PITTSBURGH - Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin isn't about to blame his team's lethargic 18-13 loss to the New York Giants in the preseason opener on the calendar.
Tomlin knows the Steelers haven't played a game in nearly eight months. He also doesn't care. The way he figures it, committing seven penalties Saturday night, enduring couple of Keystone Kops moments on special teams and generating little offense has little to do with rust.
"Sometimes it can be characterized as part of August football but I'm not buying that," Tomlin said. "I think that we can set the bar higher than that for the first time out, you would like to think. But we didn't tonight, so we need to make those corrections."
There is plenty to correct. Pittsburgh brought in Danny Smith hoping the passionate special teams coach could spruce up a ho-hum unit. It might take awhile. The first-team punting unit allowed New York's Damontre Moore to come in untouched and block Drew Butler's kick.
Wide receiver/punt returner David Gilreath's night was even worse. He unwisely fielded a punt inside the Pittsburgh 5 early in the third quarter and went nowhere. An illegal block on the brief return pushed the Steelers back to their own 3. Not exactly the spot rookie quarterback Landry Jones wanted to take his first NFL snap. He botched a handoff in the end zone and fell on the ball for a safety.
Gilreath's night didn't get any better when he let a punt later in the quarter clang off his facemask and into the hands off New York's Tyler Stash recovered.
"We can't be penalized, we can't have punts blocked, we can't make poor decisions from a fielding of the ball standpoint," Tomlin said. "All of those things happened and we need to fix it."
The restructured first-team offensive line - with Mike Adams at left tackle and Kevin Gilbert at right tackle - saw the most extensive playing time of the starters as Tomlin searches for cohesion. There results were mixed. Gilbert was flagged for holding and the pocket collapsed at one point as Roethlisberger was sacked.
The running game did, however, gain some traction even with rookie Le'Veon Bell sitting out as a precautionary measure due to a sore left knee. LaRod Stephens-Howling, returning to the field where he starred in college at Pitt, picked up 40 yards on seven carries. Not bad for a player who will be limited to kick returns and third-down situations when the season begins.
"We said that we wanted to establish the run game early," Stephens-Howling said. "We came out and were able to do it."
The passing game, not so much. Roethlisberger completed 4 of 8 passes for 36 yards, including a couple of third-down conversions on the scoring drive. He threw the ball down the field only once but Antonio Brown couldn't get a second foot down on what would have been a 20-yard touchdown.
Confusion over personnel, however, forced him to call a pair of timeouts within a three-play stretch on Pittsburgh's second drive. The timeouts were not in vain. He threw a 14-yard strike to Emmanuel Sanders to convert a third-and-10 after the first one and found Sanders again for a nine-yard gain after the second.
Roethlisberger wasn't exactly concerned. There's still four weeks to get ready for the season opener against Tennessee.
"We'll just look at the tape and try to get better," he said.
The tape will be a little kinder to rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones. Taken with the 17th overall pick in the draft, Jones was able to do what he's done consistently during the first two weeks of training camp: get to the ball.
Though he was pushed around at times, particularly against the run, Jones pounced when New York's David Carr and running back Andre Brown flubbed a handoff in the second quarter. It was the kind of splash play that made the Steelers ignore the plodding 40-yard dash time he posted while performing for scouts during Georgia's Pro Day.
Jones joked it will take him some time to get used to the NFL rulebook. He fell on the ball and laid still even though he wasn't immediately touched by a member of the Giants. Trotting back to the sideline after the first big moment of his career, Jones heard it from his teammates.
"The guys on the sidelines told me I should have picked it up and ran," Jones said. "That was a learning curve for me, too."
Jones is hardly alone. The Steelers have a week to get ready for a visit to Washington next Sunday. Teaching points abound as they begin their final stint at Saint Vincent College before camp breaks Saturday.
"We have a lot of work to do still," Adams said. "But that is what training camp is for, to improve. Now we have a good idea."