September 17, 2015

PITTSBURGH (AP) Five snaps into the season, things couldn't have been going better for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Boom, DeAngelo Williams darted 18 yards. Bam, Ben Roethlisberger to Heath Miller for 14 yards. The Steelers were moving. The New England Patriots were skidding.

Then, Todd Haley allows, maybe he outsmarted himself.

Facing first-and-10 at the New England 24 in the first quarter last Thursday, the forever-aggressive offensive coordinator called a gadget play. Roethlisberger handed off to wide receiver Antonio Brown on a run/pass option. The Patriots didn't bite and Brown was tossed for an 8-yard loss.

In a flash, the momentum had ebbed. Three plays later, it vanished completely when Josh Scobee pushed a field goal wide. By the middle of the second quarter, the Steelers were down two touchdowns and never really recovered in a 28-21 loss.

''I will take that as a bad call,'' Haley said. ''When they don't work they are bad calls.''

The kind the Steelers spent the offseason trying to avoid. Pittsburgh finished with the NFL's second-ranked offense last season while winning the AFC North, piling up yards in team-record numbers. Yet the Steelers ranked only seventh in points due in part to their struggles - particularly early in the season - of turning long drives into touchdowns.

It's an issue that again popped up against the defending Super Bowl champions. Pittsburgh was the only team in the league to have a 300-yard passer, a 100-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver in the opening week. Good for fantasy owners. Not so much a club facing the league's toughest schedule while playing without suspended playmakers Le'Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant.

Pittsburgh drove into New England territory seven times in nine possessions only to get two touchdowns and two field goals out of it. Hardly the outburst Haley predicted during minicamp when he said the Steelers could average 30 points a game.

''We just have to be more productive,'' Haley said. ''And it fell on a little bit of everybody.''

Left tackle Kelvin Beachum was called for a false start penalty on third-and-goal from the Patriots 1 early in the fourth quarter and the Steelers trailing by 10, and Pittsburgh settled for a field goal. Wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey - filling in for Bryant - couldn't keep his feet inbounds in the end zone at the end of the first half, forcing the Steelers to again accept three points instead of seven.

The math doesn't quite add up, something the Steelers know they need to fix Sunday against burly San Francisco (1-0). The 49ers held Minnesota's Adrian Peterson to all of 31 yards and sacked Teddy Bridgewater five times.

''When we get down there, I don't know what it is,'' guard Ramon Foster said. ''But we just don't do the same things that got us down there. We miss a block here or there, miss an assignment, get a penalty and set ourselves back. It can be frustrating.''

It was much the same during Pittsburgh's 3-3 start last season. Coach Mike Tomlin responded by activating Bryant, and the then-rookie responded with eight touchdowns in 10 games as the Steelers used an 8-2 surge to win one of the toughest divisions in the league.

Bryant isn't eligible to return until Week 5 after violating the league's substance abuse policy, and Bell will sit out Sunday while completing his own suspension under the same rule, leaving their teammates with a little less margin for error.

''If you're settling for field goals, it's tough to win the game,'' Tomlin said. ''We have to be better for obvious reasons. When we put together drives we need to finish with seven.''

NOTES: CB Brandon Boykin (groin) did not practice Thursday. ... CB Cortez Allen (knee) and LB Ryan Shazier (knee) were limited. ... S Mike Mitchell (hip) and LB Sean Spence (hamstring) were full participants.


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