HOUSTON — One cringe-worthy, panoramic scan of the Steelers' locker room at Reliant Stadium told the story late Sunday afternoon.
In one corner, nose tackle Casey Hampton was bristling when asked how the once-proud, now-porous defense could possibly — even mathematically — allow Houston's offense to go 115 yards on 19 plays for its first drive.
In another, $61 million linebacker LaMarr Woodley was explaining his whereabouts during the game. I missed the alibi.
In another, tight end Heath Miller was speaking the glaring truth of this ghastlier-than-the-score 17-10 loss to Houston: "It's fair to say every man in this room can improve."
And sitting all by himself, silent amid the carnage, was Ben Roethlisberger. But only after the quarterback was helped into the room by two team employees, his left ankle iced and bandaged.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Or as linebacker James Harrison summarized in what might soon appear on T-shirts in the Strip: "We stink."
If only everyone associated with the team could see that, maybe something could be done about it. As it is, the Steelers remain stuck in a Texas-sized state of denial. Most players talked about "just getting back to tackling," to borrow Woodley's term, or about other aspects of execution. Coach Mike Tomlin was no exception, saying, "We understand that our issues are fundamental. We've got to do the basic football things a little better than we are now."
A little better?
Are you buying this?
Count me squarely in Harrison's corner. Yeah, the Steelers deserved the benefit of the doubt after Baltimore. Anything's possible in an opener. And yeah, I saw traces of encouragement in how the Steelers took care of Seattle and Indianapolis, despite the caliber of competition.
Not this one.
This was a matchup against a legitimate if unspectacular opponent, and the Steelers earned a D-minus grade at best. This was a team that not only wasn't making plays but also looked like it was incapable
of making them. This was a team that looked — all together now — old and slow, not to mention undisciplined, unmotivated and unprepared.
The Steelers could have shut everyone up, once and for all, about the age thing. Instead, they attached an exclamation point to it.
Funny thing, though: The season isn't lost. Not yet, anyway. The record is 2-2, with Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona on the horizon. All kinds of Browns and Bengals remain. But Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert need to work off Harrison's evaluation rather than pretend that all they need are a few tackling drills on the South Side.
That means making real changes, and I can think of three places to start:
1. Find offensive tackles.
Seriously, this is getting dangerous. Every snap Roethlisberger takes behind Trai Essex, Marcus Gilbert and any other tackle on this roster, he's another step closer to injured reserve. It doesn't have to be Max Starks or Flozell Adams. Hold open tryouts for exceptionally large men. Do something.
2. Reset the defensive line.
The embarrassing run defense is the easiest to address. For all that Aaron Smith has achieved for the franchise, he's not getting it done now. Benching him would be silly, but spelling him and Brett Keisel after Keisel returns would put fresh, young Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward on the field. That could help Woodley and the pass rush, too.
This week, it was Arian Foster running for 155 yards. What will Chris Johnson do next week?
3. More Isaac Redman.
Redman's talent doesn't compare to Rashard Mendenhall's, but it was impossible not to notice that Redman's entry in the second half — six carries, 40 yards — sparked the offense. He hit the holes with authority. He dragged guys with him. He looked like he wanted to be out there, for crying out loud.
From there, the Steelers must pick up their chins. They're either going to embrace one last chance to succeed with this not-so-long-ago illustrious group, or they're going to throw it away. People need to step up, and not just the battered quarterback.
Safety Troy Polamalu was asked if the Steelers can recover.
"I would hope," he replied softly. "Only time will tell if we answer the bell or not."
Time isn't on their side.