Larry Foote will save the politically correct talk for his teammates. The veteran Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker has never been much for spinning things anyway.
Asked Monday if he’s more than a just little concerned about Pittsburgh’s uncharacteristically slow 2-3 start, Foote just nods his head.
“The panic button, we tapping on it,” he said. “We ain’t got two hands on it, but we’re kind of nibbling on it a little bit.”
Foote laughed as he spoke, but the reality is the Steelers are quickly running out of wiggle room. Pittsburgh is mired in third place in the competitive AFC North heading into Sunday’s game at Cincinnati (3-3) and hardly looked like a team capable of making a postseason run while blowing fourth-quarter leads to the likes of also-rans Oakland and Tennessee.
The Steelers allowed the Titans to score 10 points in the final 4:19, including Rob Bironas’ game-winning field goal. Another stumble on the road would put the Steelers in a precarious position, and they know it.
“We can’t lose no more, that’s the approach,” Foote said. “Five, six losses you ain’t going to be in the playoffs.”
It’s a destination the Steelers have missed just four times this millennium and just once since Tomlin took over in 2007. Pittsburgh began each of Tomlin’s previous five seasons 6-2, a remarkable run of prosperity in a league where parity is the norm.
The Steelers insist there’s plenty of time to turn things around.
“We don’t have to have this great fire-and-ice speech,” left tackle Max Starks said. “It’s just we’re behind the eight ball. We’ve dug a ditch for ourselves. We can still dig out of it though.”
They’ll have to do with a patched together offensive line. Center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Marcus Gilbert both left the Tennessee game with leg injuries and backup Doug Legursky spoke Monday as if he’ll be in Pouncey’s spot against the Bengals and rookie Mike Adams is expected to replace Gilbert.
Cobbling together enough healthy – or healthy enough – bodies along the line is nothing new for the Steelers. They did it during their Super Bowl run two years ago, but that team could rely heavily on its defense to bail them out of tight situations.
At the moment, it’s the defense that needs all the help it can get, at least on the road. Pittsburgh is giving up 29.3 points per game away from Heinz Field. Cornerback Ike Taylor was victimized repeatedly by Tennessee quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and now the Steelers face one of the best quarterback-receiving duos in the NFL in Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton and A.J. Green.
And Pittsburgh will almost certainly do it without All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who is nursing a strained right calf.
For a locker room featuring more than a dozen players with two Super Bowl rings, there is a sense of urgency, but not desperation. Safety Ryan Clark refuses to place blame in any one direction and has no plans to have a sit-down with Taylor to give him a pep talk.
“When we start saying what can we do to help him, we make him a charity case,” Clark said. “Ike’s not a charity case. Ike’s a very good football player who had a rough night.”
The game, however, was hardly the end of Pittsburgh’s troubles over the weekend. Rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu was arrested early Sunday morning following a chaotic run-in with police that ended with Ta’amu facing more than a dozen charges, including three felony counts.
The fourth-round pick out of Washington apologized to his teammates on Monday but was not available to the media. Ta’amu was tabbed as the eventual successor to Casey Hampton whenever Hampton retires but has yet to dress this season. Hampton, who has taken on a mentor role with Ta’amu, doesn’t think the arrest will be a distraction and is more concerned about Ta’amu’s future.
“We still love him, but the guy made a mistake,” Hampton said. “Not taking away from what he did, because it was a terrible thing. So, you definitely can’t do that, but any time you make a mistake, you’ve got to ride this out and see what happens.”
General manager Kevin Colbert said Sunday the team would gather facts before making any sort of decision, though the team has a pressing need for depth along the offensive line and the only way to make room on the roster would be to cut at least one player.
The Steelers have shown little patience lately with players who have run into trouble, cutting second-year tight end Weslye Saunders last Friday just four days after he finished serving a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Either way, Ta’amu is unlikely to make any impact on the team this year, leaving it to the other 52 guys on the roster to get it together. As difficult as the season’s first six weeks have been, the Steelers are one of eight teams with three losses – including New England, the New York Jets and the Denver Broncos – in the jumbled AFC.
“You’ve got the Ravens and Texans who are ‘running away with it’ right now,” Clark said. “I think we’re right in the thick of it. We haven’t played up to our standards. But we’re not out of it.”