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Wake Up Call

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The month of September was a bitter pill to swallow for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but it may end up being just what the doctor ordered. The defending AFC champion Steelers opened the season with one of their worst losses in decades, a 35-7 beatdown at the hands of their biggest rival, the Baltimore Ravens.

Pittsburgh thought it had erased the stench of that loss with an impressive 24-0 shutout victory of the lowly Seahawks, only to see some of the same issues flare up again in a last-second win over the Payton Manning-less Indianapolis Colts.

“Yeah, when you have a loss like that, it lingers for a long time,” said veteran defensive end Aaron Smith on moving forward from the Baltimore game. “Only way to get rid of that is to go out and win games and play like you should be playing.”

While they won two straight games after the opener, by no means are the Steelers playing like they should be playing.

But maybe this team needed a wake-up call early as it looks to avoid a third-straight Super Bowl hangover.

The loss to the Ravens conjured up memories of 1989 for those who had covered the team back then. That campaign began with two embarrassing losses – a 51-0 shutout at the hands of the Cleveland Browns and a 41-10 drubbing by the Cincinnati Bengals.

“Everybody was kind of taken aback at how bad it was,” said Craig Wolfley, an offensive lineman on the '89 squad and currently the sideline reporter for team. “But we also knew that we had all the answers to all the problems. So you had to find those answers, and those answers came about in the third week when we beat a very hot Minnesota Vikings team.”

Those 1989 Steelers battled back from the 0-2 start to win a playoff game before falling to the Denver Broncos as a result of one of John Elway’s game-winning drives.

The key for those Steelers was that there was never a sense of panic.

Wolfley said that the season-opening loss for the 2011 version may have been the case of a game simply spiraling out of Pittsburgh’s control.

“Having been in a few of what I call ‘massacres’ – sometimes, there’s not an explanation for what happened and why,” Wolfley said. “You prepare hard; you know, I didn’t see any change in the preparation for the players. You go into a game, and one game mushrooms out of control. It’s like a snowball that starts rolling down the hill; and you can’t stop it.”

“When we played in 1983, we had the ‘Thanksgiving Day Massacre,’ where we lost 45-3 on Thanksgiving Day to the Detroit Lions. That was a game that started bad and got worse. I remember on the first series, Billy Sims took a hand-off to the right side. Jack Lambert came into the hole, and Billy Sims leaped into the air, planted his foot on Lambert’s helmet, cut off it, and then ripped off a 40-yard run or something ridiculous. I saw the cleat marks he left on Lambert’s helmet with my own eyes. How do you stop that?”

This year’s Steelers may have had their own Billy Sims moment against the Ravens, when they watched helplessly as Ray Rice ripped off a 36-yard run to set up a perfectly thrown touchdown to Anquan Boldin, who was tightly covered by cornerback Bryant McFadden.

That early deficit only grew as Baltimore scored at will. Pittsburgh’s own offense wilted, turning the ball over on all but one of its second-half drives.

Could that loss, an embarrassing shellacking by a hated rival, could be the fuel Pittsburgh needs to power a return trip to the playoffs?

“Coach Mike is holding them to it, too,” said Wolfley. “Even after the [win over Seattle], the question was offered to him about do you still feel the Baltimore game? He said ‘absolutely.’ That’s something that he’s going to use. He’s going to use that as something to keep guys focused. That’s not us. That does not define us. Where you go from here, that will define you; but that first game, that doesn’t define you.”

Indeed, Tomlin told his players after the Seattle win that they’re the same team that lost to Baltimore one week earlier. He followed the team’s Week 3 win over the Colts by saying to his men that they’re not above winning ugly.

“Certainly, you can take – from every game that you play – elements that help to fuel forward production from a team,” explained Wolfley.

Best case scenario: the 2011 Steelers put these early struggles in the backs of their minds and embark on a run like the New England Patriots in the 2003 season.

That team was similarly dominated by a division rival in its opener, losing 31-0 to the Buffalo Bills. They bounced back with a convincing win over Philadelphia in Week 2 only to regress in a split the next two weeks.

After that, though, they didn’t lose a game until halfway through the 2004 season – a run that was coincidentally ended by a Steelers team with a rookie named Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.

The hope has to be that this year’s Steelers learn from their mistakes or, at the very least, are able to cover them up.

Sure, the offensive line is a major issue, but it’s been a major issue since the 2006 season, and the team has made the Super Bowl twice since then. The Steelers made it last season with the same sort of injury troubles that are devastating the unit this year.

Yes, the secondary can still be a problem, especially with Bryant McFadden on the sidelines or severely-limited by his own injuries, but that was also a problem last year. Besides, fellow corners Ike Taylor and William Gay are playing like they were in 2008, when the secondary shined en route to the team’s sixth Super Bowl victory.

Maybe the defense is old, but that’s a concern that has been aired for the last five seasons, as many a Steelers player will gladly point out.

And while the running game has been a disappointment, it wasn’t a dominant unit in 2008 either.

The moral of the story is: this team isn’t as bad as they looked through September. They may not be as great as they have been in the past, but a step below a team that has gone to the Super Bowl in half of the last six seasons is not a bad level to be playing at.

The Steelers have time on their side (no old defense jokes, please), which gives them ample opportunity to fix what’s been ailing them.

If they follow in the footsteps of their ’89 incarnation or the ’03 Patriots, perhaps the early test will have been the wake-up call they were waiting for.

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