PITTSBURGH (AP) – Mike Tomlin keeps throwing bodies at the problem. Friend johnson. Marcus Allen. John Leglue. Rashaad coward. Ray-Ray McCloud.
Neither of them thought of being part of the plan last summer. At least not useful. Yet all five found themselves on the field during Thursday night’s 36:28 loss to Minnesota for the Pittsburgh Steelers, when Tomlin was looking not so much for a spark as for a semblance of urgency for a team where urgency was urgent is scarce.
In the end it wasn’t enough. Again.
Defense front seven was torn apart. Again.
The offensive line has been pushed around for far too long. Again.
As a result, it was another step back in an insanely unequal season in which the Steelers have jumped between competitive and confusing with alarming regularity.
Pittsburgh (6-6-1) have taken one win in their last five games. The four non-wins (including a tie with Detroit) follow a largely familiar pattern. The opposing quarterback turns and hands it to a running back, who sprints through gaping holes. The Steelers’ offensive spins long distances before showing signs of life, typically after it’s too late.
“It’s Groundhog Day,” said Cam Heyward. “It’s unacceptable.”
It is also a reality.
Injuries and ineffective play have overwhelmed the defensive front seven. The offensive line in the new look, littered with rookies or practice team players who have become contributors like Leglue and Coward, remains an unpredictable mess three months into the season.
In theory, the Steelers still live in the wide open AFC, where every team with a pulse seems to have a chance. However, any margin that was left is now gone and the idea of finding consistency against good teams – something that has been elusive for 13 games – is a very tough sell.
“We have a long week ahead of us and we will use that time well to assess what we are doing and what we are doing with it,” said Tomlin. “We will do everything we can to strengthen ourselves.”
That’s part of the problem. Options are limited in early December. Pittsburgh has spent most of the past four months making the NFL equivalent of dumpster diving, ripping players off from waivers or practice sessions from other teams in search of effective depth. The results, like everything else, were at best scatter shots.
Last Sunday, defensive lineman Montravius Adams – who was signed off from Seattle earlier this week – looked like a determining factor in a sweeping comeback win over Baltimore. Barely 96 hours later, he was largely an innocent bystander when Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook split Pittsburgh’s defense for 205 yards, the third highest sum the team has allowed in the history of a franchise dating back nearly 90 years.
Adams was hardly alone. Minnesota’s offensive line abused anyone who happened to be beyond the scrimmage line. Just like Cincinnati did with the Steelers two weeks ago. And the chargers in front of it. And the lions in front of it.
Leglue and Coward and Pittsburgh’s disjointed offensive line were intermittent spectators as the Vikings beat 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger while building a 29-0 lead. Minnesota fired Roethlisberger five times, including a couple of clean but vicious shots, as the Vikings snapped in untouched before unloading.
“To be honest, we’re being treated up front on both sides of the ball and that makes it difficult to do what we want,” said Tomlin. “Difficult to keep your balance. It makes it difficult to dictate to our opponents what happens and what happens next. “
It was like that for most of the year. Close wins against mostly mediocre clubs have catapulted Pittsburgh into the postseason mix. Increasingly, it looks like the surge came with smoke, mirrors, and external linebacker TJ Watt’s all-pro play.
Watt spent the second half in sweatpants on the sidelines after sustaining a groin injury. It’s the third time Watt has been sidelined late. In these games, the Steelers are 0-3.
“We’re running out of time,” said Roethlisberger.
It can be.
The offense looked sharp during the swoon, with one major caveat: This sharpness only comes into focus when the Steelers play from behind, often hopelessly from behind. Pittsburgh has tried to establish the run and deliberately play early in the games. Perhaps it is time to let Roethlisberger, whose status beyond this season is uncertain at best, crash and let him drown with a swing.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Steelers are constantly being flogged in the trenches. It is unlikely that “help” will come at any time before the free agency starts in March. The best Tomlin can do is patch things up and see if something sticks.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon scored two passes in the second half that allowed Pittsburgh to put together an unlikely rally against a Vikings team almost pathologically incapable of anything other than playing close games.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool remains a tantalizing but immature conundrum. He was benched in the first half for drawing a personal foul penalty, but he also caught eight passes for 93 yards. He inexplicably dropped to his knees and made the first down move after taking a fourth down on Pittsburgh’s last drive.
The future status of Watts is uncertain. He injured his hamstring in week 2 against the Raiders and then sat out the next week. Perhaps the release before visiting Tennessee on December 19 will give him time to heal.
18 – Number of years the Steelers spent between losing seasons. It’s on the table considering Pittsburgh ends the year against four clubs – the Titans, Chiefs, Browns, and Ravens – all in the playoff chase.
Rest and hope the magic you conjured up during a thrilling victory over Baltimore returns in time to save what is probably the final month of Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame-tied career.
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