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Steelers vs. Bengals: Lots of questions for Pittsburgh in Week 2 game

Based on a poor performance and a slew of injuries to open the season, the Steelers need to turn some of their biggest question marks into exclamation points.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

What if the Pittsburgh Steelers performance against the Tennessee Titans on opening day is a precursor to the type of season which lies ahead.  What if they simply lost one football game?

Of course, the Steelers lost more than just a single game.  They added injury to insult through the loss of three key starters in Larry Foote, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Maurkice Pouncey.  The team will not only have to find answers for their absences, but also for the myriad of other questions surrounding the Steelers as they prepare to take on the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2.

Will the offense improve over its failure against the Titans?

It has to, right? A cliche answer, but true nonetheless.  Even if they match their output against Tennessee, they would at least have consistency on their side, which would still technically be an improvement.  Truthfully, outside of losing another starter to injury, the Steelers have too much talent to play any worse.  Special teams could stand to use up some of their room for improvement, too.  The defense did enough to win an NFL game, and should again in Week 2.

Who deserves the blame for the offensive downfall?

Most want to instantly point a finger at offensive coordinator Todd Haley.  Others reserve a finger or two for head coach Mike Tomlin, and even the occasional knucklehead pokes at defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.  Unfortunately, one game is not enough evidence to differentiate fault from fluke.  Dot connecting requires at least two dots.  There are too many 'What if'-s which need to play out Monday night.

What if the offense struggles again?

The Steelers will be 0-2.  Unfortunately, this will be enough motivation to start a pitchfork sharpening epidemic, but it is only two losses.  Even the optimistic fan was hoping for five or six on the year.  Ben Roethlisberger did not lose a single regular season start as a rookie.  The team does not need such a streak to escape 0-2.  If the Steelers play well, the Bengals will be 0-2; and suddenly, Pittsburgh will be back in the hunt for the AFC North lead - by winning one football game.

What if the offensive line struggles without Pouncey?

The offensive line was already struggling with Pouncey.  It struggled with Beachum.  Now, it will probably wind up struggling with Fernando Velasco.  Whichever you way you slice it, the fruit of their labor is still going to be indigestible -- not because it is rotten, but because it is not quite ripe yet.  Anyone who felt switching to a zone-blocking scheme was going to be an instant fix to the running game needs to remember other teams have been running the same scheme for a while, and most defenses know how to play against them.  In the case of the Steelers young offensive line, most of the defenses they will play against have a lot more experience in the scheme than they do.  However, the line is still learning, and will improve the more they play.

What if Le'Veon Bell really is out for another month?  Can the Steelers actually win with the running backs they have?

The Steelers beat the Bengals with a similar backfield last year.  Isaac Redman may be the starter, but Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer will get carries regardless.  Poor Redman running will simply mean more carries for the other guys.  Dwyer's weakness will actually become a strength if the offensive line continues to trip over the learning curve.  While Jones and Redman may struggle to find openings through the line, Dwyer's lack of vision served him in finding multiple big runs away from play intentions.  The team may not have wanted him, but he could be precisely the spark the offense needs, by forcing defenses to be ready for every kind of run - both inside and out, zone and power.

What if Roethlisberger has no time to throw because of protection deficiencies?

Most people instantly assumed Haley was hired to protect Big Ben with a quick hit offense.  The system was supposed to protect young offensive linemen as well.  The quarterback wanted more of the old-school downfield plays they used to run back in the playbook, and the coordinator attempted to compromise; but the inability to protect is a reminder of the need for the quick strikes in the first place.  However, quarterbacks and coordinators cannot be judged on a one game basis when poor offensive line play is involved.  Neither the scheme nor the player will function in such circumstances.

What if the offense does not improve at all?  Should the Steelers fire Haley?

It has taken the team this long to just begin to learn his offense.  There is no way another coordinator comes in mid-season and gets this group to learn a new playbook and system in a week, nor is there any chance an outsider learns Haley's system in a week, either.  Haley's job performance will be evaluated by whole seasons, not weeks.

Will the defense collapse without Foote?  What if Cortez Allen can't play?

Someone else will take his place, as he did for Keenan Lewis.  Allen is not in jeopardy of losing his job, but the Steelers defense will carry on without him if he cannot go.  The team would miss his playmaking propensity, but is still better off losing Allen than Ike Taylor or Troy Polamalu.  They lost a guy with only one game as a legitimate outside starter under his belt; if they will be without him at all.  The team will miss Foote far more than Allen, however his exit means more snaps for Kion Wilson and rookie Vince Williams.

What if the defense finds itself with two rookies playing linebacker - Williams and Jarvis Jones?

The team would be better off for it in the long run.  If the offense continues to keep the team from being competitive, then why not play the young guys and let them learn in true game situations from their veteran teammates?  They need to learn the system eventually anyway, might as well get their initiation out of the way now.  A struggling offense could use a stat line like Jones posted in the preseason.  A LeBeau defense needs a presence on the inside to free up Timmons, and the team obviously believes Williams has the potential to be such a player, because they drafted him and kept him on their active roster instead of the practice squad or released.

What if the Steelers actually correct some of their mistakes this week?  How much better do they have to be to beat the Bengals?

The defense doesn't need to improve, but it probably will.  Special teams can get better, but they haven't reached 'liability' status yet.  The offense needs five scores - two TDs, two FGs and one anything-else, like the gifted safety against the Titans.  NFL games are winnable with 22, 23 or 27 points; especially when your defense is only surrendering points in the 16-20 range.  Two touchdowns - preferably one by air, one by ground - is a modest, if not pessimistic offensive goal.  The Steelers have no problems finding opportunities to kick field goals.  Of course, five scores would be a significant feat compared to the nine points posted against the Titans, but it was just one game.

The Monday night matchup against the Bengals will only be one game, and the Steelers may fall to 0-2 before the clock strikes zero; but their season would be far from over.  If the offensive line takes one step forward in the next week or two, the offense will see immediate improvement.  Heath Miller will return at some point within the first six weeks, as will Bell.  They will add some healthy feet to carry the team another step further.

While torches have already been lit and passed out, and Nero's band is all warmed up, the truth of the matter is, everyone lost in the AFC North in Week 1 - most of them badly.  The best in show was Cincinnati only losing by three.  The Baltimore Ravens lost by 22 to Peyton Manning.  The Cleveland Browns lost by 13.  Pittsburgh only lost by seven.

What if the Redman fumble didn't happen?  What if the team takes a different course of action in similar situations from now on?  What if Redman hangs on to the ball?

What if David DeCastro doesn't miss his block, ending Pouncey's season?  What if he doesn't miss the next one, or the next one after because he learned a very expensive lesson?

What if the Steelers lose to the Bengals, falling to 0-2 on the season?  They will be one game out of first place for their division, with another game's worth of experience for their young players.

What if the Steelers beat the Bengals? They will be tied for first place in the AFC North, with more experience for their youngsters, and healthy troops falling in line along the way soon after.

It's been said, when you start at the bottom, the only way left for you to go is up.  The Steelers may appear to be trapped in the basement, but they are on an upward climb no matter how low they looked in one game.

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