CINCINNATI – Was it a one-game anomaly or a portent of things to come?
That’s the question many are asking about the Steelers, who struggled mightily on offense in their 16-9 loss last Sunday to the Tennessee Titans to open the 2013 NFL season.
The Steelers (0-1) will answer that question today when they play the Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Paul Brown Stadium. The winner will find itself in a tie for first place in the AFC North with Baltimore, a 14-6 winner over Cleveland Sunday.
“We can put it behind us,” said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers performance that generated just 195 yards of offense with five sacks and two turnovers against the Titans. “Obviously, we didn’t make enough plays. We didn’t play well enough and just didn’t get it done, point blank.”
Things won’t be any easier now. Already playing without tight end and 2012 team MVP Heath Miller, who is out again as he continues to recover from surgery to repair his ACL, the Steelers are without three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, who tore his ACL in the opener.
“They had a rough one,” said former Steelers linebacker James Harrison, now with the Bengals. “They lost their best offensive player they had in Maurkice Pouncey. I am sure they will go back to the drawing board and correct whatever needs to be corrected, and come back with a vengeance.”
Some might consider that a shot at Roethlisberger, who became the first Pittsburgh quarterback to surpass 30,000 career yards passing last week. But Pouncey’s loss during the opening drive last week had a lingering effect on the Steelers.
Reserve offensive lineman Kelvin Beachum, who had never appeared in a game at center at any level, moved into the starting lineup. That forced the Steelers to scrap extensive plans to use Beachum as a tight end in place of Miller in blocking situations. It also forced the Steelers to rely more on tight end David Paulson for blocking, something that is not his forte.
Throw in the loss of running back LaRod Stephens-Howling to a knee injury in the third quarter and it’s no wonder an already offensively depleted team struggled to score just one touchdown.
“Losing Maurkice Pouncey when we did, it really affected three guys,” said Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “And LaRod Stephens-Howling going down, he had a specific package. We obviously didn’t get it done, and we need to be better in a lot of areas. Having a week to prepare, understanding and figuring out what our strengths and weaknesses are is a big part of what we do as coaches, and those variables changed this week with a couple of personnel changes.”
Fernando Velasco, signed last Monday, will start at center in place of Pouncey.
The Steelers and Bengals split their two games last season, with Pittsburgh winning 24-17 at Cincinnati, and the Bengals returning the favor, 13-10, in the rematch, a loss that knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs.
In recent years, the meetings between the Steelers and Bengals have been meaningful.
“It’s what you want to do,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “This is the first division game. You kind of want to set the tone for how we’re going to play and what type of team we’re going to be. “And this is a great week to do that.”
Much of the focus for the Steelers will be on stopping Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. In four meetings with the Steelers, Dalton is completing 52 percent of his passes for 688 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions, while Green has 19 receptions for 247 yards and three TDs.
“I don’t think (Dalton) can be considered a young guy anymore. He is very efficient with the football,” said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. “His No. 1 target is A.J. Green. We have to contend with him. ... He is going to be a matchup issue for us.”
The Steelers will be without cornerback Cortez Allen, but figure to have Ike Taylor shadow Green throughout the game. If Taylor can hold his own and the Pittsburgh offensive line can protect Roethlisberger, the Steelers will have a chance.
If not, it could be another long game for Pittsburgh.
“We lost a game in Week 1,” said Roethlisberger. “Yeah, we didn’t play very well at all on offense, but there’s no time to panic right now. The AFC North is all even. We’ll see how it all irons out after this week. … There will be someone at the top at the end of this.”
Odds and end zones
The Steelers have won 10 of their past 11 games in Cincinnati. ... LaMarr Woodley needs one sack to surpass Greg Lloyd for the fifth most sacks in Pittsburgh history. Woodley has 53 sacks, while Lloyd had 53.5. ... Harrison ranks second in team history with 62 sacks in his 10 seasons with the Steelers.