Cook: Leadership fine; talent level not so fine

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A lack of locker-room leadership is not the problem.

"We've got good leaders on this team," Steelers running back Isaac Redman was saying the other day.

A handful comes to mind. Larry Foote. Brett Keisel. Ben Roethlisberger. Maurkice Pouncey. Heath Miller.

"The guys in this room have to get it done," Foote said. "James Farrior is gone. He's not coming back to save us. Aaron Smith, he's not coming back ...

"I'm kind of excited about the challenge. What are we going to do? I want to see how these guys respond. I want to see how I respond. I'm not a betting man, but I think we're going to respond the right way."

Foote made a prediction, the loss a week earlier in Tennessee to a bad Titans team still fresh in his mind.

"Ten games from now, we won't remember that this ever happened. We'll be laughing about it. Our goals are still reachable."

What?

You expected Foote and the others to say the season is over after a 2-3 start?

Even though the team has been hit hard by injuries, the latest to Roethlisberger, who left practice Thursday with an ankle problem but said later he was fine?

"We're down, but we're not out," offensive tackle Max Starks said.

"The easy thing to do now is to start pointing fingers," guard Willie Colon said. "I've never been on a team that did that. That's what losers do. We're not losers in here."

The Steelers' record says otherwise. They are 0-3 on the road. Each of their losses was to an AFC opponent, which could be a factor in December when they start talking about tiebreakers and the playoff field.

There is some good news. Nearly all of the rest of the AFC is just as mediocre. The Baltimore Ravens are 5-1 but also are dealing with major injuries. The Houston Texans are 5-1 but just got whacked at home by the Green Bay Packers and will be without injured star linebacker Brian Cushing the rest of the season. No other team in the conference is better than 3-3.

The Steelers still have their six AFC North Division games remaining, starting with one in Cincinnati Sunday night against the Bengals. Win all six and maybe Foote is right, that the team will be singing a much different song on New Year's Eve. "We'll be having a party," he said.

It sounds wonderful.

But is it likely?

How can anyone say yes at the moment?

"We don't look like a championship team -- right now," Foote acknowledged.

Please note:

The man emphasized "right now."

The veterans aren't playing well -- haven't played well all season -- especially on defense. Have you noticed Keisel or Casey Hampton making plays? You have noticed Ike Taylor but for all the wrong reasons. He has been beaten. He has been penalized. He has been awful. He's been awful since DeMaryius Thomas beat him for the 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime in Denver in January in the playoffs.

Sorry, Ike.

I know how sensitive you are.

The younger players haven't stepped up, especially on defense. Lawrence Timmons is coming, intercepting a pass against the Titans and playing a strong game Oct. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles. So is Jason Worilds, who had a sack in each of the past two games. Keenan Lewis also played well against the Titans, although he dropped what should have been a game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter. But what about Ziggy Hood? Where has he been all season? Apparently, Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon are so bad in practice that they can't get on the field for more than a few plays in games. And what of Ryan Mundy? He lost his starting job to special-teamer Will Allen before the Tennessee game. How bad is that?

It's no wonder the defense has blown fourth-quarter leads in four of the five games.

"We're not executing," Foote said. "We're not strong mentally."

The injuries have been brutal. Troy Polamalu and Marcus Gilbert could be out for weeks. Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman didn't practice again Thursday and have to be considered long shots to play against the Bengals. Pouncey practiced on a limited basis Thursday and is questionable for Sunday. Things can change so quickly in the NFL. It's hard to believe that everyone on the 53-man roster was healthy and practiced the week before the Philadelphia game.

"It's like coach [Mike] Tomlin said, 'You have to smile in the face of adversity and fight back,' " Redman said. "This team will do that.

"I don't really have the answer for how to fix what's wrong. All I know is working harder never hurt. This team will do that. We're going to bounce back. The leaders on this team will make sure of that."

There's that leaders thing again. The Steelers have plenty of good leaders. What they are lacking is good players. Healthy players ...

At this point, it's hard to think they'll be one of the teams to rise above the AFC mess.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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