On the Steelers: In search of answers

The Steelers locker room, for years a rambunctious place full of gregarious men shouting and playing games and talking trash, has turned eerily quiet.

There are no more lunchtime games of pool, pingpong, shuffleboard or trash-can basketball. There is not much sound at all. It's rare for the Steelers, that silence.

It comes with the territory that is a 2-5 record. With the Steelers looking at 2-6 as they head to Foxborough, Mass., and the New England Patriots today, some former Steelers can commiserate with the predicament in which the current players find themselves.

The questions still come from the media and the fans; some players even try to answer them.

Steelers broadcaster Tunch Ilkin sees this team almost every day, as he did the one in 1988 when he was their starting right tackle. That Chuck Noll team started out 2-10 before it "rebounded" to win three of its final four and go in the books at 5-11, which is still their worst record since the 1970 NFL merger.

Ilkin can relate to what it's like in their locker room now.

"The hardest thing was answering the questions 'why?' As you recall, a lot of guys would not want to be in the locker room at lunch hour."

That is when the media first enters for 30 minutes of interviews, a process that continues after practice each Wednesday and Thursday afternoon.

"I just remember thinking, it comes with it," Ilkin said.

The questions were and are not easy to answer. The players, in fact, have more questions themselves.

"You just couldn't explain it," Ilkin said. "Why are you losing? I thought we were good. Why aren't we winning? What is this craziness?"

He turned to his close teammate and now broadcast partner for games and their morning show on WBGG-AM (970), Craig Wolfley.

"I forget at what point we knew we were done, but we knew it," Ilkin said as the losing continued in 1988. "We were going, 'I can't believe it. We're out of it already!'

"I said to him, 'Look at the bright side, this is how Tampa feels every year.' "

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren't very good then or now, but this was and is something new for the Steelers.

Twice, however, they did start seasons at 2-6 in this century. Chris Hoke played on both those teams. In 2003, they finished 6-10 after losing six of their first eight, and in Bill Cowher's final season, they turned their record around in the second half to go 6-2 and finish 8-8 in 2006.

The memory of the shock has stuck with Hoke.

"It was miserable," Hoke said of the 2006 start. "We went from winning the Super Bowl to 2-6. It seems like we couldn't get over the hump, had turnovers, couldn't get the ball back, couldn't get off the field -- all the things that are happening to the Steelers right now were happening to us."

After they lost their first two games this season, the organization was in "total panic," one person said.

"Panic was not the word," Hoke recalled of that most recent 2-6 record. "It was frustrating. We knew we were a good team, there was not much turnover from our Super Bowl year. I don't know whether it was a hangover or what you want to call it."

There is always intense pressure in the NFL, and when a team loses, the pressure mounts. Players, coaches and administrators fear for their jobs, their reputations, their future.

"There's always pressure anyway," Hoke said. "I remember when I retired, the pressure, like a weight, was taken off my back. Every single day you walk into that building, there's a pressure, an expectation to go out there and play at a high level every single day.

"Not only that, if you have that pressure and you're winning, it's manageable. If you have that feeling and you're not winning, I don't know if it's panic but it's frustrating. There are people living on the edge right now with their emotions and that makes for a tough life."

The Steelers are not used to it.

"These players, they're used to winning football games," Hoke said. "They are 4-10 in their last 14 games. That is a stretch unheard of. When's the last time the Steelers went 4-10? That's crazy."

The last time came when they lost seven of their final nine in 1998 and three of their first five in 1999, a 4-10 stretch. And before that, the stretch Ilkin experienced in 1988.

"To me, it was personal," he said. "It was me against you. I had that battle every day. Whether we were winning 50-0 or losing 50-0, I had a battle and I was focused on that battle. That's the way you do it.

"And still I always believed we could win."

It just did not happen much in those seasons.

As word came that Jason Worilds will get a second chance to win the starting job at right outside linebacker in his fourth NFL season, the NFC named its defensive player of the month for October. The recipient: Sean Lee.

That is the same Sean Lee of Penn State and Upper St. Clair who the Steelers were set to draft in the second round in 2010. Instead, they surprised even some in their organization by drafting Worilds.

As Worilds struggles to claim a starting spot -- and has done so only because first-round pick Jarvis Jones has not been on his "details" -- Lee has flourished in Dallas at middle linebacker.

This is the second time in his career that Lee was named defensive player of the month. He led the Cowboys in October with 52 tackles, three for losses and three interceptions. His four interceptions this season are tied for the most in the NFL and are tied with the entire Steelers team.

Lee leads the Cowboys with 99 tackles, 38 more than the next-most for Dallas. Worilds has 12.

It's been suggested that Mike Tomlin urged the Steelers to draft Worilds instead of Lee because they needed an outside linebacker in 2010 more than they needed an inside linebacker. Whatever it was, four years later it is clear the Steelers blew that pick.

They did not even offer Worilds a contract extension before this season and he will become an unrestricted free agent if he does not re-sign.

In the meantime, the Cowboys signed Lee to a six-year, $42 million contract in August.

Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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