Clock tick­ing on Steel­ers’ mud­dled sea­son

Winnipeg Free Press - Section D - - SPORTS - By Will Graves

PITTS­BURGH — Mike Tom­lin re­mains as sure as ever the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers are good enough to play well into Jan­uary and be­yond.

Of course, get­ting that far at the mo­ment is kind of a prob­lem. Pitts­burgh saw its grasp on a play­off berth van­ish in a loss to Bal­ti­more Sun­day. Now the Steel­ers need to win in Cleve­land this week­end and hope the Buf­falo Bills knock off the New York Jets to get back to the post-sea­son.

It’s less than ideal sit­u­a­tion for a team that looks as dan­ger­ous as any in the league, at least when it’s not giv­ing away games against lesser op­po­nents.

“We’re not a group that lacks con­fi­dence,” Tom­lin said Tues­day. “We’re a group that be­lieves what we’re ca­pa­ble of. We’ve got to de­liver the goods.” Prefer­ably in a rush. While Tom­lin and first-year de­fen­sive co-or­di­na­tor Keith But­ler have de­liv­ered on a vow to get to the quar­ter­back more this sea­son — Pitts­burgh’s 41 sacks are tied for fourth in the league — the Steel­ers have just three in the last two weeks while fac­ing Brock Osweiler and Ryan Mal­lett. Tom­lin can live with­out the sacks so long as op­pos­ing quar­ter­backs are forced to make de­ci­sions un­der duress. That isn’t hap­pen­ing as fre­quently as it was ear­lier in the sea­son, ei­ther.

There are times when Pitts­burgh’s of­fence can help make up the dif­fer­ence, as it did while ral­ly­ing past Osweiler and the Bron­cos Dec. 20. When the of­fence stum­bles as it did in a be­wil­der­ing per­for­mance against Bal­ti­more, the Steel­ers can let or­di­nary quar­ter­backs look con­sid­er­ably bet­ter than their pedi­gree.

“I didn’t think we cre­ated enough pres­sure,” Tom­lin said. “I think that pres­sure creates an en­vi­ron­ment that pro­duces splash for us, whether it’s neg­a­tive plays for the of­fence or turnovers. There wasn’t enough neg­a­tiv­ity for them.”

Given a choice, Tom­lin would pre­fer to parse out the blitzes and let the front four do most of the work. That didn’t hap­pen ver­sus the Ravens, giv­ing Mal­lett all the time he needed to ex­tend drives and keep Ben Roeth­lis­berger and An­to­nio Brown on the side­line.

A week af­ter Den­ver con­verted eight straight third downs to start the game, the Ravens went nine for 18 on third down while hog­ging the ball for more than 34 min­utes. Sev­eral times, Bal­ti­more would ap­pear to back it­self up with a penalty only to wrig­gle loose by turn­ing a sec­ond-and-long into third-and-short and ul­ti­mately a first down.

“I think we ran out of time,” Tom­lin said. “We ran out of time be­cause we turned the ball over and lost a couple pos­ses­sions. And our in­abil­ity to get off the field con­sis­tently on de­fence cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment where time was a big-time fac­tor in the sec­ond half of the game.”

Now time may be run­ning out on Pitts­burgh’s mud­dled sea­son. Tom­lin stressed there is plenty of blame to go around. The is­sue, as it has been for much of the year, isn’t what op­po­nents do to the Steel­ers as much as it is what they do them­selves.

Pitts­burgh has been on the wrong end of the turnover bat­tle in all five of its losses. While Roeth­lis­berger is hav­ing one of the most pro­duc­tive (if in­jury marred) sea­sons of his ca­reer, he’s also thrown at least one in­ter­cep­tion in nine of his 11 ap­pear­ances.

Tom­lin de­clined to get into specifics about Roeth­lis­berger’s play, say­ing there are 10 other guys on the field with Roeth­lis­berger who have jobs to do to.

He’s more fo­cused on try­ing to get his emo­tion­ally rat­tled team re­fo­cused. If the Steel­ers can’t re­group, what hap­pens in Buf­falo is mean­ing­less.

“It’s less about the name­less grey faces that we play this week that hap­pen to be the Browns,” Tom­lin said. “It’s more about us get­ting rightly fo­cused and get­ting back on track, get­ting that stench off of us from our last per­for­mance.”

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