be able to run the ball and stay on schedule. We weren't able to do that."
They weren't able to do much of anything on offense and, just like 2012, weren't able to come up with the big plays on defense. LaMarr Woodley had their only sack of quarterback Jake Locker and, taking a page out of the past two seasons, they came up empty forcing turnovers. The team that finished minus-10 in net turnovers 2012 is off to a minus-two start.
Defensive end and captain Brett Keisel was upset enough he wanted to take a few moments before he spoke.
"I think I need to calm down first before I do," said Keisel, who put the most pressure on Locker when there was some. "Definitely there needs to be more of a sense of urgency."
That defense held Tennessee to 112 yards rushing, a 2.7-yard average, and Locker did not exactly light it up, completing 11 of 20 for 125 yards.
But the Titans scored the game's only touchdown by running it right at them, and did so after cornerback Alterraun Verner intercepted Roethlisberger to give them the ball on the Steelers 49.
Tennessee needed 12 plays to move those 49 yards and ran it 11 times, including the final time with 240-pound Jackie Battle blowing up the middle for 3 yards and a touchdown.
"We let them run it down our throat," Clark said.
Two of the three field goals kicked by Rob Bironas came after short drives of 37 and 8 yards, the latter after a punt from the 5 and a 27-yard return.
So, if someone wants to find any kind of silver lining in a stinker at Heinz, they might squeeze some good out of the defense.
Their offense, though, looks like it's in trouble, even with one of the best quarterbacks in the league running it. They struggled to score anything against a team that allowed more points than any other in the NFL in 2012.
Injured rookie halfback Le'Veon Bell and tight end Heath Miller cannot return to play soon enough.
Emmanuel Sanders had a chance to jump-start them. But a deep pass Roethlisberger threw from his 41 on the game's first play from scrimmage went through Sanders' hands at the Tennessee 15.
Seven plays later, after moving to the Titans 21, the offense used that new zone blocking scheme on a Redman run to the left. That's when right guard David DeCastro tried to cut block the nose tackle and instead dived right into Pouncey's lower legs, ending his season.
Four plays after that, on third-and-1 at the 6, Redman fumbled the hand-off after an alignment mishap.
Here's how Redman described it:
"There was supposed to be two tailbacks in the game. I was going to fullback and get the dive. We got to the line of scrimmage and realized we didn't have the tailback in the game. I told David Johnson to go back to tailback.
"It was kind of slow coming from center -- we were working with a new center. It's a quick-hitting play, a bang-bang, and we messed up the quarterback-running back exchange. I never felt like I had it."
Which, of course, he didn't and the Titans wound up with it. A touchdown there would have given the Steelers a 9-0 lead.
"I don't think those guys lacked effort, I think we lacked execution," Clark said of his offense. "Last year, a lot of games we lost by three points or less late. We just got outplayed altogether.
"Sometimes it's hard to replace certain guys, it's hard to do things. You can't get the ball in the red zone and turn it over early in the game. I think if you get some type of points out of that drive, the game could be different."
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published September 8, 2013 5:45 PM