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September 23, 2013

NFL: Steelers continue to misfire during 0-3 start

PITTSBURGH — Two plays. Two balls on the ground. Two very different results. One all-too familiar story for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Pittsburgh’s 40-23 loss to the Chicago Bears on Sunday night looked an awful lot like the two defeats that came before it. The offense couldn’t hold onto the football. The defense couldn’t take it away. Rinse. Repeat.

Still, while the Steelers remain winless after dropping to 0-3 for the first time since 2000, they believe they’re not hopeless.

“It’s a situation we’re not familiar with,” defensive end Brett Keisel said. “If we have the type of character we think we do, we can overcome this and find a way to fight back.”

The Steelers insist all it will take is a bounce here and a little more discipline there to turn things around. It hasn’t happened yet, though linebacker LaMarr Woodley knows at some point the odds have to flip in their favor. Pittsburgh is one of two teams in the NFL yet to record a takeaway and its minus-nine turnover differential tied with the inept (and also winless) New York Giants for the worst mark in the league.

“We’ve just somehow got to go out and produce them,” Woodley said.

The line between success and failure is thin, as evidenced by a pair of bounces for the ball while the game was still in doubt.

The Steelers had just scored with 6:27 to play in the first half to draw within 24-10 on a gorgeous catch in the end zone by Antonio Brown. The defense stuffed the Bears on first down of the ensuing possession. On second down, quarterback Jay Cutler found wide receiver Alshon Jeffery underneath for a short gain. Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay knocked the ball out at the Chicago 33. The fumble, however, bounced right back into Jeffery’s arms before Woodley could pounce on it.

“Willie Gay had a big hit on (Jeffery) and we just didn’t get it,” Woodley said.

Chicago eventually punted, but flipped the field. The Steelers took over at their own 13 instead of inside Bears’ territory. They moved to midfield before bogging down and headed to halftime down two touchdowns.

The deficit grew larger early in the third quarter.

Running back Felix Jones took a handoff from Roethlisberger on the second play after the break and was met by Chicago safety Major Wright. The hit jarred the ball loose and defensive tackle Henry Melton cradled it to give the Bears the ball at the Pittsburgh 29. Six plays later, a Robbie Gould field goal made it 27-10 and despite a spirited rally, the Steelers never got the ball with a chance to go in front.

“It’s frustrating,” Jones said. “We did a lot of things that hurt ourselves.”

And the self-inflicted wounds have blunted any hope for momentum heading into what could be a trying stretch. Pittsburgh travels to London this week to face Minnesota (0-3), then gets a week off before heading to New York to play the surprising Jets. The Steelers won’t play at home until hosting rival Baltimore on Oct. 20. There’s a chance the competitive portion of the season could already be over if they can’t fix things.

“I don’t know if we can dig out of it but we’re going to have to give it everything we’ve got to get out,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s a deep hole and it’s getting deeper. I’m not going to quit.”

Roethlisberger took responsibility for the loss after throwing a pair of interceptions and fumbling twice, though the defense understands it needs to find a way to force the other team into mistakes. Even while finishing as the league’s No. 1 defense in 2012, the Steelers only created 20 turnovers, four of them coming in a meaningless season finale against Cleveland.

Safety Ryan Clark allowed Pittsburgh needs to “make something happen here quickly” but doesn’t think the team needs to take unnecessary chances to do it.

“We can do things to help our offense and we just didn’t,” Clark said.

Clark was in position to make a splash play in the third quarter when Cutler tried to flip a pass to tight end Martellus Bennett in the flat. The ball sailed over Bennett’s head. Clark was so focused on tackling Bennett he didn’t see the ball until it was past him.

Could he have gotten it? Maybe. Yet Clark has built his career on making the right play, not the risky one. He’s not going to start questioning his instincts. Neither are his teammates.

“We’ve got to find ways to get the ball,” Keisel said. “That’s what great defenses do. It’s been one of those things for awhile now we haven’t been able to get turnovers.

“Hopefully it will change.”

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