What Went Wrong in Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 Dud Against Tennessee Titans?
Only until the very end of the game—when the Titans were confident they would win and moved to a softer defense with a minimal pass rush—did the Steelers offense put points on the board.
While the Titans weren't particularly spectacular on offense themselves, they did manage a touchdown and a trio of field goals while the Steelers sat through most of the game with two points, won on a safety that the Steelers didn't even help commit.
Though the passing game didn't produce any major results, the run game was Pittsburgh's biggest problem on offense. Of the total 195 yards (the fewest it's had in a game since 2010, ironically also against the Titans), just 32 were of the rushing variety. The run game produced so little that the team ran the ball just 15 times—10 in the first half, five in the second.
Isaac Redman ended the day with a mere nine yards on eight carries. La'Rod Stephens-Howling was the Steelers' leading rusher, with six carries for 19 yards, but he left the game with a knee injury. Pittsburgh ended the day averaging only 2.1 yards per carry.
In contrast, the Titans had 112 yards on the ground, with 70 belonging to Chris Johnson on his 25 carries.
Forget the Steelers' long-standing issue of settling for field goals in the red zone instead of touchdowns. The only time Pittsburgh even sniffed the red zone in this game (save its final drive), Redman fumbled the ball away, ending just one of two sharp-looking Steelers offensive possessions.
The run game didn't produce a single first down, and the offense as a whole converted only four of its 13 third downs. Complicating matters for both the rushing offense and Ben Roethlisberger was the early knee injury suffered by center Maurkice Pouncey, now revealed to be a season-ending pair of ligament tears, via SportsCenter on Twitter.
Roethlisberger was under constant pressure, taking five sacks; with the run game all but abandoned, he was a sitting target. Even his legendary improvisational skills couldn't save the day.
The defense fared a bit better, giving up just one touchdown—a three-yard run by Jackie Battle in the second quarter. None of Tennessee's receivers had more than 46 yards.
However, quarterback Jake Locker outpaced Roethlisberger and managed to get his team into field-goal range three times. A Roethlisberger interception also set up that Battle score, while Locker threw no picks.
The Steelers defense only managed one sack, compared to Tennessee's five, with linebacker LaMarr Woodley taking Locker down. Starting Titans receiver Kenny Britt was held to a single, 15-yard reception, but the ankle sprain suffered by cornerback Cortez Allen opened the door to former Steelers receiver Nate Washington pulling down four passes in the second half.
However, it was the Pittsburgh offense that deserves the blame for this loss.
With the Titans putting up only 16 points, the Steelers and all of their weaponry should have been able to outscore them. But the Pouncey injury, compounded with the same running issues as last year, made advancing the ball difficult.
Perhaps when rookie Le'Veon Bell returns from his foot injury (something he's hoping to do next week against the Cincinnati Bengals) and takes over the starting running back job, the Steelers will be able to get more yards on the ground.
However, replacing Pro Bowl center Pouncey will be a tough task, involving a transitional period that may take longer than seven days. The Steelers clearly couldn't run well without him this week, and suddenly a heavy dose of passing no longer seems to works as it used to.
The short-yardage passing game favored by coordinator Todd Haley can only be effective if those short passes eventually yield a first down. This week, that wasn't the case—Pittsburgh went from being one of the top teams in third-down conversions last year to only converting four of its 13 this week.
With no run game, the Steelers have to get more production out of the passing game.
Further complicating that effort, however, is that they now look less explosive without a threat like Mike Wallace forcing defensive attention deep downfield, whether the Steelers look that way or not. Everything is short—and defenses know it—so the passing game has become far less dynamic. Wallace may have been a problem seed in the locker room and too expensive to retain, but they haven't found someone to replace his on-field presence yet.
It was fitting, however, that receiver Jerricho Cotchery scored the only offensive points of the game for the Steelers. Cotchery was one of the few-and-far-between bright spots in the game, catching four passes on seven targets for 34 yards and the aforementioned touchdown, scored with 1:23 remaining.
Cotchery looked like the de facto replacement for the injured tight end Heath Miller, rather than other tight ends Michael Palmer or David Paulson. In fact, only one Steelers tight end saw a pass from Roethlisberger—one target, one catch for David Johnson, yielding 11 yards.
Cotchery was Roethlisberger's over-the-middle safety valve, and while he could have stood to grab more of the passes thrown his way, he did seem up to taking on added responsibility. He also did a good job in blocking assignments.
But marring any positives in the loss is the spate of injuries the Steelers suffered.
Looks like Pouncey (ACL, MCL) & Foote (ruptured biceps) are lost for the season. Stephens-Howling (knee) and Allen (ankle sprain) also hurt.— James C Wexell (@jimwexell) September 8, 2013
Pouncey is out for the season, as is inside linebacker Larry Foote, who tore a bicep. Stephens-Howling suffered a knee injury and Allen sprained his ankle. Two starters are now done for the year while two other important members of the team could miss at least one more week depending on the severity of their injuries.
For a team that clearly needs to get better, none of this helps in the least.
Looking at the teams the Steelers have ahead, particularly the defenses (starting with the Bengals next Monday night), it looks like a hard road for the team to travel. The Titans weren't a strong defense last year and haven't done much to improve, but when paired up against Pittsburgh's offense, they looked outstanding.
The Bengals, however, truly do have one of the league's top defenses, and without serious adjustments to the game plan, Pittsburgh's offense could be in major trouble. Roethlisberger simply cannot be sacked five times in a game. The rushing offense cannot have just 32 yards on 15 carries.
Something has to change, and quickly, because there's no way the Steelers can win many games with an offense that looks as it did in the loss to Tennessee.
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