PITTSBURGH (AP) — The bold-faced names expected to power one of the NFL’s most talented offenses have spent the first half of the season like passengers on a subway at rush hour, one hopping on the train while another hops off. The defense that entered September as a question mark is now an aggressive exclamation point.
Good luck trying to figure the Pittsburgh Steelers out. They’re too busy trying to plug holes to try.
Maurkice Pouncey? Still on injured reserve and increasingly unlikely to return. Le’Veon Bell? Out for the season with a torn MCL in his right knee. Ben Roethlisberger? Lumbering around with a bulky brace on the throbbing left leg that forced him to miss a month.
Maybe the only good thing about Pittsburgh’s opening eight weeks is that they’re over.
“We’re closing the chapter on the first half of the season, so that’s a good thing,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “We can move on and don’t have to talk about it, because there were some negatives in that first half.”
The infuriating kind the Steelers (4-4) had little control over. Pouncey didn’t even make it to September after tearing up his left ankle in preseason. Roethlisberger and Bell played alongside each other for all of four quarters before Bell’s right knee was pinned awkwardly underneath him in the second quarter of last weekend’s loss to Cincinnati. Wide receiver Martavis Bryant sat out five games stemming from a drug suspension and a minor knee issue while Bell was forced to watch for two weeks while serving a suspension of his own.
Though Roethlisberger stressed he “doesn’t see why anything has changed” in terms of expectations, the reality is the group that walks onto the field on Sunday against surprising Oakland (4-3) doesn’t resemble the one everyone thought they’d see.
Never one to blame issues on health — as coach Mike Tomlin likes to say the injury rate is 100 percent — absorbing so many to so many vital parts in such a short period of time is less than ideal.
“It’s been frustrating and I know where offensively we can be,” right tackle Marcus Gilbert said. “Dealing with these injuries to key players kind of affects the offense.”
Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley figured the Steelers could average 30 points a game when the season started. So far Pittsburgh has only hit that number once, putting up 43 in a romp over San Francisco in Week 2 that looked more impressive at the time than it does in hindsight.
The 49ers are a mess and when Roethlisberger was tackled awkwardly against St. Louis seven days later, any early momentum came to a shuddering stop. Roethlisberger’s return versus Cincinnati put Pittsburgh as close to full strength as it’s been all year. It lasted less than two quarters. By halftime Bell was in the locker room and the Steelers were scrambling.
“We have to find a way to get the job done,” wide receiver Antonio Brown said. “We can’t place an emphasis on who is not there.”
Veteran DeAngelo Williams filled in capably while Bell was suspended and ripped off a 55-yard sprint in the third quarter against Cincinnati. Yet he hasn’t been a true feature back over an extended stretch since 2008, when he made his lone Pro Bowl.
Tomlin promised his team would “rally around” Williams and even at .500 the Steelers are hardly out of the playoff mix. Yet with a brutal post-Thanksgiving stretch that includes trips to Seattle and Cincinnati as well as a visit from Denver, Pittsburgh is rapidly running out of wiggle room. A loss to the Raiders would be a significant blow to a group that began the year firmly believing it could contend for the AFC championship.
That belief still exists, thanks in large part to the rapid maturity of the defense. Coordinator Keith Butler has instilled his group with an aggressiveness it lacked during longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau’s final seasons. Pittsburgh is fifth in points allowed and sacks even with defensive end Stephon Tuitt and linebacker Ryan Shazier spending the first two months dealing with various medical issues.
“This is the game we sign up for,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “That’s why we like it. We want our defense to have the pressure on our back. If our offense gives us 3 points we think we can win games.”
Good, because there may be a point in the near future where it will have to.
Notes: Bryant, WR Markus Wheaton, TE Matt Spaeth and LB Terence Garvin did not practice on Wednesday. Tuitt and S Will Allen were limited. QB Michael Vick and S Mike Mitchell were full participants. … The Steelers activated CB Doran Grant from the practice squad and released WR Tyler Murphy.