Steelers Looking For Answers
PITTSBURGH – The offense can’t hold onto the ball. The defense can’t take it away. The receivers can’t get open. The running backs can’t find any holes and the linebackers can’t cause any chaos.
Other than that, the first two weeks have been just fine for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh is 0-2 for the first time in 11 years following a 20-10 loss at Cincinnati on Monday night, another largely lifeless performance that did little to hint at better days ahead with unbeaten Chicago (2-0) visiting next Sunday.
“Right now, we’ve got to keep playing,” free safety Ryan Clark said. “We can’t panic and abandon what we have learned. We do have to shore some things up. We do have to be a lot more sound. If we don’t, this is going to keep happening.”
The Steelers have become one of the NFL’s most consistent – not to mention resilient – franchises by dealing with adversity on the fly. Old players move on, new ones come forward.
At the moment, it’s not happening.
Pittsburgh’s rebuilt offensive line – now playing without injured star Maurkice Pouncey – is struggling. So is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and whoever happens to line up behind him in the backfield.
The Steelers are 31st in the NFL in points (19), yards rushing (37.5 per game) and yards per carry (2.4). Felix Jones took his chance at the ever-turning carousel at running back and managed 37 yards on 10 carries, all of it coming in the first half.
After halftime, Jones disappeared entirely, only touching the ball on a kickoff return. Not exactly the dedicated commitment to running the ball coach Mike Tomlin or offensive coordinator Todd Haley talked about at length during the offseason.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys in there that we’re trying infuse and they need to get better in a hurry,” Tomlin said. “They need to increase the rate of that improvement. We haven’t to this point, but I’m optimistic about our work moving forward.”
Tomlin might be one of the few. The Steelers haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons this millennium and even rallied from an 0-2 start in 2002 to grab a wild card spot behind unlikely hero Tommy Maddox.
Only one player on the current active roster – defensive end Brett Keisel – was on that team. Roethlisberger was still in college at Miami (Ohio). Tomlin was coaching defensive backs for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was in middle school.
Though Tomlin continues to express his belief in Haley’s system, he understands no one is above reproach at the moment. Asked if there’s a problem with the offensive game plan, Tomlin is quick to spread the blame.
“There’s been a problem with our functioning,” he said. “There’s been a problem with our production. There’s been a problem with our points. You can point to whatever you want to point to in regards to that, and obviously if the plays aren’t working well then we’re susceptible to that judgment.
“I’m not going to lose a whole bunch of sleep over that.”
The sleeplessness will come with trying to find a way out of a funk that could turn into a freefall if the Steelers can’t regroup quickly. Only five teams have recovered from an 0-3 start to reach the playoffs. Given the abysmal play by the rest of the AFC North – Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati are just 2-6 so far with nary a victory outside the division – there’s time to get it together.
Help might be on the way. Tight end Heath Miller is expected be a full participant in practice this week, a major step in his rehab from right knee surgery. Miller was in the midst of the finest season of his career before being hurt in a loss to the Bengals last December.
Tomlin didn’t rule Miller out this week, but allowed “we are not expecting Heath to step out of a phone booth with a cape on.”
Maybe not, but it wouldn’t hurt. If he can’t go, the Steelers will try to fix what’s broken with the parts on hand. Tomlin said he’s open to re-evaluating the roles of some players to find a spark. Faced with potentially the first losing season of his Hall of Fame career, Roethlisberger is all for it.
“We need some guys to step up, older guys to step up and younger guys to get it going and avoid the road we’re going down,” Roethlisberger said.
One that appears to be getting longer by the week.