Pittsburgh had convincingly steamrolled its first three opponents, winning those games by a combined score of 97-26. So you knew that sooner rather than later, the Steelers would find themselves in a dogfight.
That they were playing Arizona without wide receiver Hines Ward did not help matters. Losing safety Troy Polamalu and nose tackle Casey Hampton at the end of the first half only exasperated their problems. That led to a 21-14 loss.
Without Ward, Polamalu and Hampton, the Steelers are, well, about on the same level as the Arizona Cardinals.
Those three players have a combined 10 Pro Bowl appearances between them.
And without them, the Steelers had to reach deep into their bag of tricks, trying to find something to pull out this victory.
"That's not the reason we lost the football game," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. "We lost because the Arizona Cardinals outperformed us."
As much as Tomlin would like that to be the case, it clearly was not.
Without Ward in paricular, the offense looked for the most part like a rudderless ship.
The other receivers just weren't able to shake free often enough for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to get into a rhythm. After starting the game with six completions in his first eight attempts for 106 yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, Roethlisberger's final numbers – 17 for 32 for 244 yards two touchdowns and two interceptions – really didn't tell the story about how poorly the offense played.
Many of those numbers after the first quarter came on the Steelers' final offensive possession when they were trying to get the ball down the field to erase a 21-7 deficit.
But where the Steelers really missed Ward the most was as a blocker. On several occasions Sunday, running back Willie Parker bounced a run to the outside only to find a defensive back there waiting for him. Ward at least holds those guys up long enough for Parker to get around the outside.
The most troubling thing about Sunday's game, however, wasn't the injuries, it was how the Steelers beat themselves.
The offensive line played about as poorly as it could, allowing four sacks, massive amounts of pressure and being penalized four times for false starts.
And the penetration the line allowed on running plays was just abhorrent. You can bet that future opponents will use Arizona's scheme of switching defensive fronts and bringing the strong safety into the box in the future to attack the Steelers.
But the line play just typified the sloppy play of the Steelers.
In addition to the false starts, there were fumbled exchanges on running plays and miscommunication between Roethlisberger and his receivers were pretty much throughout the contest. The Steelers just seemed lost in this one, with even the special teams – which had been solid – contributing heavily to this loss by allowing a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown.
"I'm disappointed we weren't able to get the win," Tomlin said. "I accept responsibility for what we put on tape out there. It had all the makings of a typical loss. By that, I mean we weren't able to run the ball effectively, we didn't take advantage of the turnovers we acquired, we gave up a big play in the kicking game, and we had way too many penalties. When you do those things, whether you're at home or on the road, you're not going to be successful."
This was the Steelers' first true test of the season and they failed it.
The next test will come in seeing how well Tomlin deals with all of the injuries and this loss. Tomlin's first loss was bound to happen at some time. But he was particularly discouraged by how it happened.
"The code that we live by, in terms of how we play our game and the way that we seek victory, we didn't accomplish those things," Tomlin said. "We didn't run the ball effectively, we didn't take advantage of the turnovers, we were highly penalized, and the special teams were not a winning edge for us."
It is, however, a long season. And one loss does not negate the team's 3-0 start. At 3-1, the Steelers remain in first place in the AFC North, a division that is proving to be flawed.
Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.