With the NFL world fixated Monday night on the fascinating debut of Chip Kelly's fast-break football and the new-look Philadelphia Eagles, it was easy to overlook the juxtaposition of the sad saga that's unfolding for the proud, fabled franchise on the other side of the Keystone State.
As in, whatever happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers?
Other than Jacksonville, where the bar of expectation was set about as low as it can go, no NFL team in Week 1 underachieved more glaringly than the Steelers, whose 16-9 loss to visiting Tennessee was a sobering dose of what might be the new reality in Pittsburgh. These Steelers simply aren't very good, and the season-opening egg-laying against the underdog Titans might well portend things to come rather than emerge as a one-week aberration.
It's true, the Steelers weren't the only Super Bowl champion of recent vintage to go down to defeat in the season's first week. Four of the past five Lombardi Trophy winners started 2013 at 0-1: the Ravens, Giants, Packers and Steelers all lost, and only the Saints were victorious. But none of those other ex-champions have as many pressing problems as Pittsburgh, or came out of Week 1 with a home-field loss and three important players having suffered season-ending injuries: Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (knee), linebacker Larry Foote (torn biceps) and change-of-pace running back/return man LaRod Stephens-Howling (knee).
As dire as things appear at the moment, the bigger picture is just as gloomy. Since starting last season 6-3, the Steelers have lost six of their past eight regular-season games, their worst stretch of football since a five-game second-half losing streak kept the 2009 Steelers from making the playoffs the year after their latest Super Bowl title. Look a little closer and you realize the current slide started when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered shoulder and rib injuries in a Monday night Week 10 overtime victory over the woeful Kansas City Chiefs last November. Things really haven't been the same since for Big Ben or the Steelers.
Roethlisberger missed three games with those injuries, then returned to lose his first three starts back in the lineup, throwing uncharacteristic and costly late-game interceptions in Week 15 at Dallas (one pick, in overtime) and Week 16 at home against Cincinnati (two interceptions overall, including a pick-six) to snuff out Pittsburgh's flickering playoff hopes. Only a meaningless Week 17 win at home against Cleveland stands between Roethlisberger and an 0-fer since he got back on the field in December.
Granted, four losses in five games is a small sample size, and doesn't guarantee the end of the world is nigh in Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger was hardly the whole offensive issue in the dismal loss to Tennessee. You can't put the offensive line's problems, the continued lack of a running game and the absence of deep-threat receiver Mike Wallace and a vertical passing game on him.
But this is still Big Ben's team, and in the past he has been able to make up for a lot of the Steelers' offensive deficiencies. The question that begs asking is whether those days are gone for good. Are both he and the Steelers on the steady decline? At 31, with a history of absorbing a lot of punishment in his keep-plays-alive style of quarterbacking, it seems fair to wonder if we've already seen the best of Roethlisberger.
Though his injuries have usually been short term, they've been many, and he has only once in his first nine seasons played all 16 games. Roethlisberger took a five-sack pounding from the Titans' aggressive defensive front -- call it the Gregg Williams' effect, in honor of Tennessee's new pressure-minded defensive assistant -- and his so-so 21-of-33, 191-yard, one-touchdown, one-interception passing day had echoes of last December's meltdown.
The Steelers for at least the past two offseasons have been intent on returning to a more balanced offense, with a running game that can take some of the load off Roethlisberger's big shoulders. But Sunday against the Titans represented abysmal failure on that front, with Pittsburgh rushing 15 times for a measly 32 yards (2.1 average). Starter Isaac Redman fumbled twice and gained nine yards on eight carries, Stephens-Howling was lost for the season and second-round pick and presumptive starter Le'Veon Bell is still nursing a mid-foot injury that could keep him out for at least another week or so.
With Redman and the newly acquired Felix Jones representing the only healthy backfield options for next Monday night's AFC North showdown at Cincinnati, Pittsburgh on Monday went out and re-signed running back Jonathan Dwyer, last year's leading rusher who was deemed expendable in the team's final round of cuts. Dwyer's team-best 623 yards in 2012 were the lowest total for the team's top rusher in 21 years, and, in a related development, Pittsburgh's Todd Haley-coordinated offense finished 26th in rushing.
Pouncey's first-quarter injury, suffered on a friendly fire hit by Steelers guard David DeCastro, is a devastating blow to Pittsburgh's hopes that the running game will ease some of the pressure on Roethlisberger, and protect him better than it has in the past. Pouncey is considered the NFL's best center, and the three-time Pro Bowl pick is the cornerstone of a young line the Steelers presume will grow and blossom together.
While still adjusting to life without Wallace in the deep passing game, the Steelers offense also has to contend with an injury-depleted tight end position. Starter Heath Miller reportedly has a chance of returning to action in Week 2 after being out since last December's torn ACL, but he probably will need some time to resume being the reliable playmaking target of the past.
Add it all up, and Roethlisberger is probably going to be required to do more for the struggling Steelers at a time when they were intent on him being asked to do less. His talent has certainly not evaporated overnight, and he could answer the challenge and snap out of his recent funk. After all, resiliency is a Pittsburgh trademark.
But the wear and tear is undoubtedly starting to accumulate on his body 10 years into his career, and he and the Steelers are not dealing from the position of strength that has been their customary place in the AFC North. Pittsburgh can't count on four or five division wins per year any more. Cincinnati and defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore have more talented rosters than Pittsburgh, and last-place Cleveland upgraded an improving defense again this offseason. Fortunately for the Steelers, all four teams in the division started 0-1, so there's no deficit in the standings to overcome just yet.
But the signs in Pittsburgh are not promising, and the recent results are cause for legitimate alarm. Head coach Mike Tomlin's never-flinch resolve aside, this is an underachieving Steelers team showing its age in spots and it has more holes than any time in recent memory. With Roethlisberger's game suddenly not the reliable rock upon which everything else is built on offense, Pittsburgh looks vulnerable and already faces a critical checkpoint in Week 2.
In Philadelphia, the Eagles' wide-open, warp-speed offense looks like the NFL's Next Big Thing and quarterback Michael Vick might be enjoying yet another career renaissance. But across the state in Pittsburgh, it's getting easier to think we might be watching a former playoff perennial headed in the opposite direction, and that Roethlisberger's best years have already passed. It's early in this 2013 season, but the points are few and far between so far in Pittsburgh, and nothing on offense is coming easily.