The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Sports

November 4, 2013

Steelers searching for answers

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t just losing anymore. They’ve seemingly lost their way.

Sunday’s 55-31 loss to New England provided more than a low point for a team that has proven expert at avoiding them for most of the past 15 years, it left a locker room of players whose fingers are dotted with Super Bowl rings shaken.

“It’s embarrassing for our organization to give up points like that,” safety Ryan Clark said.

The collapse was as complete as it was stunning. New England closed the game on a 31-7 run over the final 17 minutes, burying the Steelers with a barrage of passes from Tom Brady to receivers who had little trouble finding wide open spaces to run.

Pittsburgh joined the NFL in 1933, a span of 1,155 games and nearly 70,000 minutes.

The Steelers have never endured 60 quite like the nationally televised clinic put on by Brady.

By the time it was over, after Brady threw the last of his four touchdown passes, Pittsburgh’s defense had set team records for points and yards allowed.

“I’m shocked because we didn’t play the way we know how to play,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.

And while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger insists the best way to break out of a 2-6 slide that feels even worse is to win, there’s little evidence Pittsburgh is close to turning it around.

“If it was a quick fix, they would have fixed it,” former Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw said Monday.

Since losing to Green Bay in the 2011 Super Bowl, the Steelers have lost 10 games by seven points or more. Five of them have come this season.

“I think we’re all angry and disappointed,” said Roethlisberger, who passed for 400 yards and four touchdowns but also committed three turnovers against the Patriots. “That’s probably collectively what’s in this locker room.”

While the players offered no excuses, they also offered little answers. Perhaps because there are no easy ones.

Though coach Mike Tomlin promised to look over his team’s mistakes with a “fine tooth comb,” he’s not promising to blow up the depth chart and start over with eight games remaining.

“You re-evaluate everything,” Tomlin said. “You have to after a performance like that and we will. It doesn’t necessarily mean we will change or change for the sake of changing, but we will look at every aspect of what we are doing and who we are doing it with.”

Even if any real shake-up won’t come until the offseason. The Steelers have won six Lombardi Trophies by refusing to panic at the sight of adversity. They last started 2-6 in 2006, but recovered to finish 8-8 in Bill Cowher’s final season.

The circumstances then, however, were different. Roethlisberger’s offseason motorcycle accident, Jerome Bettis’ retirement and Cowher’s status created a fog that took two months to shake.

Pittsburgh’s second half set the stage for another successful five-year push under Tomlin that included a championship and another Super Bowl appearance.

This looks far different. A season-ending knee injury to center Maurkice Pouncey eight plays into the opener against Tennessee didn’t help.

Neither did the loss of veteran linebacker Larry Foote to a torn triceps in the same game.

While their absences are felt acutely both on the field and in the locker room, the Steelers hardly look like they are a player or two away from contending.

Youngsters such as second-year offensive tackle Mike Adams, third-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert and rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones have struggled to make a consistent impact.

Outside of Roethlisberger, the holdovers from the team’s last title are on the other side of their primes.

There was 34-year-old Clark futilely chasing 22-year-old New England receiver Aaron Dobson on an 81-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. There was the 32-year-old Troy Polamalu arriving a split-second late on a touchdown toss to 24-year-old tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Though General Manager Kevin Colbert insisted in the offseason the team was not rebuilding, longtime wide receiver Hines Ward doesn’t know any other way to put it.

He also isn’t sure it’s something that can be corrected in one offseason, not with $83 million already committed to eight players in 2014, including $10.8 million  to Polamalu and $11.9 million to 33-year-old cornerback Ike Taylor.

“It’s going to take awhile,” said Ward, who won the 2006 Super Bowl MVP and retired after the 2011 season. “They don’t have the pieces to become who they want to become.”

Ward also blamed a lack of leadership in the locker room, pointing out the retirement of guys such as longtime linebacker James Farrior created a void that has yet to be filled.

It’s a notion wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery disagrees with, but allowed at 2-6 the Steelers are fair game.

“We have guys in every room to talk about how to deal with this,” Cotchery said Monday. “We have plenty of guys on the team that have dealt with adversity in life. I don’t think this is anything that is going to make anyone fold.”

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