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Slow-Starting Steelers Not Alone

If the subject is early season trouble in the NFL, where to begin?

Carolina, Tennessee and Miami - every one a division champion in 2008 - are a combined 0-9.

The Washington Redskins are in shocked disarray. Terrell Owens is making no catches and sparring with the media in Buffalo. The Cleveland Browns have been outscored 95-29. The St. Louis Rams have 24 points in three games. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, unable to gain 100 yards against the Giants, are changing quarterbacks.

The defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals have lost their first two home games.

In Oakland, it is hard to decide what has hurt worse, the punch the head coach allegedly threw to break an assistant's jaw, or JaMarcus Russell's 39.8 quarterback rating.

Seven teams - 22 percent of the league - are 0-3, which is about the mark where the public and the media go to condition red.

And here's something else to chew on. The Detroit Lions have as good a record as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"It's not where we wanted to be," Hines Ward was saying. He meant the Steelers, not the Lions.

"There's nothing we can do about it. We can't rewind and go back and play those games."

Among the many shaky Septembers, Pittsburgh might own as baffling as any. The 1-2 Steelers have thrown away late leads in two straight games, and been outscored 24-0 in the fourth quarter.

They are standing Super Bowl champions, with a roster full of proven deliverers at crunch time. The Steelers are presumed to be too solid and scary to blow games. But there are worrisome numbers.

-Fourth quarter touchdowns this season? None.

-Turnovers forced in three games? Two.

-Sacks by the defense? Four.

They have misplaced their flair for making the plays that put away opponents, at least temporarily. So you can scoop up the frustration in the locker room with a snow shovel.

"That's the mark of a champion," coach Mike Tomlin said the other day after the game slipped away in Cincinnati. "It's not us at the moment."

His solution?

"I think we have to get it fixed in a hurry," he said Tuesday at his news conference. "How you fix it is you go out and win football games. If we do that, this will be a distant, miserable moment. If we don't, this will continue. That is the story of the NFL."

Hard to tell what might be eating at the Steelers when the games are on the line. "If you can make those plays for 3 1/2 quarters," safety Ryan Clark said, "you can make them for four."

Could there be complacency, distraction, age? Six starters last weekend were 31 or older. Does the injury to defensive cornerstone Troy Polamalu mean that much?

Questions, questions. And barely only seven months since the Super Bowl.

"We strive to make those plays," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "If we don't start making them, it's going to be a long year."

"It's adversity we have to face," Ben Roethlisberger said. "We have to show our character to overcome something like this."

The new faces haven't helped so far, either. Tomlin was so annoyed at the preparation of first-round draft choice Rashard Mendenhall at running back - "Rashard wasn't on the details this week" - he didn't use him at Cincinnati.

This is uncommon turbulence for the Steelers, who have been the most stable and consistent contenders in all of sport. And even if it's still early, a warning shot has already been fired in the division. The Baltimore Ravens are 3-0. The Steelers are home Sunday to San Diego, and "desperate" does not seem too strong of a word.

"We have to go back to the drawing board," linebacker James Farrior said.

If it's any consolation to the Steelers, they can look around the NFL, and find lots of company.


Contact Mike Lopresti at mlopresti(AT)gannett.com

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