Serious trouble is lurking

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HOUSTON -- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin chooses words more carefully and deploys them with a precision far superior to that of your average postgame soloist, so when he simultaneously invoked and then disparaged "mystical" Sunday, it validated every suspicion that he was coaching a team in serious trouble.

"We've got some work to do," Tomlin was saying 10-minutes after the Steelers became a .500 football team with a quarter of the season already elapsed. "It's not anything mystical."

That's a rhetorical bull's-eye, because there is nothing about the total performance through four games that transcends ordinary understanding. That 2-2 you're looking at in the AFC North standings is wholly deserved, or, if anything, artificially inflated.

Had Tomlin's team played against just one more Manning, it would be 1-3.

The Manning Sunday was Houston safety Danieal Manning, who with defensive cohort Jonathan Joseph, scored two touchdowns that were nullified by penalties, lest the final arithmetic have been a more accurate portrayal than what was implied by a 17-10 Texans victory at Reliant Stadium.

Texas coach Gary Kubiak has described Manning and Joseph as "two heckuva players." If he's no Tomlin with the language, he is at least coaching one of the better teams in the AFC.

The larger truth might be this: The Steelers aren't 2-2 because they're not playing to their capabilities; they're 2-2 because they are.

"We'd like to think it's fixable," Troy Polamalu said, "but only time will answer that question."

Polamalu is about as close as this team gets to mystical, but not even he could spin what went on in Texas. There's no point in trying to psychoanalyze a defense that used to allow a 100-plus-yard rushing performance about every four years and has now allowed two in four weeks. Nor is there any use for introspection when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has three touchdowns and five interceptions after four games, meaning on those occasions when he has been allowed to remain upright. Five more sacks Sunday ran the duct-taped offensive line's rap sheet to 14.

Roethlisberger needed support from team doctor Jim Bradley and trainer John Norwig just to get into his chair half an hour after the game, then appeared in a walking boot, then appeared on crutches without it, then pulled on a pale yellow shirt emblematic of a queasy offense and tried to take the blame for everything but climate change.

But any offensive criticism has to be tempered by the staggering possession advantage established by Houston, which started the game by banging for 95 yards on 19 plays, a landmark Texans drive not even three penalties could abort.

"It wasn't like we were getting knocked off the ball," offered nose tackle Casey Hampton. "[Arian] Foster is a really patient runner and he hit up in there pretty good [for 155 yards]. They did a good job of executing, but for us, there were really no adjustments to make; we're just missing a whole lot of tackles. It's uncharacteristic."

Historically, but certainly not recently.

That opening drive took nearly 11 minutes, and Houston kept possession for 22 of the game's first 30 minutes.

"It's like a nosebleed that we can't stop," safety Ryan Clark said. "But nobody in this room is discouraged. It's extremely early."

I don't know about extremely.

It's half way to the halfway point.

It's not too early to start looking toward the back end of a very charitable schedule, which ends Bengals, Chiefs, Bengals, Browns, 49ers, Rams, Browns. If it weren't for that, frankly, you would have a hard time establishing that the Steelers are headed toward even a brief postseason.

"We need more people getting to the ball," defensive captain James Farrior said. "We've got to get that attitude back that we're not gonna let people run up and down the field on us."

Foster ran 42 yards for the decisive touchdown on an exquisite cutback effort that saw him shed the tackles of Polamalu and LaMarr Woodley in the open field. Given recent contractual news, Foster thereby momentarily bettered $98 million worth of defensive investment.

(Worse, Houston inflicted the great bulk of the damage against the defense without the services of All-World wideout Andre Johnson, who collapsed with a hamstring injury halfway through the second quarter and did not return.)

That's the kind of fundamentals disconnect that usually gets corrected by harder work in practice, but Tomlin has so many players injured already he can't be blamed for having gone without pads until Thursday of this week. You might see a replay in the ramp-up to the Tennessee Titans.

Meanwhile some of the younger, healthier Steelers suffer from galloping immaturity, as when Mike Wallace made a 22-yard reception on the opening drive, but jumped up and popped off to the Texans sideline, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for taunting. Why must we still have to list that kind of big-mouthed brain-cramping among the Steelers capabilities?

Ultimately though, it will come down those capabilities.

"We're capable of and we're better than we showed [Sunday]," Tomlin said.

That's the working theory. You don't want it sliding toward mysticism.


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