PITTSBURGH (AP) — The casual brilliance the Pittsburgh Steelers flashed with remarkable ease over the first month of the season — well, save for three regrettable hours in Philadelphia — has faded quickly.
It tends to happen when the training room looks just as crowded as the locker room.
The franchise quarterback’s left knee is aching. The defensive captain’s hamstring is still tweaked. The right tackle’s ankle, too. The budding deep threat wide receiver’s left hand is busted. And Pittsburgh’s confidence, like it or not, is shaken.
Sure the Steelers (4-3) will still be in first place of the underwhelming AFC North when they travel to Baltimore on Nov. 6. It just doesn’t feel like it. Consecutive losses to Miami and New England and a mounting injury list to bold-faced names sent Pittsburgh reeling heading into its well-timed bye.
There’s plenty of time to get it together.
“Just got to re-energize,” said defensive end Cam Heyward, whose tender hamstring forced him to watch from the sideline as the Dolphins and Patriots ran wild. “We have to see the mistakes we’ve made and I think there’s so many things we can work on individually that when we come back collectively, it can benefit all of us. Whether it’s tackling, whether it’s ailments or injuries for each player, just technique stuff.”
Yet the chance to make any sort of early season statement that the Steelers are ready to challenge the Patriots or the defending Super Bowl champion Broncos for AFC supremacy is gone. Yes, the offense won’t be the same until Ben Roethlisberger returns from minor knee surgery, but Pittsburgh’s biggest issue is on the other side of the ball.
The Steelers expected to take a step forward after a promising first season under linebackers coach-turned-coordinator Keith Butler, one in which they finished in the top 10 in the league in turnovers and sack, splash plays that took some of the sting out of giving up oodles of yards.
Instead, Pittsburgh has taken a step back. The Steelers are tied for last in sacks (eight) and in the middle in takeaways (eight), both far off their 2015 pace. Butler pulled back on the array of blitzes he introduced last season, choosing instead to drop as many men in coverage as possible to take some of the pressure off a secondary littered with young players. When the gameplan works – as it did in romps over Kansas City and Washington – the defense is good enough for Pittsburgh to win. When it’s doesn’t work, or when teams opt to pound the ball on the ground as the Patriots and the Dolphins did, the Steelers look like just another team.
“It’s frustrating,” Butler said. “We’re all frustrated at this point in time. We don’t like being 4-3 . there’s a little frustration there for all of us.”
There have been pleasant surprises. Running back Le’Veon Bell looks as dangerous as ever since returning from a shredded right knee that cut short his 2015 season. Tight ends Jesse James and Xavier Grimble, tasked with replacing Heath Miller and holding the fort until free agent signee Ladarius Green returns to health, have combined for four touchdowns. Backup quarterback Landry Jones hardly looked limited while keeping the Steelers in the game with New England until the fourth quarter. Rookie first-round pick Artie Burns and fellow cornerback Ross Cockrell have been steady.
Still, more is required. After a narrow loss to Denver on the road in last year’s playoffs, the Steelers knew playing home games at Heinz Field for as long as possible was vital. The loss to the Patriots means any shot at homefield advantage is likely already long gone, particularly if Roethlisberger misses another game or two.
The quarterback practiced a bit last week and declined to put a timetable on his return, though he’s made a habit in his career of willingly playing through considerable pain. He did it in Miami, when he tore cartilage in his left knee and kept on playing long after the matter had already been decided.
Given the way Jones played against New England and the current status of the Ravens, there’s little incentive to push Roethlisberger too much. The Steelers can move the ball even without their all-time leading passer. They just need to do it all the time instead of in fits and starts, a habit that’s popped up regularly in their losses.
“It’s pretty obvious we need to be more consistent game-in and game-out,” Haley said. “We’ve shown we’re capable of putting up a lot of points when we execute run and pass. In the games we haven’t, we haven’t executed the finer details of the game plan.”
No better time to start than next week.