Up to Steelers whether embarrassing loss in opener defines them

By JIM WEXELL

All of those Cleveland Browns jokes out there from earlier in the day, substitute the name Pittsburgh Steelers.

They are who most of America thought they were.

This wasn't their typical loss to the New England Patriots in Foxboro. This was worse. And after the 33-3 loss, the Steelers have to be feeling as low as any team ca

* Maybe they feel as bad as the 2011 Steelers after they lost their opener in Baltimore, 35-7.

Those Steelers rebounded to finish 12-4.

* Or maybe they feel as bad as the 1997 Steelers after they lost their opener against Dallas, 37-7.

Those Steelers rebounded to finish 11-5.

* Probably, they feel as bad as the 1989 Steelers after they lost their opener against Cleveland, 51-0.

Those Steelers rebounded to finish 9-7.

They all rebounded to make the playoffs. The '97 team actually played in the AFC Championship Game and took the eventual Super Bowl champs to the wire.

But this is so very far away from that right now. This one feels as though the season, the era, the coaching career of Mike Tomlin, are over.

I guess it's supposed to feel that way.

"It's humbling. It sucks," said Tomlin. "But that's the National Football League. It won't define us if we don't let it."

Better him than me, and probably us, for if I may speak for those of us outside the locker room, defining them is too easy this morning. They are who America thought they were: a poorly coached team with an old quarterback and aging lines that can't overcome the loss of two All-Pro skill players.

Do we know any better?

Not from the evidence presented thus far.

Tom Brady continues to age - 42 now - and continues to pick the Steelers apart. This time it was against a predominantly man look. Last time at Foxboro it was all zone.

Yes, the Steelers thought they had fixed their secondary with an influx of better athletes. But last year's first-round pick, Terrell Edmunds, didn't show up the way he needed to show up last night, particularly with the injury replacement next to him, Kameron Kelly, whose last meaningful snap was in the AAF.

When Phillip Dorsett ran between Kelly and Edmunds for a 58-yard score on third-and-10, I could only think of the 2007 post-game in Foxboro when, after Anthony Smith's guarantee fell flat, Bill Belichick deadpanned, "I've seen better safety play."

I didn't exactly make a guarantee about a Steelers win last night, but deep down I really expected one.

My prediction was a seven-point Steelers win, but I even had to temper that because I thought the Steelers might blow them out. I thought the Patriots had major question marks on their offensive line, at tight end and at wide receiver. Why else would Belichick bring Antonio Brown into his tight-knit fold?

But Isaiah Wynn played like a first-round left tackle. Julian Edelman proved rumors about a bad thumb wrong. James White and Rex Burkhead repeatedly beat the Steelers' new coverage linebackers. Josh Gordon, after eight team, league or self-imposed suspensions, appears to finally be the beast who gained 237 yards against the Steelers in 2013. And Dorsett's 4.33 speed is finally being put to professional use at age 26 after being acquired from the Indianapolis Colts.

The Steelers added a 26-year-old former Colt WR themselves, but Donte Moncrief didn't show up last night the way Dorsett did. And Moncrief certainly had his opportunities.

After missing most of his first training camp in Latrobe because of injury, Moncrief remained the starter ahead of James Washington and rookie Diontae Johnson even though he caught only three passes for 12 yards in the preseason.

Moncrief's stats were worse last night. Brown's replacement at the X (split end) caught three passes for seven yards. He was targeted a team-high 10 times and dropped several passes, including a fourth-and-1 pass while down 17-0. Moncrief also looked over the wrong shoulder on a fade to the back corner of the end zone on third-and-1 early in the third quarter while down 20-0.

Was Moncrief the wrong target by not only Ben Roethlisberger but the front office?

"Iím not worried about him. Iím worried about myself," Roethlisberger said. "I need to play better. Heíll be just fine. I have all the confidence in the world in him that heís going to be a guy for us that I can count on, and I told him that. Iím not going to shy away from throwing him the ball."

As Roethlisberger said when asked about Brown joining the Patriots, whatever.

But if Roethlisberger believes in Moncrief, the rest of us should at least give him another chance.

James Conner deserved another chance, too - at least to run up the middle again on short yardage.

That was the third critical problem for the Steelers last night: poor safety play, poor WR play and poor short-yardage play. The Steelers, on third- and fourth-and-1, were 0-for-4. And the only time fullback Rosie Nix was on the field in short yardage was for a punt on fourth-and-1.

The punt followed the initial third-and-1 failure of the night, Conner running up the middle and into the arms of another former blue-chipper who'd been cast off by his original team, Danny Shelton.

It had been learned by Steelers advance scouts that Shelton was playing very well in the preseason. That tackle must've cemented that knowledge into the collective playcalling psyche because the next short-yardage plays were, in order, a toss left, a pass drop, a wrong-shoulder fade, and a 19-yard field goal down 20-0.

Conner, the physical bull of a tailback, didn't get another chance inside after Shelton shut down that first attempt, and, of course, Conner never did get the chance to run behind Nix in one of those mano-a-mano situations.

"When you are in a type of environment like that, with the crowd noise and so forth, and you donít have the use of a cadence, some of those things are more challenging," Tomlin said of the short-yardage failures.

But why not use Nix?

"Iím not getting into the minutiae of the decisions that we make, but I talked about environmentally why itís difficult," was Tomlin's non-response.

Nope, no need to sugarcoat it. Or even answer the questions.

The Steelers just got their butts kicked all over the field, and it wasn't just a physical beating but also a mental one. The Patriots have been in the Steelers' heads for, oh, about 19 years now. And they remain there, possibly bigger than ever.

And probably even better than ever. They'll add Brown in a move that no doubt adds to the anxiety about this season for Steelers fans because the appearance of this league being rigged is almost too blatant to recapture the fans who no doubt checked out last night.

I'm the last to come around on conspiracy theories but Brown had wanted to play for the Patriots and pulled all of the right strings to do so.

It's almost too depressing to consider, as it no doubt was 30 years ago tomorrow when the Steelers sat at 0-1 following a 51-point loss to their fiercest rival.

Yes, that Steelers team rebounded to make the playoffs, but that coach was also gone after two more seasons.

It's how we on the outside can choose to define who America thought this team was, because the evidence of this one game is all we have. The actual path, though, is how the Steelers choose to define it.

The redeeming aspect of playing the best team in the league on opening day is that it's a measuring stick. Well, get that yardstick out for every facet of the Steelers' roster.

Moncrief called it a wake-up call, but don't mind if we go back to sleep until this team shows that it has more than hope and optimism in its tank.

https://247sports.com/nfl/pittsburgh...oro-135389766/