By Alex Kozora
Before turning out attention to the start of training camp, we’ll revisit 2013 one more time. This is a brand new series that will be recapping each game by highlighting three plays that shaped the final score – and the 2013 season – of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Starting in order, with the Week One 16-9 loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Play #1 – 1st Quarter: Maurkice Pouncey’s Injury
It seemed like the perfect, albeit unusual start, to the season. Opening kickoff that results in a safety. 2-0 before either team runs a play on offense.
The Steelers march the ball down the field on the ensuing safety punt, aided by 11 and 20 yard connections to Jerricho Cotchery and Antonio Brown, respectively. With 2nd and 6 at the Tennessee 21, Pittsburgh is shaping up to find the end zone and take a quick 9-0 lead.
It is a seemingly innocuous cut block attempt by David DeCastro. It ends with the blown knee for Maurkice Pouncey. Kelvin Beachum takes over at the pivot for the rest of the game and the Steelers sign Fernando Velasco as a bandaid, who would in turn end his season following a torn Achilles weeks later.
The Steelers’ attempt at a zone blocking scheme can no longer be centered – pardon the pun – around the athletic Pouncey. Pittsburgh is unable to remotely sniff any semblance of a run game for the first half of the season, rumbling to a 2.98 yards per carry average through the first five contests. There’s just one win during that time, threatening to bury the Steelers before the mid-way point.
The run game improves as the year wears on but never comes close to reaching its full potential. The Steelers get to start anew this year, with a healthy Pouncey, a back in Le’Veon Bell who’s no longer a rookie, and an offensive line guru in Mike Munchak. But 2013 is a year to forget for the ground game junkies.
Play #2 – 2nd Quarter: Alterran Verner Interception
Most would point to Isaac Redman’s fumble a few plays after the Pouncey injury as the play that began the slide. And of course, there’s a great argument to be made for it.
But the Titans aren’t able to walk away with points on the drive. It’s Jake Locker offense that struggles to move the ball. Objectively, an uneventful game that offers more sloppy offense than stellar defense.
The Titans’ first points and a lead they wouldn’t give up comes via an Alterraun Verner pick mid-way through the second quarter. It’s an attempted out breaking route to Emmanuel Sanders. But the pocket collapses on Ben Roethlisberger, the ball wobbles and is thrown behind, allowing Verner to dive and snatch the pass away. The Titans take over with excellent field position, the Steelers’ 49, and after a 12 play drive that chews up the rest of the half, punch it in on a Jackie Battle three yard run.
It would be the only touchdown of the game until its waning minutes. An ominous start to a gloomy year.
Play #3 – 4th Quarter: Larry Foote’s Injury
It felt like the team had more season-ending injuries than points after the first week – three in all, including LaRod Stephens-Howling‘s torn ACL.
Larry Foote is no Ray Nitschke. He’s an average linebacker with limited coverage skills. But the impact isn’t felt so much in the loss of the play of Foote; rather, the realization the team had a less than ideal backup plan.
That plan comes in the form of sixth round rookie Vince Williams. New to the system, he is often rotated out of the lineup. The Steelers’ are forced to abandon their base 3-4 and play subpackage football 60% of the time the rest of the season. By season’s end, they’re ranked an uncharacteristic 21st in rushing yards per game allowed and yards per carry.
The Steelers’ try to remedy the problem by asking Troy Polamalu to play a hyrbid linebacker role, but it takes away his ability to see the entire field and wreak havoc like he is fully capable of doing.
It was one of the biggest issues defensively and a large part for the team’s struggles in 2013.