WEMBLEY, England -- Many times, the start of Steelers training camp would signal the end of the Pirates season. Today, we have the start of a Pirates post-season pretty much marking the end of the Steelers for 2013.
For the first time in 45 years, back to when miniskirts were all the rage and pro football in Pittsburgh was not, the Steelers lost for the fourth straight time to open a season.
The previously winless Minnesota Vikings turned the trick this time, on another continent but in an all-too familiar way. The Vikings parlayed big plays against a shaky Steelers defense to pull off their first win, 34-27, turning back a furious Steelers comeback that ended when Ben Roethlisberger was sacked and lost a fumble at the Minnesota six on their final play.
The Steelers thus start the season at 0-4 for the first time since 1968, an autumn in which Richard Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election.
"We're in uncharted territory and the water is dangerous right now," Roethlisberger said. "Right now, we can say we're the worst team in the league. That hurts."
They will find some relief next Sunday, because they have the weekend off.
"Sting?" said Roethlisberger, who is now 1-7 counting the final four games of last season. "It does. It's hard to talk about."
Mike Tomlin threatened to get rid of players who will not buy into the team's job of turning a distasteful season around.
"Those who don't, ain't going to be a part of this ... whoever it may be."
For the second straight game, the Steelers outgained their opponents -- 434 yards to 393 in this one -- but lost on the scoreboard. And again, they came up with no turnovers and gave up two, that Roethlisberger fumble and an interception.
They have lost 11 turnovers this season, recovered none.
"This is not the Steelers," nose tackle Steve McLendon said. "We are not used to losing. No one around here. We just have to get better."
At 0-4, though, getting better could be a matter of semantics.
"Are we a bad football team?" Ryan Clark asked. "I didn't think so, but our record indicates that."
Rookie halfback Le'Veon Bell, in his first NFL game, scored two touchdowns, and Roethlisberger threw for another to Jerricho Cotchery, who had 103 yards on five receptions. Shaun Suisham kicked two field goals.
They seemed to have enough offense to win, especially with a defense historically among the best and one whose goal is to give up 17 points or fewer a game.
But Adrian Peterson gouged them for 140 yards rushing on 23 tries, two for touchdowns of 60 and 7 yards. Greg Jennings caught two scoring passes from backup Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel, one of 70 yards.
"We gave up some explosion plays," Tomlin said. "It's affecting the outcome of football games."
That, combined with the two turnovers, the five sacks of Roethlisberger (he was 36 of 51 passing for 383 yards) and the stop at the end gave Minnesota its first victory of the season.
The Steelers trailed 34-17 and looked out of it before Roethlisberger's 15-yard touchdown pass to Cotchery early in the fourth quarter cut the Vikings lead to 34-24. They shrunk it to 7 points with 3:37 left on Suisham's 28-yard field goal.
The Steelers then kicked off, stopped the Vikings and got the ball back with 1:43 to go at their 22.
One more time, the ball was in Roethlisberger's hands with a chance to tie and send the game into overtime. It used to be his trademark and it looked as though he might pull it off again.
"I think we all felt we could move the ball," said Heath Miller, who caught six passes for 70 yards. "We felt that way all day long."
They quickly moved to a first down at the Minnesota 20. Then came two more completions to Antonio Brown, who caught a career-high 12 passes for 88 yards, and they were at the six with 22 seconds left. On third down, however, Roethlisberger was sacked and lost the fumble to end the comeback.
"The last one they got some pressure, and I'm thinking try to do anything you can to get rid of the ball, throw it away, do something and I just couldn't manage to get it out," Roethlisberger said.
The Vikings had stretched their 10-point halftime lead to 34-17 after three quarters.
The Steelers had closed the gap to 20-17 when they scored on their first drive of the second half, a 1-yard run by Bell, who started his first game after missing the first three and led them with 57 yards on 16 carries.
But the Vikings responded. Cassel found Jerome Simpson wide open over the middle for a 51-yard completion, and Peterson ended that series with his second touchdown run.
Minnesota was back on top by 10. It became 17 a short while later after linebacker Chad Greenway intercepted Roethlisberger at the Steelers 37.
Two plays after that, Cassel threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to Jennings in the back of the end zone over beleaguered cornerback Cortez Allen.
That boosted the Vikings lead to 34-17 with 5:11 to go in the third quarter.
That the Steelers were able to storm back was of little consolation.
"Obviously, a disappointing loss," Tomlin said. "But, really, who am I kidding? They all are, regardless the manner of which they unfold."
Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@Post-gazette.com. First Published September 29, 2013 6:00 PM