A day removed from it, the embarrassing loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, a game in which the Steelers were badly outplayed and outcoached, looked like a mere blip on the team's near-certain ascendancy to the AFC North championship. Two days removed from it, however, the game has taken on an ominous tone. The path to the title in a division believed to be thick with sub-par opponents looks considerably more formidable.
That has something to do with the injury report coach Mike Tomlin revealed at his news conference yesterday. It also has something to do with the quality of coaching coming from Tomlin and his staff, which was revealed Sunday against the Eagles.
On the injury front, it was bad enough that nose tackle Casey Hampton, one of the team's best defensive players, was pronounced out for the game against the Baltimore Ravens Monday. That was expected. What wasn't expected, and what truly does not bode well for the team, is the addition of running back Willie Parker to the list of players, which also includes defensive end Brett Keisel, that will not play against the Ravens.
The Steelers have a highly competent replacement for Hampton in Chris Hoke, a seven-year veteran who allowed little or no fallout at nose tackle in 2004 when he started the final 10 games of a 15-1 season. What is noteworthy about Hampton's absence is that two-thirds of the starting defensive line is out against an opponent that has thrived running the ball. The Ravens have rushed 90 times in two games -- which is one more time than the Steelers have in three games -- and dominated the opposition in doing so.
The replacement for Parker, the second-leading rusher in the AFC even after being held to 20 yards by the Eagles, is rookie Rashard Mendenhall, a player of immense potential but one who has failed to gain the coaching staff's confidence, as evidenced by the fact he had no rushing attempts in the past two games.
Among players the Steelers could least afford to lose, Parker would rank in the top five. That's not just because he is so talented, but also because his replacement is so questionable. Mendenhall, whose fumbling in the exhibition season caused the coaching staff to lose confidence in him, has gained 28 yards on 10 attempts this season. He must soften a Baltimore defense that historically has been excellent and, based on their two games this season, remains very much that way.
Not too much should be made of the Ravens' league-leading defensive statistics since they've come against the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. But it is impressive that they've allowed only an average of 161 yards and have held quarterbacks, one of whom was Carson Palmer, to a combined passer rating of 26.6.
Although Tomlin presented the Ravens as a opponent that will be difficult to beat, there was not a hint of concern in his tone. He provided the standard Tomlin line: "We acknowledge that injuries are part of the game. The standard of expectation won't change for us. It's an opportunity for some people to step up. We expect those guys to step up and deliver for us and we know they will."
Once, those typical words from Tomlin were reassuring. But following the Philadelphia debacle and following a distinct decline in his won-loss percentage, Tomlin's certitude is no longer so calming. He's looking more mortal these days, especially after his failure to solve the Eagles' defense, one with which he and his staff should have been intimately familiar.
He accepted blame for that. "As coaches, we could have done a better job of adjusting and putting these guys in a position to be successful."
That's the real job of coaches, and Tomlin and his staff haven't been so good at it lately. After opening his NFL career with seven wins in nine games and making the Rooneys look, as they did with Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, like geniuses in evaluating coaches, Tomlin's career has taken a backward step. He's a mediocre 5-6 since his first nine games.
It's a big game for the Steelers Monday and a big game for Tomlin. His players must rise to the challenge and so must the coaching staff. Philadelphia presented the NFL a blueprint for victory over the Steelers. The Ravens have their own style but would be wise to incorporate some of the tactics employed by the Eagles.
Tomlin and his staff must show they can't be outsmarted by the opposing coaches again like they were against the Eagles.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .