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.
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.