Last Sunday the San Francisco 49ers kicked the Pittsburgh Steelers “in the teeth,” to borrow Mike Tomlin’s words. Perhaps a Pittsburgh loss to San Francisco wasn’t unexpected, but no one foresaw the Steelers suffering such a spanking.
But if the Steelers got knocked down in the first round of a 17 round fight, what does that first round performance tell us about their prospects for the other 16 rounds? After all, the Steelers are a franchise that lends itself to trends thanks to their stability.
Take the uncanny nature of opening day results during the Cowher Era.
- The loss San Francisco brought Mike Tomlin’s opening day record to 10-6-1.
Here we look back at those other opening day blowout to see what, if anything, we can gain from them. (The 2015 loss to the Patriots is excluded, as it wasn’t a blowout.)
2011 – The Blowout at Baltimore
September 11th 2011 @ M&T Bank Stadium
Baltimore 35, Pittsburgh 7
The Steelers entered this game as defending AFC Champions and holding a 7-3 edge over the Baltimore Ravens to start the Tomlin era, including two playoff victories. Everyone expected the good times to continue, perhaps even members of the Steelers organization.
- The Ravens kicked the Steelers asses.
The 35 to 7 score makes this one look closer than it was. Baltimore dominated Pittsburgh in every phase of the game, prompting Warren Sapp to declare that the Steelers defense was “Old, slow and done.”
The Steelers responded the next week with a shutout of the Seattle Seahawks. The 2011 team struggled a bit after that against the Texans, but a mid-season win over the Patriots seemed to confirm that they were still contenders.
2012 – Peyton Manning Outfoxes Polamalu
September 9th @ Sports Authority Field at Mile High
Denver 31, Pittsburgh 19
The Steelers began the rebuilding process in the 2012 off season, but they still took what they felt was a strong team to Denver where Peyton Manning made his debut.
Looking back at this game, it is easy to forget that the Steelers actually held a 19-14 lead in early in the 4th quarter.
However, Peyton Manning had been engaged in a chess match all night with Troy Polamalu, and by the 4th quarter he maneuvered the Steelers defense into checkmate, leading two scoring drives for ten points while a Tracy Porter interception of Ben Roethlisberger added on another six.
- This game, in many ways signaled the wired dynamic that defined the 2012 season.
For all that was made of the tension between Ben Roethlisberger and Todd Haley, the offense did fairly well in the first half of the season while the defense struggled. The defense found its footing by midseason, thanks largely to James Harrison returning to health, only to see the offense falter due to injuries to Roethlisberger and overall dysfunction.
2013 – The Titans Bring Opening Day Armageddon
September 8th 2013 @ Heinz Field
Tennessee 16, Pittsburgh 9
By the spring of 2013 the Steelers were in full rebuilding mode. They were also doing it with stuck in salary cap purgatory. Going into the game Bob Labriola described the Steelers situation at offensive line as walking a tight rope without a net (hold on to that one.)
Injuries had already taken their toll on their opening day roster as they started their number 3 and number 4 tight ends, their number 2 running back, Isaac Redman (who was already playing with a career-ending injury) and with their top backup at inside linebacker (Sean Spence) on IR.
Things got worse. Fast. Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season after about a half dozen plays. Inside linebacker Larry Foote would be lost for the season before too long. So would 3rd down back LaRod Stephens-Howling whose Steelers career would consist of 6 carries. Oh, and the Steelers also lost starting corner Cortez Allen during the game.
- Despite the injuries, the Steelers were in it until the end.
But things got worse before they got better. The Steelers would lose their next 3 in route to a 2-6 start to the season. Nonetheless, they clawed their way back to respectability and an 8-8 finish and only missed the playoffs due to a blown call in another game.
2019 – Brady, Patriots Pulverize Steelers One Last Time
September 8th, 2019 @ Gillette Stadium
New England 33, Pittsburgh 3
In hindsight, we should have seen this coming. But we didn’t.
The Steelers defense had improved in 2018 enough make Tom Brady look mortal in an upset at Heinz Field. While this was the first game of the post “Killer Bees” era for the offense, but the unit had looked sharp in route to a 3-1 preseason record.
Regular season reality set in fast. Tom Brady led the Patriots to 20 unanswered first half points. The offense’s best play was a 2 yard dink from Ben Roethlisberger to Ryan Switzer. The lasting memory on defense is of substitute safety Kameron Kelly who seemingly forgot not only that he was supposed to try to stop the receiver from catching the ball, but also that he was supposed to chase and tackle him afterwards.
The Steelers followed this with losses to Seattle, where Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season, and San Francisco, where Mason Rudolph made his first start. Mike Tomlin coaxed a 1989-Steelersque like turn around that put Pittsburgh in contention for the playoffs.
But the rally fizzled down the stretch as the Steelers ended with three straight losses.
Take Aways from Tomlin’s Season-Opening Blowouts
The good news? In each case, Mike Tomlin’s teams improved following their season-opening blowouts.
- The bad news? Only one of those teams made the playoffs.
And, with exception of the 2011 team, none of the teams authored dramatic, rebound wins. Instead, improvement came gradually, or in the case of the 2012 Steelers, unevenly. And the injuries suffered in those openers formed and important part of the backstories of each of those seasons.
Does that tell us something going into the Browns game at Acrisure Stadium on Monday Night Football?
Maybe. But as Mike Tomlin would retort, the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers are writing their own story.