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Tim Benz: September Mourn! Steelers need to get off to faster start in 2020 | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: September Mourn! Steelers need to get off to faster start in 2020

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Here’s one way the Steelers need to get better in 2020.

And no, this has nothing to do with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger returning. Because he’s been on the field for much of this problem in recent years.

The issue is starting better in September. The Steelers’ failure to win a playoff game — or reach the postseason at all — the last three years can be directly traced to bad starts in the first month of the regular season.

Since the opening of 2017, the Steelers are 4-6-1 in the month of September. Stretch that to include the first five weeks of each season, and the Steelers are 6-8-1 to begin these three campaigns that have led to their playoff-victory drought.

Last September, the Steelers went 1-3. They lost the first two games with Roethlisberger as the starting quarterback before he was replaced at halftime by Mason Rudolph in a Week 2 loss versus the Seattle Seahawks. Then the club lost a fourth quarter lead in San Francisco. And they needed to surprise the Cincinnati Bengals with the wildcat in Week 4 to scrape out a win.

They finished 8-8. The Tennessee Titans got the last playoff spot at 9-7.

In 2018, the Steelers were 1-2-1 in September. They opened the season with a tie in Cleveland. Their only victory that month was over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They fell to the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.

That year the Steelers finished 9-6-1, a half-game behind the Indianapolis Colts for the final playoff spot. And a half-game behind the Ravens for the AFC North title.

For as good as the Steelers were in 2017 (13-3), two of their three losses occurred in the first five weeks of the regular season. Those were upset defeats in Chicago (Sept. 24, Week 3) and a 21-point home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars (Oct. 8, Week 5).

If they win either — or both — of those contests, the fallout of the Jesse James call against the New England Patriots in Week 15 probably doesn’t cost them home field advantage in the playoffs. And they avoid that rematch with the Jaguars in the postseason which eventually wound up in elimination.

One perceived cause for optimism to start 2020 is that the Steelers have a lot of continuity. Most of the roster and coaching staff is returning. So the team has the luxury of familiarity. The theory being that cohesion should buoy the Steelers after a choppy offseason schedule.

“We have to take advantage of this moment,” said tight end Vance McDonald Tuesday. “A team that doesn’t take the strange training camp — all the lack of reps in the offseason — if they don’t do that seriously rolling into Week 1 and shake the dust off quickly, I think they’re the ones that will get caught with their hands up.”

That notion appears particularly true on defense where the only starters missing from last year’s impactful squad — Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron — will likely be replaced by veteran contributors in Vince Williams and Tyson Alualu. That unit also gets an injection of talent with the return of Stephon Tuitt.

“We’ve got a good group of veteran guys that have been here and played here long enough to understand the defense to pick back up where they left off,” Tuitt said Wednesday.

That all sounds good. But are familiarity and continuity all that meaningful when we are talking about familiarity and continuity of a team that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2016?

“I won’t pretend like those advantages exist or exist as absolutes,” Mike Tomlin said recently. “There are some advantages of continuity, about having shared experiences in an unstable or uncertain environment. But we are not going to make an assumption or find comfort in some of those facts.”

However it happens, it just needs to happen. The Steelers need to play better in the first month than they have recently. Especially this year since the schedule appears manageable in the first few weeks of the calendar.

Five of the organization’s first six games are against teams that were 9-7 or worse last year — the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Titans, Philadelphia Eagles and Browns.

The only game against an opponent with at least 10 wins from 2019 before Week 7 is a home date against the Houston Texans (Sept. 27). They were 10-6 but are expected to drop off a bit in 2020.

In each of those three years, the Steelers enjoyed extended stretches of torrid play mid-season. Tomlin’s club rattled off eight in a row in 2017 (Oct. 15-Dec. 10) and six straight in 2018 (Oct. 7-Nov.18). Last season they won seven of eight between Oct. 13 and Dec. 8.

But all three seasons were undone by rotten starts and some ill-timed late-season defeats.

Check back with me after Thanksgiving. You’ll get the “The Steelers have to play better in December” column, too. Trust me. It’s already halfway in the bank.

But first the league needs to stay running until December through the pandemic protocols. And the Steelers need to succeed in the first few weeks.

For a change.

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Categories: Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast With Benz
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