Trouble in Steel Town?

September, 30, 2009
9/30/09
3:00
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com’s James Walker


PITTSBURGH -- Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin walked into his weekly news conference Tuesday with the same confidence and swagger he carried during last season’s championship run.
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But the throng of media in Pittsburgh had a much different feel this week following the team’s surprising 1-2 start.

Tomlin was grilled about his play calling. He was asked why certain players aren’t performing, and whether some were in the doghouse. There also were questions about Tomlin’s decision-making, such as kicking a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line.
AP Photo/Don Wright
Mike Tomlin and the Steelers have struggled in the early part of the season.

The media took part in the Tuesday morning quarterbacking to try to get answers why the defending champs are all of a sudden struggling on Sundays.

"I don’t think it’s a lack of focus or a lack of attention on any of the parties involved," said Tomlin, defending his team. "I really just think it’s a lack of production on all of our parts as coaches as players.

"We got to fix it -- and fix it in a hurry."

What’s the problem?

It’s debatable whether the Steelers are having a Super Bowl hangover three games into the season. That was certainly the case the last time Pittsburgh attempted to defend a championship in 2006, when the Steelers began the year 2-6 on their way to an 8-8 finish.

Pittsburgh still has time to fix its problems, and perhaps the biggest issue right now is getting its star players on both sides of the ball to perform to their usual standards.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, coming off his Super Bowl MVP award in February, has had some issues with drops recently. Outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley are not getting nearly the same pressure this year and have combined for one sack. Usually reliable kicker Jeff Reed has missed three field goals in the past two games, including two that could have sealed a win in a 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 2.

The defense as a whole suffered a major blow with the knee injury to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. His absence has exposed the secondary, particularly late in games, and the unit doesn’t have the same aggressiveness.

Without Polamalu, Pittsburgh hasn’t forced a single turnover in the past two weeks. That has allowed opponents to stay in games, and no one has stepped up when a clutch play is needed. Pittsburgh has blown leads in the second half in back-to-back weeks.
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
The Pittsburgh defense has become more vulnerable with Troy Polamalu on the sideline.

"One time it’s a coincidence, now it’s becoming a habit," safety Ryan Clark said. "And we need to break that habit. So for us this is a very important week."

How to fix it?

The Steelers aren’t panicking, because they do not believe they are that far away from winning games. In the past two weeks, Pittsburgh lost by a total of six points.

Here are some areas in which the Steelers could improve:
  • Getting short yards: The Steelers are losing the short down-and-distance situations this year, and it’s something that is costing them in close games. Running backs Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore have all struggled to get those tough yards. The offensive line certainly isn’t without blame either, as it isn't winning the line of scrimmage when it absolutely has to. Last week, Pittsburgh had the ball inside Cincinnati’s 10-yard line three times and came away with only one touchdown.

"That will eventually get you beat," Tomlin said.

  • Turn up the blitz: The Steelers are at their best when they’re bringing the heat and beating up the opposing quarterback. But the pressure hasn’t been nearly as effective this season. Pittsburgh has only five sacks. During Cincinnati’s 16-play, game-winning drive last week, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer picked apart Pittsburgh because he had plenty of time. Perhaps gun shy without Polamalu on the back end, the Steelers did not blitz on the crucial fourth-and-10 conversion by the Bengals that led to the game-winning touchdown moments later. It will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh takes more chances moving forward.

"As a group I don’t think we’re ever satisfied with pressures instead of sacks," linebacker James Farrior said. "We always want the sack. We always want to get the guy on the ground."
  • Make the clutch play: Whether it’s a late field goal attempt, a dropped touchdown pass or a key tackle on fourth down, the Steelers simply aren’t making the key plays late in games. There is no rhyme or reason to it other than better execution in the clutch. Pittsburgh was a clutch team all last season but has suddenly lost that magic this season.

"It takes more concentration," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "When we get into situational football, we have to make sure that we pay closer attention to detail."
Help on the way?
The next three opponents for the Steelers (1-2) have a combined record of 3-6.
Date Team W-L
Oct. 4 San Diego 2-1
Oct. 11 at Detroit 1-2
Oct. 18 Cleveland 0-3
  • Take advantage of schedule: Help may be on the way in terms of the schedule. The Steelers have a tough but winnable game Sunday night at home against the San Diego Chargers (2-1). The Steelers swept San Diego in two games last season, and this is the third meeting in 10 months between these teams. The next two weeks the Steelers will play two of the NFL’s worst in the Detroit Lions (1-2) and Cleveland Browns (0-3). Depending on what happens Sunday against the Chargers, Pittsburgh could be at or above .500 as they get closer to midseason.

Polamalu is making solid progress, according to the team, and will be available for the stretch run. But in the meantime, Pittsburgh needs to string together enough wins to keep pace in the always competitive AFC.

Tomlin is confident these issues are correctable.

"But at the same time, I’m not going to pretend that they’re going to fix themselves," Tomlin said. "How you fix it is you go out and win football games. If we do that, this will become a distant, miserable moment. If we don’t, then we will continue. That’s the story of the NFL."

James Walker | email

ESPN Miami Dolphins reporter

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