PITTSBURGH - The beginning of the 2013 NFL season started well for the Steelers.
For about the first 3 seconds.
The Steelers scored two points on a safety on the opening kickoff, then drove to the Tennessee Titans' 6-yard line and were on the verge of punching in their first touchdown early in Sunday's game at Heinz Field.
Mirror photo by J.D.?Cavrich
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger kneels on the ground in concern while teammate Maurkice Pouncey was being checked out for a severe knee injury early in Sunday’s loss.
But confusion surfaced before a third-and-1 play. The Steelers ended up with the wrong personnel on the field, and running back Isaac Redman dropped the handoff from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Tennessee recovered the fumble, and the Steelers offense never really threatened again the rest of the day. The Titans won, 16-9, in a game where the Steelers had several key players sustain significant injuries, they never showed positive signs for a potential successful season, and disappointed fans flocked to the exits throughout the fourth quarter.
"We've got a lot of work to do,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Nobody cares about our problems. They're glad we've got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together and persevere.''
The Redman fumble was a microcosm of the Steelers' day. They had taken a 2-0 lead when Tennessee's Darius Reynaud inexplicably took a knee in the end zone on the opening kickoff after having already stepped across the goal line.
The Steelers then received the free kick and picked up first downs on third-and-8, third-and-9 and third-and-8 plays to reach the Tennessee 6-yard line. On third and 1, Redman knew the play was going to him on a fullback dive.
"We got to the line of scrimmage and realized that we didn't have the tailback in the game,'' Redman said. "So I turned to the sideline to see if we could flag Felix [Jones] on. They looked like they were trying to get him on. I looked up at the [play] clock, and there were about 7 or 8 seconds left.''
Redman said he told tight end/fullback David Johnson to line up as the tailback. The Steelers had just lost Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey - possibly for the season - to a scary knee injury four plays earlier, and guard/tackle/tight end Kelvin Beachum was pressed into service at center.
"We snapped it,'' Redman said. "It was kind of slow coming back from the center - still working with the new center. It's a quick-hitting play, and we messed up the quarterback-running back exchange.''
The ball bounced into the end zone where Tennessee linebacker Moise Fokou recovered it for a touchback, ending the Steelers' threat.
"I never felt like I had it,'' Redman said. "I never really felt it. It kind of went right through.''
Roethlisberger, as the quarterback, took the blame for the fumble, and Tomlin said he felt fine not burning a timeout in that situation, but the Steelers never overcame the turnover.
In fact, the Steelers offense didn't cross midfield again until less than 4 minutes remained in the game and Tennessee had put 16 points on the board.
"[The fumble] is big,'' Redman said. "We got no points out of it. It's unacceptable. It wasn't a guy hitting it or the ball coming out. It was something that we work on every single day in the beginning of practice.''
The costly turnover seemed to breathe life into a Titans team that went 6-10 last year and could be playing this year to save coach Mike Munchak's job.
"[The Steelers] were trying to hurry a play, and it cost them a fumble that we recovered,'' Munchak said. "Then we settled down. The defense settled down after that first drive. Then we started playing our type of game.''
The Titans scored their first points following another Pittsburgh turnover. On the first play of a drive with 7:39 left in the second quarter, Roethlisberger underthrew a pass to Emmanuel Sanders, and the Titans' Alterraun Verner intercepted the ball at midfield.
The Titans then drove 49 yards, converting a key fourth down, and scored on a Jackie Battle 3-yard run to take a 7-2 halftime advantage.
"Turnovers kill you,'' Roethlisberger said. "That is why we can't have it. They were my fault.''
Tennessee added three Rob Bironas field goals in the second half, while the Steelers kept searching for some kind of offensive flow and kept watching other players like linebacker Larry Foote, running back LaRod Stephens-Howling and cornerback Cortez Allen join Pouncey among the wounded.
By the middle of the fourth quarter, Heinz Field was nearly half empty, and the fans that remained expressed their displeasure with an unproductive offense that finished with just 32 rushing yards.
"You want to win at home anytime you step out there,'' Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said. "So it was disappointing, but hopefully this team can bounce back and show some fight.''
The Steelers showed a little fight at the end with a nine-play, 75-yard drive against Tennessee's prevent defense. They cut their deficit to seven points on a fourth-down 4-yard TD pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery with 1:26 left in the game, but a failed onside kick sealed their fate.
"We've got to understand what the standard is, and that's not up to the standard,'' Tomlin said. "We better work to play to it. We're capable. We're good enough to win football games. We're good enough to win that game today, not taking anything away from the Tennessee Titans. They did a great job. We did not.''