The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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November 1, 2013

Steelers struggle to get past slow starts

PITTSBURGH — Like many of his brethren, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Todd Haley comes up with a series of scripted play calls to start each game.

Might be time for a re-write.

The Steelers have been anemic in the first quarter during their 2-5 start, totaling all of 19 points in the opening 15 minutes. Only three teams have scored fewer points over the same span.

“We’ve kind of put ourselves in a hole,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “It’s hard to get out of it.”

And the numbers are hard to look at.

Pittsburgh has more turnovers (three) than touchdowns (two) in the first quarter, and 10 of its 19 drives have ended without generating a single first down. And while a rash of injuries along the offensive line and instability at running haven’t helped the Steelers find any cohesion, figuring out why they’ve been so lifeless in the early going is difficult to pin down.

“It’s not the same reason every time,” Haley said.

In the opener against Tennessee, the Steelers were six yards away from going up 9-0 when Roethlisberger and Isaac Redman muffed a handoff. The ball rolled into the end zone and the Titans recovered. Pittsburgh didn’t score again until less than 90 seconds remained in a stunning loss.

A week later, Pittsburgh was driving when Roethlisberger hit tight end David Paulson for a 34-yard gain deep into Cincinnati territory. Paulson was stripped while being tackled and the Bengals fell on it. Five plays later, Cincinnati went up 7-0.

Roethlisberger was sacked twice in the first quarter against Chicago in Week 3, including a fumble the Bears recovered on their way to building a 17-point lead before the game was 13 minutes old.

And here’s the thing, these are what Haley considers Pittsburgh’s “best” plays. Every Friday Haley sits down with the rest of the offensive staff to work on the opening script then reviews it with Roethlisberger on Saturday night.

While there may be some tweaking along the way, typically Haley sticks to the sheet unless game situations dictate otherwise.

He stressed the Steelers are not a “feel them out” team. He wants variety. Problem is, when he’s strived for it his players have not produced.

Pittsburgh went deep on its first offensive play of the season only to have Roethlisberger overthrow Emmanuel Sanders. Roethlisberger tried to find Antonio Brown down the left sideline on its first snap against Oakland but couldn’t make it happen.

That doesn’t mean the calls were the result of poor gameplanning. The same goes for a running game that has been awful (seven carries for seven yards in the first quarter versus the Titans) and adequate (39 yards on seven carries in the first quarter of a win over Baltimore).

The road to Pittsburgh’s worst start in decades has been paved with Haley’s good intentions. It’s the gap between intent and reality that’s the issue.

“Sometimes you have a guy miss a block and a good play turns into a sack,” he said. “You’ve just got to execute it a little better.”

Something that has been spotty at best on both sides of the ball.

As glaring as the offense’s ineptitude has been, the defense hasn’t been much better. The Steelers are allowing 7.7 points in the first quarter, only Jacksonville and Washington have been worse.

Pittsburgh has allowed four plays of at least 50 yards in the opening stanza, including a

93-yard sprint by Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor that propelled the Raiders to a quick 14-0 advantage.

The miscues have forced the Steelers to spend most of the game playing from behind. They’ve only been in front twice at halftime this year, both games they went on to win.

“We’ve shown what we can do when we play with the lead a little bit, we’re a pretty tough team,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “It’s tough to come from behind the eight ball.”

Time to actually do something about it, however, is running out. Tom Brady and New England (6-2) await on Sunday in what is Pittsburgh’s last real shot at trying to make something out of a frustrating season.

Getting something going before the Steelers are up against it is a must. How that happens, exactly, even Haley doesn’t know.

“There’s no real tangible start better plan,” he said. “It’s emphasis. You talk to the guys, make sure everybody knows what we’re trying to get done, done.”

Notes: Steelers G David DeCastro (right ankle) did not practice again on Thursday and is doubtful to play against the Patriots ... WR Markus Wheaton (finger) was limited. G Ramon Foster (concussion), DT Steve McLendon (illness) practiced and should be available this weekend.

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