On the Steelers: It's a tough road with even tougher questions

Reaching respectability will be difficult, and the climb starts Sunday in New England

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Coach Mike Tomlin has talked about developing his team's identity through the years, and one game short of the halfway point of the 2013 season, the Steelers seem to have found one.

Their identity is they have no identity. They might know what they want to be by Halloween, but they do not know how to dress for the occasion.

Not only their 2-5 record identifies what they are, but so does their play. They are a team that cannot run and cannot stop the run, even by quarterbacks. They cannot sack opposing quarterbacks and cannot protect their own. They give up too many big plays on defense and develop too few on offense. They cannot win on the road and have won just one of three at home.

How's that for an identity?

Here's another of the bottom-line variety: Only one team has a worse record in the AFC, and that is winless Jacksonville.

They must play Sunday in New England, where the 6-2 Patriots gleefully await in a place where the Steelers historically have had few successes, none when the quarterback has been Tom Brady.

So they are staring hard at a 2-6 record at the halfway point, limping into what once seemed their most favorable three-game stretch -- home games against Buffalo and Detroit and a game at Cleveland. But nothing seems favorable anymore for this team except the end of the season, when the accounting comes fully due.

They have nine games left to play before that, time to return to respectability and also time to completely unravel (and doesn't that game three days before Christmas at Green Bay look appetizing?).

"For us, we just have to go out and play next week,'' Ryan Clark said. "We can't start looking at numbers, you can't start saying we're out of it. We have to win next week. We have to find a way to put enough plays together to get a 'W' and then you move off there.

"You keep checking off wins or you keep checking off games until there is no way for you to make the playoffs."

That time is fast approaching, if it hasn't already passed, albeit unofficially. The Steelers stopped the losing when they beat the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens on consecutive weekends. They looked better doing it, too.

But they came out to California and disappeared into the Black Hole again, losing only by three but falling behind, 21-3, against a franchise that hasn't had an identity or a winning season in a decade and also started 2-4.

Maybe it's time for Tomlin to let the players resume playing pool and pingpong in the locker room because they were better at that than they generally have been on a football field.

"That's the repercussions of going 0-4," Clark said. "When you do have a slipup or a game you don't win, it's magnified that much more because of the way you started."

Tomlin made no more threats of lost jobs the way he did the last time they played far out of their time zone, in London, after losing to the previously winless Minnesota Vikings.

The jobs are being lost via injury, with three more offensive lineman forced from the game Sunday. The Steelers had no update on those injuries Monday, but it's likely quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be playing behind yet another reformulated line against the Patriots.

"Of course, it's tough, but the standard is the standard," said tackle Marcus Gilbert. "Next guy up. That's what we pride ourselves on."

Both those sayings look tired in the context of their current and previous seasons because in their past 14 games they are 4-10. The reality of it is, their motto has become "next loss up."

Quick hits

* Antonio Brown has 56 receptions, the most in team history after the first seven games of the season. Hines Ward held that honor with 49 after the first seven of 2004 with a rookie quarterback.

* Maybe he meant nothing by it, but Brown did say this about trailing, 14-0, in the first quarter: "It's tough when you start from the back and fight your way up the entire game. We have to do a good job of coming to the stadiums and being prepared to play."

* If the Steelers win the coin flip in New England, Tomlin might not defer this time.

"We can't put ourselves in a situation like that," outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley said of giving up the quick touchdown Sunday to Oakland quarterback Terrelle Pryor. "If the defense is called to be out there on the field first, we can't put ourselves behind the 8-ball really by giving up a big play on the first play."

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

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