By Alan Robinson
CINCINNATI–A must-win game in Week 2 for the Steelers?
Recent NFL history says it is; since 1990, only 11.5 percent of teams starting 0-2 make the playoffs. The Steelers (0-1) themselves contradict that; they’ve reached the postseason three of the last four times they lost their first two games, including 2002 — the last time they were 0-2.
The Steelers also can’t seem to lose against the Cincinnati Bengals (0-1) at Paul Brown Stadium, where they’ve won 11 of 12, including the 2005 season playoff game that changed dramatically after Kimo von Oelhoffen put Carson Palmer out of the game early with a knee injury.
But it’s not that the Steelers lost their dismally played opener to the Titans, 16-9, it’s how they lost it — with no running game, an unnecessary dearth of offensive linemen that forced them to move Kelvin Beachum from blocking tight end to center, the lack of protection for Ben Roethlisberger, the inability to generate turnovers and sacks against one of the NFL’s worst offenses.
There was so much that went wrong, perhaps one week wasn’t enough to correct it all. Regardless, the Steelers need to start looking like the Steelers — i.e., they need to get back into character Monday night by running the ball better, by making plays on defense, by looking like a team that knows what it’s doing.
Otherwise, Week 3 against the Chicago Bears next Sunday night at Heinz Field truly becomes a must-win game.
Ten things to watch for Monday night:
1) IS THE CLOCK TICKING ON BIG BEN? The offensive line, already reconfigured from a week ago, must give the quarterback time to make plays, especially when the run is effective enough to set up their play-action passing. Roethlisberger loves to improvise, but it’s too much to ask him to do it on nearly every play. And he needs to stay healthy; Roethlisberger was hurt the last time the Steelers played a Monday night game, against Kansas City last season, and their season shifted for the worse when he was.
2) A COMMITTEE OF ONE? The running back-by-committee approach is working about as well as many committees do, with questions about roles and a lack of direction. If Isaac Redman can’t get it going tonight, and he certainly didn’t in Week 1, the Steelers might shift early to Jonathan Dwyer, who ran for 122 yards in Cincinnati last season. And Felix Jones has yet to get a meaningful Steelers carry. The Steelers badly need a running back to seize the job. Now.
3) THE MAN IN THE MIDDLE. Fernando Velasco is a proven NFL center and is it something of a surprise he was out there for the Steelers to pick up last week. By plugging him in immediately, it allows Beachum to return to being a blocking tight end, one who will be needed to help David DeCastro minimize All-Pro Geno Atkins’ impact.
4) WHO’S KICKING? Shayne Graham has kicked for nearly half the teams in the league, and he’ll add another one tonight if Shaun Suisham can’t go. That’s always a dicey combination, a new kicker-holder-snapper dynamic after the season starts. It could be important if this is a tight game.
5) CAN HARRISON HARASS? James Harrison is playing in a 4-3 defense, on the opposite side of the field to which he is accustomed to playing. He’s a go-get-‘em rush linebacker in a defense that doesn’t blitz nearly as much as some other teams, including the Steelers. Despite these limitations, Harrison would badly like to make a play or two against his former team. By the way, Harrison has 9 1/2 sacks in his last seven Monday night games.
6) GO GREEN OR GO BROWN? Whichever No. 1 receiver, A.J. Green or Antonio Brown, has a bigger game could decide this one. Brown made some plays early against the Titans, then wasn’t as noticeable. The Steelers badly need to get him more involved tonight. At the same time, Ike Taylor must prevent Green from being a dominant force; watch how many times Andy Dalton looks for Green first before even considering any other receiver options.
7) WILL WILL PLAY? The Steelers felt they didn’t need a fullback against Tennessee, so Will Johnson never played. Might they use him tonight as an extra blocker to try to get something, anything going in the running game?
8) WILL DICK DIAL IT UP? Dalton doesn’t always stand up well to the blitz. No doubt Dick LeBeau will try to make him uncomfortable, yet not expose his secondary to trouble by leaving Green in man-to-man coverage too often.
9) NO TURN(OVERS) FOR THE WORSE? They’ve talked about it for two seasons; minimizing turnovers while creating some themselves. This would be a good week for that to start happening. And that might require a play or two from Troy Polamalu, who is healthier than he has been in several seasons. Dalton threw two interceptions against the Bears.
10) CAN THEY KEEP THE CROWD OUT OF IT? The Steelers rarely let the Paul Brown Stadium crowd become a factor. They can’t Monday, especially with a new center snapping to Roethlisberger; one fumbled exchange caused by crowd noise or confusion could make the difference.