BALTIMORE - Dejected Pittsburgh Steelers players walked quietly off the field and through a tunnel leading under M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.
They were greeted at their locker room door by coach Mike Tomlin, who tried to get them in the right frame of mind after their 35-7 shellacking by the Baltimore Ravens in the 2011 season opener.
"Be like champions,'' Tomlin shouted as he shook each player's hand as they approached the door. "Chew on it. Chew on it.''
Steelers offensive lineman Jonathon Scott sits on the bench during the fourth quarter.
You get the feeling the Steelers are going to have some tired jaws after chewing on their pitiful performance, especially on the defensive side.
The Pittsburgh offense did commit a whopping seven turnovers and put the defense in some bad positions, but many of the fumbles and interceptions came after the Ravens offense built a big lead against what looked like an old, tired and slow Steelers defensive unit.
Coordinator Dick LeBeau's defenses have been ranked near the top of the NFL for the last decade, but if they suffer through any more efforts like Sunday's, they'll give "Steelers Football'' a bad name.
"We couldn't stop anything,'' Steelers linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior said. "We tried to change up stuff and do different things, but we just couldn't get it going today.''
The defense was bad from the start when elusive Baltimore running back Ray Rice ripped off a 36-yard run on the first offensive play of the game. He followed it up with a 3-yard run, and the Ravens scored on the next play, a 27-yard pass from Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin.
The proud Steelers defense had put its team in a 7-0 hole, just 1 minute, 32 seconds into the season.
"They came out early with the big run and the big pass,'' Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "So, when you give up big plays as a defense, you put the offense right back out there on the field. And then, when we got back out there we didn't stop them at all. We allowed them to come up and down the field again and get in our end zone.''
The defensive culprits were many. Cornerback Bryant McFadden got beat by Boldin on the touchdown and throughout the game, linebacker Lawrence Timmons and safety Troy Polamalu were a step behind Ravens players on two other touchdown receptions, and the pass rush was mostly non-existent, getting just one sack and allowing Flacco to pick apart the defense.
Flacco, who hadn't performed well against the Steelers in the past, threw for 224 yards and three touchdowns and didn't even come close to throwing an interception. He threw to his young tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, early and often in the game, and that opened up the field for Rice to dance his way for 149 total yards.
"We didn't turn around enough ball carriers,'' Tomlin said. "We didn't get off well enough on third down. We didn't create turnovers.''
Farrior, the 36-year-old veteran, stood on the sideline for a majority of the first half while Larry Foote replaced him. Tomlin said afterward it was a pregame decision to play Foote more, but it still isn't a good sign when the defensive captain is holding his helmet watching as Foote and other teammates chase around Rice.
Much of the talk about the Steelers defense in the preseason was that a majority of the players are now in their 30s, and their window of opportunity was closing. That window was given a big push on Sunday.
It's just hard to believe the defense wasn't ready for the challenge of facing the team's biggest AFC North Division rival on its home field in the season opener.
"I was excited and the guys on this team were excited,'' Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said. "We were excited we got this opportunity. And here is a situation where you had to get up for it because it was the Ravens. They just whipped us - they just beat us. They were better, and we had no solutions.''
The Steelers defense has a good chance at recovering from this embarrassment when they host the Seattle Seahawks in the home opener at 1 p.m. next Sunday. They'll have to because too many of these types of performances from a unit that was just handed millions of dollars in the offseason, with new contracts for Polamalu, Timmons, Woodley and Ike Taylor, will have the Steelers scrambling to make the playoffs.
"This is only the first game of the season,'' Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "We have 15 more games and five more division games. I believe in the guys in this locker room, and we have a lot of time to get it right. I'm sure we will.''
In other words, they have some chewing to do.
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.