By David Todd
The Steelers lost their season opener to the Tennessee Titans 16-9 Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers took a 2-0 lead on the opening kickoff when the Titans Darius Reynaud downed the opening kickoff in the end zone after initially taking possession in the field of play and then didn’t score again until there was 1:23 left in the game. It was an incredibly poor offensive performance low-lighted by the team not converting a 3rd down the last 42 minutes of the game, getting no first downs the entire third quarter and none on the ground the entire game. While the defense generally played well, a lack of big plays and key stops plagued them much as it did last season as they lost the turnover battle 2-0.
As if the outcome wasn’t bad enough, to make matters worse the Steelers suffered multiple injures, including three that are season ending. Center Maurkice Pouncey was hit by teammate David DeCastro and tore his ACL and MCL and will be out for the year. DeCastro was trying to execute a cut block on the team’s opening drive, but dove with his head down into Pouncey’s right knee ending his season before it was four minutes old. In the fourth quarter inside linebacker Larry Foote ruptured his biceps and will also be lost for the season and it may be the end of the road for the 33-year old defender. Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling tore his ACL on an innocuous looking play to complete the trifecta. Other injuried players included Cortez Allen (ankle) and kicker Shawn Suisham who played through a leg injury suffered in warmups.
*It really is a stretch to find anything good about the Steelers offensive performance. No offensive penalties, maybe? I’ll give a courtesy nod to wideout Antonio Brown who had 5 catches in 7 targets for 71 yards.
*Where to start. The offensive line was terrible and while it’s easy to point to the loss of Pouncey as being the key reason, the group was bad across the board in all facets. Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times and pressured many more. The running game was non-existent gaining 32 yards on 15 attempts with only one carry for more than five yards. The health and ability of the O-line was the number one concern coming into the season. Their play Sunday offered no comfort that this year would be better and they lost their best lineman to boot. It will be an ugly film session on Monday.
*The number two concern coming into the season was the running back situation and like the O-line, the running backs took a step back rather than a step forward. Isaac Redman fumbled on a 3rd-and-1 from the Titans six less than six minutes in, a clear turning point in the game. Redman fumbled again in the second quarter, but recovered. He finished with nine yards on eight carries. After only getting two carries in the preseason he did nothing to engender any confidence that he is a suitable stand-in until Le’Veon Bell is healthy.
*Manny Sanders. I’m a card-carrying member of the Sanders fan club and on paper his numbers look reasonably good, seven catches for 57 yards. But they don’t tell the whole story. On the Steelers opening offensive play after the safety, Roethlisberger went deep on play-action and threw a perfect ball to Sanders on a go route. It went right through Sanders’ arms. Those types of plays, particularly early, can be game-changers. Sanders also failed to maintain possession of another ball after being tackled out of bounds. It looked like a good catch, but for some reason the Steelers chose not to challenge. Sanders did make a couple tough catches, but he didn’t make them all.
*Statistically the Steelers overall numbers look good. They limited the Titans to 229 total yards on 63 plays, an average of 3.6 yds/play and they held Chris Johnson to 70 yards on 25 carries.
*They held the Titans to one TD on four trips in the red zone.
*Many Steelers defenders had solid games, but as we saw so often last year, they failed to come up with any big game-changing plays. They didn’t cause any turnovers and had only one sack, by LaMarr Woodley.
*The Steelers defense had trouble getting off the field Sunday, something that also troubled them at times last year. On one third quarter drive the Titans converted a 3-and-15 and a 3rd-and-13 on back-to-back series.
*The Titans dominated the time of possession at 34:01 to 25:59 even though the Steelers had the ball for 9:56 in the first quarter. On their second quarter TD drive the Titans ran the ball 11 out of 12 plays grinding out 6:48 on the game clock to go 49 yards.
*Zoltan Mesko punted seven times for a 44.1 yard average and a 35.9 net. He wasn’t great, but his directional punting should be an asset.
*After a Titans field goal to make it 13-2 late in the third quarter, Markus Wheaton hesitated bringing the kickoff out of the end zone and got tackled at the 7. He who hesitates...doesn’t get as many yards as he should.
*The Steelers committed two special teams penalties, one by Jason Worilds and one by Shamarko Thomas. Field position was a problem the whole game and those didn’t help.
*Nothing here. The Steelers were not just out-played, they were out-coached across the board.
*It’s seems every other week Mike Tomlin mismanges the clock and he appeared to be in midseason form Sunday calling the Steelers final timeout with 2:02 left and the Steelers on the Titans 4-yard line. There was no reason to use the timeout while the Steelers had the ball. Throw it in the end zone for a TD or an incompletion three times. The chances were slim that the team was going to win the game at that point as they had to recover the onside kick, but Tomlin made it even less likely by again failing to manage the endgame properly.
*I mentioned the Sanders catch the was ruled an incompletion. I’m still not sure why the Steelers didn’t opt to challenge the play. It was certainly worth another look for a team that wasn’t moving the ball at all.
*When the offense plays that poorly the offensive coordinator is sure to come under fire. With Roethlisberger under constant pressure and the running game going nowhere I’m not sure how much blame Haley should take, but I expected him to challenge the Titans secondary more aggressively and use the middle of the field more often.
*After praising Felix Jones since the moment he arrived the coaching staff chose not to use him after two Redman fumbles and LSH’s injury. Perplexing to say the least.
*The Steelers will be putting their three injured players on the IR this week and have to add three to the 53 man roster. Jonathan Dwyer, John Malecki and Marshall McFadden are three veteran Steelers that Kevin Colbert could bring back, but I’m guessing that is unlikely. The Steelers will probably look first to their practice squad to fill the 53 and then sign three new players to the practice squad. Only McFadden has practice squad eligibility and he is currently under contract with Oakland.
Big Officiating Calls:
*The Steelers coaching staff questioned the consistency of the pass interference calls, but officiating wasn’t a big factor in this one.
Up Next: The Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on Monday, Setpember 16. Kick-off is scheduled for 8:40 and the game will be on Monday Night Football. Both teams come into the game 0-1. All four AFC North teams lost their opener.
Reminder: You can hear me and Tom Bradley on the postgame show on the Steelers Radio Network after every Steelers game. You can listen on the Steeler Gameday app, the Steelers Nation Radio app on iHeart Radio or DVE or 970 ESPN in Pittsburgh. You can hear me weekdays on 970 ESPN from 4-7 pm and you can follow me on twitter @DavidMTodd.