Three seconds, two points.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2013 season couldn’t have started any better.
The Tennessee Titans’ Darius Reynaud fielded the opening kickoff with a foot outside the end zone, then backed into the end zone and took a knee. What he thought was a touchback actually was a safety and two points for the Steelers.
Such an auspicious start could only be a signal that this year would be different than last year. The Steelers would return to the playoffs and regain their place among the NFL’s heavyweights.
That euphoria was squashed with the season less than four minutes old.
Maurkice Pouncey was hurt, and an all-too-familiar snapshot of the fruitless 2011 and 2012 seasons surfaced again as a Steelers offensive lineman lay on the field writhing in pain.
Pouncey is out for the season with torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The foreboding sense of Pouncey’s injury outweighed the optimism hatched by the Steelers’ quirky 2-0 lead.
The angst of Steelers fans everywhere was apparent even on the face of the cart driver who transported Pouncey off the field.
The Steelers seemed just as emotionally affected during their 16-9 loss in the season opener at Heinz Field. A guy they elected captain less than a week earlier was being taken away on the dreaded cart.
Four plays after Pouncey went down, Isaac Redman took a handoff at the Titans’ 6-yard line. He fumbled it into the end zone, and this time the Titans really did have a touchback.
The Steelers wouldn’t get that close to the Titans’ end zone again until they were down by 14 with less than two minutes left. They didn’t get out of their own territory in the time between Redman’s fumble and that desperate final drive.
It didn’t help that Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times. Would Roethlisberger have been untouched if Pouncey was still snapping the ball to him? Probably not. Even with Pouncey the Steelers’ offensive line was a work in progress. But Pouncey might have helped prevent a sack or two.
Also lost for the season, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is Larry Foote with a torn triceps. The Steelers will miss their veteran inside linebacker just as much as they miss Pouncey because no one else on the team is nearly as proficient as he is calling the defensive signals.
Two players who weren’t hurt, for a change, were Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley. Polamalu buzzed all over the field like his old self and Woodley was the only Steeler to sack Jake Locker.
The Polamalu-Woodley renaissance rang hollow, however, because the Steelers defense failed to force a turnover. That’s another same-old, same-old from 2011 and 2012. The Steelers forced just 15 turnovers in 2011 and 20 in 2012.
To get closer to the 35 takeaways they generated during their 2010 Super Bowl season, the Steelers need to average about two takeaways per game.
The Titans used a turnover to spark their only touchdown drive of the day. Alterraun Verner intercepted Roethlisberger at the Steelers’ 49-yard line, and 12 plays later Jackie Battle scored on a 3-yard run to give the Titans a 7-2 lead. That was the score at halftime.
Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen was promoted to a starting job because of the ball skills he showed late last season. But he went down with an ankle injury on Sunday and his status is unclear.
Rookie first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones also has the potential to get opponents to cough up the ball. He wreaked havoc in the backfield during the preseason, and on Sunday tackled Chris Johnson for a 2-yard loss. But he didn’t seem to be on the field enough.
The Steelers already were without Heath Miller, their team MVP last season, and rookie running back Le’Veon Bell.
Miller can’t get back soon enough. David Paulson, Miller’s replacement at tight end, wasn’t targeted once Sunday.
Bell was drafted in the second round to revive a Steelers running game that was led last season by Jonathan Dwyer, who couldn’t even make the team this season.
Until Bell makes his professional debut, the Steelers will rely on Redman, who fumbled a second time Sunday but recovered, and perennial underachiever Felix Jones. Third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling was yet another casualty Sunday with a knee injury (UPDATE: Stephens-Howling is out for the season with a torn ACL, according to FOX Sports via Pro Football Talk), as was kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring).
Although Miller and Bell play different positions than their fallen teammates, maybe their return will psychologically compensate for Pouncey and Foote.
But the way things are going, more players could be lost before Miller and Bell come back.
Sunday’s injuries, as well as a loss in a game that didn’t look like trouble when the schedule came out, are ominous signs for the 2013 season.