PITTSBURGH – The season got off to a rousing start for the Steelers, as they took a 2-0 lead just seconds into their opener Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
That, however, was the high point of the day for the Steelers.
After taking that 2-0 lead on a safety three seconds into the game, Pittsburgh bumbled and fumbled its way through the final 59:57, dropping a 16-9 decision at Heinz Field.
“Unacceptable performance,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “I won’t accept it. This team better not accept it. We’ve got some work to do.”
Do they ever.
Though the rest of the AFC North teams also lost their openers, the Steelers lost a home opener for the first time in 11 years and did so in ugly fashion.
Adding injury to insult, the Steelers lost Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey in the first quarter to a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling to a torn ACL and inside linebacker Larry Foote suffered a ruptured biceps muscle in his right arm in the fourth quarter. Each injury requires surgery and are considered season-ending.
“To lose a pair of starters, a pair of leaders like those two, really hurts,” said linebacker Kion Wilson, who replaced Foote.
For now, the Steelers will have to deal strictly with dealing with losing a game they had in their control – at least in the early stages.
Tennessee’s Darius Reynaud fielded the game’s opening kickoff, a bouncing squib kick by Shaun Suisham, who had strained his hamstring in warmups, at the 1-yard line. Reynaud inexplicably then stepped back into the end zone and took a knee, giving the Steelers a safety and a 2-0 lead.
It was the fastest score to open a game for the Steelers in team history.
“The guys kept telling me they were going to bail me out,” said Reynaud. “After that, our defense made some big plays, the fumble at their goal line, for example.”
That fumble, on an exchange from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to running back Isaac Redman, came after the Steelers took the free kick after the safety and moved from their own 41 to the Tennessee 6.
“We got no points out of it,” Redman said. “It’s unacceptable. It wasn’t a guy hitting it or the ball coming out. I was something we work on every day in the beginning of practice, the quarterback-running back exchange.”
Neither team generated anything in terms of offense following that miscue until the Steelers made their next big mistake, a poorly thrown pass by Roethlisberger that was intercepted at the Pittsburgh 49 by Alterraun Verner.
The Titans ran the ball on 11 of their next 12 plays, with the only pass being an 8-yard completion on a screen to tight end Delanie Walker.
Tennessee didn’t have any big runs – the long gain was six yards – but it kept moving and scored on a 3-yard run by Jackie Battle to take a 7-2 lead.
“We want to go out there and cause some turnovers, and not allow a team to run the ball, so we can get after them in pass rush,” said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had the Steelers’ lone sack. “We didn’t do that as a defense.”
The Titans didn’t do anything special on offense as quarterback Jake Locker completed 11 of 20 passes for 125 yards and the running game produced 112 yards on 42 carries, an average of 2.7 yards per attempt.
But they did control the ball more than Steelers, who had only seven first downs between their opening and closing drives, finishing with 14 in the game.
“It was just little things here and little things there,” said Roethlisberger, who completed 21 of 33 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
The Steelers could not establish the running game, finishing with 32 yards on 15 carries, forcing Roethlisberger to carry the offense.
Roethlisberger, who became the first Steelers player and 28th in NFL history to go over 30,000 career passing yards, was sacked five times and pressured six other times.
The Steelers’ defense kept the game within reach, allowing only a 26-yard field goal with 4:33 remaining in the third quarter, until Tennessee got field goals on back-to-back field possessions late in the fourth quarter following a 62-yard drive and a 27-yard punt return by Reynaud.
Trailing 16-2, and even a late touchdown drive by the Steelers, capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:26 remaining, couldn’t salvage the day.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Tomlin. “Nobody cares about our problems. They’re glad we’ve got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together.”
Odds and end zones
Stephens-Howling led the Steelers with 19 rushing yards on six carries. … Safety Ryan Clark led the Steelers with 13 tackles. … Tennessee had 229 total yards, compared to 195 for the Steelers.