On the Steelers: Season-opening setbacks

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As openers go, they don't get much worse. No offense, no defense, a crushing loss on the scoreboard and more in the trainer's room.

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Last Sunday's 16-9 Steelers loss to Tennessee at home? You might include that one. But a 35-7 spanking at rival Baltimore to open the season on 9/11/11 was worse. The Ravens forced seven turnovers and had four sacks to humiliate the Steelers, who were the defending AFC champions. And, in a parallel to their game one week ago, the Steelers that day lost starting right tackle Willie Colon for the season with a torn right triceps.

"There is a little déjà vu, isn't it?" guard Ramon Foster said. "We've been in this situation before."

"A disaster," secondary coach Carnell Lake called that game.

Here's another thing that Foster and Lake remember: The Steelers bounced back to lose only three more games that season, which ended with a 12-4 record and a playoff spot.

The lesson, which they hope the 2013 team understands: "What we can't do is panic -- no player, no coach, nobody can panic," Foster said.

Lake knows all too well how quickly things can change in the NFL. What looks like the deepest hole can become a tunnel to a better place.

That disastrous opener in 2011 was nothing new for Lake. He experienced meltdowns as a Steelers player to open 1989 and 1996 as well, along with the infamous Rod Woodson ACL injury in the first game of 1995. Lake is the Forrest Gump of Steelers opening-day melancholy.

"Unfortunately, I was part of the team that had the worst loss in Steelers history, that opener to Cleveland, 0-51," Lake said of the beginning to the 1989 season. "So if there's ever a demoralizing first-game opener, that was it. And that year we went to the playoffs."

That game came after Chuck Noll's second-worst season -- 5-11 in 1988. Dan Rooney ordered him to fire a handful of assistant coaches and by the second game of 1989, many wished Noll had gone with them. The Steelers also lost their second game at Cincinnati, 41-10.

Yet, as Lake noted, not only did they make the playoffs that season, they upset Houston in the first game and nearly upset John Elway at Denver on the doorstep to the AFC title game.

In 1995, the Steelers won their opener, 23-20, against Detroit at home but Woodson left with a torn ACL and missed the rest of the regular season.

"It was rough. We were 3-4 after seven games that year," Lake remembered. "We were on the [brink] of really having a bad year and we turned it around."

They turned it around enough to go 11-5 and play the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX.

The following season, they opened at Jacksonville against the Jaguars, who were then just beginning their second season. Another disaster. They lost the game, 24-9, linebacker Greg Lloyd for the season with a torn patellar tendon and linebacker Jason Gildon for several games with a sprained knee.

"Greg was in his prime, kind of the leader of our defense, at least the emotional leader," Lake said.

Fellow linebacker Jerry Olsavsky, now an assistant coach, cried in the locker room that day over Lloyd's injury.

"We were expecting big things, especially coming off the Super Bowl," Lake said. "It was a blow immediately. We were wondering how are we going to keep this thing together, at least defensively without one of our main guys?''

Somehow, they managed to go 10-6 and make the playoffs.

So yes, they have overcome these first-game disasters before. But can they do it in 2013?

"We can't go in a shell, that's the most important thing," Foster said. "We go out and handle our business, I think everyone knows we have the players, we have the athletes, we can be a really good team."

"You just never know," Lake said. "You just have to keep playing. And guys have to believe that anything is possible. I think that is more important than anything, you almost have to will it to happen."

And considering the end results of some of those other bad openers?

"Maybe it's a good omen," Lake said.

Where did everybody go?

While the Steelers fight in court so they can add 3,000 seats and other improvements that would include a second video board to Heinz Field, many who already have tickets to seats -- and pay handsomely for them -- continue not to show up. Those 5,000 no-shows for the 1 p.m. opener on a gorgeous day at Heinz Field last Sunday did not necessarily reflect the product because those fans had no idea the team would put on such a poor show. There has to be other reasons.

Yes, the game was another sellout at what they list as capacity of 66,500. But when 7.5 percent of those people who have paid good money for seats -- and many with seat license fees paid long ago -- don't show up, it has to be a troubling sign to the owners. None of those 5,000 ghosts bought concessions, etc. And if the Steelers continue to play the way they played in the opener, that group of no-shows will grow.

Mike Tomlin: Entertainment critic

Mike Tomlin, asked by a Cincinnati reporter if he watched the Bengals on Hard Knocks: "I don't watch that reality television. That's Channel Zero."

And if he'd consider having the Steelers do the HBO show the Bengals have now done twice: "That decision would be up to the Rooneys from an ownership standpoint, but I don't see the advantages of it from a personal standpoint."


First Published September 15, 2013 4:00 AM


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