PITTSBURGH – Max Starks stood in the midst of an equally parts stunned and downtrodden Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room on Thursday night and tried to put yet another second-half road collapse in perspective, this one a 26-23 loss to the previously woeful Tennessee Titans.
"I think that if this is the worst that can happen then we will be alright," the veteran left tackle said. "Adversity is here and as long as we overcome it then we will be a better team in the end."
At this point, the only way to go is up.
The Steelers (2-3) posted their third straight road defeat to start the season, and it followed an all-too familiar pattern. They jumped to an early lead. They were in control in the fourth quarter. They let another veteran quarterback well past his prime pull off an unlikely comeback.
In the opener it was Peyton Manning. Two weeks later it was Carson Palmer. On Thursday night it was Matt Hasselbeck channeling 2005 while leading the Titans to 10 points in the final 4:19, the last three coming on a 40-yard field goal by Rob Bironas as time expired.
During the short week, the Steelers stressed the need to finish off an opponent. Instead, they find themselves on the verge of being finished as a legitimate AFC contender barely a month into the season.
Injured stars Troy Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley were joined on the sideline by running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles), Isaac Redman (ankle), center Maurkice Pouncey (leg) and right tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle), all of whom limped gingerly off the field on a night the Steelers exhausted all seven of their linemen and had third-string running back Baron Batch playing in crunch time for the first time in his career.
Batch scored his first NFL touchdown on a 1-yard dive to give Pittsburgh a 20-16 lead early in the fourth quarter. He also lost a critical yard on the Steelers' final drive that helped push the team to the edge of kicker Shaun Suisham's range. Suisham's 54-yard attempt fell just short of the crossbar with 54 seconds left, giving Tennessee one last shot that Hasselbeck turned into the second game-winning drive given up by Pittsburgh's defense in the last three games.
"Guys just have to play better everybody, especially in the fourth quarter," linebacker Larry Foote said. "You have to make plays and you can't have mental breakdowns. That's what gets you beat in this league."
And has gotten the Steelers beat with alarming regularity. Pittsburgh is under .500 this late in the season for only the second time under coach Mike Tomlin, who took responsibility for opting for Suisham's field goal attempt rather than going for it or punting on fourth down.
"We didn't do the job obviously (and) defeated ourselves in some areas," Tomlin said.
In addition to Suisham's miss — which would have been a career-long if it had gone through — the special teams allowed a blocked punt. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger passed for 363 yards and broke Terry Bradshaw's franchise record for career passing yards but also tossed a pick late in the first half that allowed the Titans to kick a field goal just before the break.
"It stinks," Roethlisberger said. "We have to get better."
The defense had its own issues.
Cornerback Ike Taylor was victimized by Hasselbeck all game long and picked up a pair of pass interference penalties in addition to getting beat repeatedly by Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt, including for the game-tying touchdown with 4:19 to play. The defensive front seven failed to get pressure on Hasselbeck on the final drive and surrendered a 25-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook that put the Titans in position to win it.
While safety Ryan Clark understands why Roethlisberger would try to bear the brunt of the blame, Clark would rather put it on the defense. The Steelers are averaging 24.3 points in their three road games.
Most years, that's more than enough for Pittsburgh's defense.
Not this year.
"They're going to say it's a team game and they should have made one more play, but it's not true," Clark said. "They gave us enough points to win, they made enough plays to win the game. We had the lead in the fourth quarter, we need to keep it and we didn't do it."
The Steelers have 10 days to get ready for Cincinnati. They'll eagerly accept the rest and hope some of the injuries clear up. Woodley, who sat out with a hamstring injury, will likely be back. He may be one of the few, however.
Pouncey has dealt with ankle injuries in each of his first two seasons and watched his right leg bend awkwardly after getting rolled into by Gilbert in the first half. He spent the rest of the game on the bench with the leg immobilized. Mendenhall left early with an Achilles injury that doesn't appear to be related to the torn ACL in his right knee that sidelined him for nine months. Redman was in the midst of a standout game before an ankle injury sent him limping off.
The Steelers, however, don't do excuses. The standard is the standard regardless of who's in the game.
Still, even the ever-optimistic Starks allows the Steelers have no more wiggle room.
"I have been here through a lot worse situations at more critical points during the season," he said. "It's still early and I think that's one of the biggest things that we have on our side is that there is still some time and we have to be vigilant."
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