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Labriola on loss to Bengals

Posted Sep 17, 2013


CINCINNATI – Even back on the April day when the NFL first announced its 2013 schedule, this one clearly was going to mean more than one of 16. There is no such thing as must-win at this point in the calendar, but the second weekend was going to serve as a measuring stick. To some degree, this would reveal these Steelers.

Based on the events of last Monday night, they have their work cut out for them.

Being that Steelers-Bengals was a pairing of AFC North teams, and being that this division game for the Steelers was going to be a matchup vs. an opponent perceived to be superior to them, this exercise would serve as some early evidence as to where they deserved to be within the early pecking order. But being that the game came eight days after an exceptionally blah performance in their home opener, this was a significant mid-September night for them.

Of course, the 20-10 final was the most significant development, because losses always turn out to be damaging. Just as troubling though is what this losing may be doing to them.

That their confidence was an issue just one week into a season actually was a rather reasonable state of affairs. Their roster just didn’t have the depth of talent of those of the recent past, and any argument against that assertion is contradicted by the number of moves made since the mandatory cut to 53 on Aug. 31. Also, so many of the critical psychological components of those recent locker rooms were gone, too.

The moves made in the week leading up to their trip here had more to do with a response to injuries than with a continuing dissatisfaction with the lower portions of the depth chart. But still, there had been seven different sets of moves made to the 53-man in the nine days after final cuts, and for a bunch of consecutive seasons Steelers hadn’t had to be a team looking to improve via the waiver wire.

This season they are that kind of team, and this year they needed even those acquisitions to be immediate contributors to have any chance to compete now.

Nowhere was that more significant to last Monday night than at center, where Fernando Velasco was playing a significant role less than a calendar week after signing. He was starting on the road against a division opponent with one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. That’s a significant role.

One of the sub-sets of l’affaire offensive line was the running game and its role within the overall plan for success on offense. Running the football is something the Steelers believe is important, critical even, and so they will continue to try, and if they continued to fail the effect would cost them games. To a degree, it already had. They managed 32 yards on 15 attempts in that blah opener vs. the Titans.

The offensive backfield was another area touched by a roster move last week, and with it Jonathan Dwyer rejoined the team. Isaac Redman had started in the opener, and it was a disaster. Maybe it was a case of a hard-working guy getting a chance to open a season as the starter and trying to do too much, but Redman did not play to the level of an NFL starter.

The insertion of Velasco at center and Dwyer’s return had no real impact on a running attack that managed only 44 yards and a 2.8 average. That continues to be a problem, as was the third-down conversion rate before a final possession in garbage time. The defense again was stingy, and Ike Taylor’s work on Bengals’ receiver A.J. Green was commendable, but again there were no sacks nor takeaways, which meant the unit was operating with virtually no margin for error.

Because of what happened here, the forecast for these Steelers remains rather gloomy. The outside perception of them is as a team lacking too many of the things of which contenders are made. They are 0-2 now, and that gives credence to the critics.

Specific criticisms aside, the most significant failure of this particular group of Steelers is that they have lined up six times against NFL competition and lost every time. Pooh-pooh the preseason, but the business of professional sports is winning games, and these Steelers have yet to take care of business.

The first step for them will be winning a game. One. The sooner the better.

Read the rest of this column in its entirety in the current issue of Steelers Digest. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005.

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