Steelers hoping for resilient stretch run
PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers call it ''December football,'' a time when the missteps of the previous three months can either be washed away or amplified.
Long one of the NFL's best when the calendar flips to Dec. 1, the Steelers (7-5) find themselves still searching for an identity. Are they the team that turned the team record book into confetti while crushing Indianapolis and Baltimore around Halloween or the hot mess that was basically blown out by underachieving New Orleans last Sunday?
The next four Sundays will provide the answer starting at first-place Cincinnati this weekend.
''We've got to take care of business,'' running back Le'Veon Bell said. ''We can't look forward to four or five weeks ahead.''
Probably not a good idea. Pittsburgh can't seem to figure out who or what it is from play to play let alone week to week. And whatever swagger the Steelers have boasted after Thanksgiving is shrinking.
Pittsburgh is 20-13 in regular season games played after Dec. 1 under Mike Tomlin, but just 5-4 in the last two years. The fact the Steelers missed the postseason both times is not a coincidence. With a logjam of teams at 7-5, whatever wiggle room Pittsburgh had before last Sunday is long gone.
''We're not worried about what our standings are,'' defensive end Cameron Heyward said. ''We're just trying to win game after game.''
Or any game, for that matter. Four wins would likely secure a playoff spot and the AFC North title. One problem: Pittsburgh has won four straight just twice in the last five years, the last time in 2012. Going 3-1 or worse would make for a significantly tougher road.
Tomlin isn't panicking, perhaps because it's too early. Still, he chastised his team for its uneven play against the Saints despite having a week off and a handful of starters back in the lineup following injury.
''We didn't complement ourselves well enough to secure victory,'' Tomlin said. ''There are many examples of it, in all three areas of the game.''
Not even quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was immune. Roethlisberger found himself thrust into the MVP conversation after throwing six touchdowns in consecutive games against the Colts and Ravens. He has just four touchdowns and five interceptions over the last three games and completed just 55 percent (32 of 58) of his passes, his second-worst mark of the season.
Tomlin placed some of Roethlisberger's issues on the lack of a comfortable pocket. The Saints were able to generate consistent pressure and tipped a handful of balls at the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger's numbers might have been even worse if New Orleans defensive back Patrick Robinson didn't drop a pair of easy interceptions.
Roethlisberger stressed ''the line played great'' while stressing he needed to improve. Considering the Steelers are just 1-2 since his hot streak, Pittsburgh's postseason chances likely rely on how well its unquestioned leader responds.
''We have a four-game schedule,'' Roethlisberger said. ''We have to take care of our business ... we'll stick together and get this thing going.''
They'll do it without defensive end Brett Keisel, who is out for the rest of the season after tearing his right triceps in the third quarter on Sunday. Keisel underwent surgery to repair the injury and now faces the decision on whether to try a comeback at age 36 or retire. The 13-year veteran was a vital part of a defense that hardly looked like it was ready to make a run.
Drew Brees lit up the Steelers for five touchdowns, the most the franchise has surrendered in a single game since 1991. And that was with Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu back from injury. Taylor shouldered much of the blame, particularly on the 69-yard catch-and-run by Kenny Stills that broke it open.
Tomlin gave his beleaguered secondary a vote of confidence on Tuesday, saying he's fine with the rotation at safety, where free agent signee Mike Mitchell has failed to make an impact. Still, Tomlin is also aware the big plays from the guys in the other jerseys that have come with regularity in recent weeks need to stop or a long December awaits.
''We've got to keep a lid on the coverage,'' he said.
NOTES: Nose tackle Steve McLendon's aching shoulder could keep him out for a fifth game. ... Tomlin is optimistic rookie LB Ryan Shazier's sprained right ankle will be good enough to go against the Bengals.
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