Perhaps no team had a more difficult start to the season than the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Accustomed to kicking off a new campaign in style, especially at home in Heinz Field, the Steelers lost far more than a game in Week 1 when Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, linebacker Larry Foote and running back LaRod Stephens- Howling all went down with season-ending injuries during an ugly 16-9 setback against Tennessee.
Turning things around this week won't be easy as the Steelers visit their old friend James Harrison and the Cincinnati Bengals on "Monday Night Football."
The Titans scored 16 straight points in Week 1 after return man Darius Reynaud's mental mistake on the opening kickoff resulted in a safety and a 2-0 edge for the Steelers just seconds into the contest. Pittsburgh never capitalized on the early momentum, however.
Ben Roethlisberger completed 21-of-33 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown and an interception for the Steelers, who came in with 10 straight victories in home openers, the longest active streak in the NFL.
Pittsburgh, which was held to 32 yards rushing, lost Pouncey and Stephens- Howling to torn ACLs while Foote ruptured his biceps.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Nobody cares about our problems. They're glad we've got them. We need to understand that. We need to stick together and persevere."
The Bengals, meanwhile, suffered a tough loss of their own but at least came out of it relatively unscathed, because their main AFC North rivals -- the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens -- also suffered setbacks in Week 1.
In fact the AFC North as a whole went 0-4 on Kickoff Weekend, a stark contrast for a group which produced five playoff teams over the prior two seasons.
Chicago's Jay Cutler hooked up with Brandon Marshall for a go-ahead 19-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter, as the Bears began the Marc Trestman era with a 24-21 victory over Cincinnati at Soldier Field.
The Bengals squandered an 11-point third-quarter lead, turned the ball over three times and committed eight penalties -- with linebacker Rey Maualuga's personal foul the most costly as it allowed the Bears to run out the clock.
"We didn't deserve to win because we had too many penalties and mistakes," Cincinnati nose tackle Domata Peko said. "But I also think we got a feel for what kind of team we have here, or at least what kind of team we can be. Really, we dominated them for three quarters, in my opinion. We've just got to finish."
Cincinnati signal caller Andy Dalton completed 26-of-33 passes for 282 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while A.J. Green grabbed a game-high nine passes for 162 yards and both of Dalton's touchdowns.
"They didn't stop us one time," Green said. "They didn't really stop us on offense. We were doing whatever we wanted. The biggest thing we had was turnovers."
BenJarvus Green-Ellis added a rushing score for the Bengals, who entered the postseason as a wild card club last season.
The Steelers will be looking to avoid their first 0-2 start since 2002 and have certainly fared well in Cincinnati over the years. Pittsburgh has won 11 of its last 12 at Paul Brown Stadium, including last season's 24-17 victory there on Oct. 21 behind Jonathan Dwyer's 122 rushing yards.
The Steelers also lead the all-time series by a substantial 52-33 margin.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Harrison, the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker and 2008 Defensive Player of the Year with the Steelers, was released in March when he and Pittsburgh couldn't agree on a restructured deal. He brings a physical presence to an already highly-regarded Bengals front seven.
"We all know how James plays," Tomlin said. "He brings physicality to the table, he's a guy who brings great passion and he can inspire his teammates."
The group, which features All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins, a player who just inked a big money extension before the season started, may have gone into Chicago a little too haughty because the Bears' offensive line is lightly- regarded. That kind of thing isn't going to happen again against a division foe like the Steelers, especially with Harrison playing his old mates for the first time.
"I don't have a chip on my shoulder against the Steelers," Harrison said. "I don't hate the Steelers. Am I disappointed? Yeah, I'm disappointed."
Pittsburgh brought in some help this week, signing former Titans center Fernando Velasco to replace Pouncey and bringing back Dwyer to take over for Stephens-Howling. In addition, veteran kicker Shayne Graham, a former Bengal, was signed after Shaun Suisham injured his hamstring against Tennessee.
Velasco is certainly not in Pouncey's league but he should be a significant upgrade over stop-gap Kelvin Beachum eventually, although it will be tough for the University of Georgia product to get up to speed in just one week.
When the Steelers succeed against Cincinnati it's generally due to the running game. Pittsburgh has run for at least 100 yards in all 29 of its wins over the Bengals over the last 20 years.
That could be tough formula this week with the injury problems in the backfield and on an already shaky offensive line. Isaac Redman remains the starter at running back for but his ineffectiveness in Week 1 could give Dwyer some early looks. Rookie Le'Veon Bell, meanwhile, remains out for at least another month or so with a foot injury.
"I think a consistent running game is really important, not only to be good offensively, but to strike a balance," Tomlin said. "We haven't been able to do that to this point."
For the Bengals, Green is one of the game's elite playmakers and will be a tough test for Steelers cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. The Pro- Bowler is playing at a high level early in the season and had 17 catches for 203 yards in his two meetings with Pittsburgh last season, including 10 catches in Cincinnati's 13-10 win in the Steel City in December, a game which eliminated the Steelers from the playoff hunt.
That contest, coincidentally, was also when star Steelers tight end Heath Miller tore his ACL. Miller, Roethlisberger's favorite target, has returned to practice and could make his season debut in this one.
Expecting Pittsburgh to continue its recent dominance over Cincinnati could be too much to ask. The Steelers have won 10 of their past 11 in Cincy and Tomlin is 7-1 on Monday nights, but Dalton has nine TD passes versus just one pick over his previous four home starts.
That's all white noise when talking about this one, though. Cincinnati is the more talented team and perhaps more importantly, the healthier one.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bengals 21, Steelers 14