Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talks with his predecessor, Bill Cowher, during a practice at the team's South Side facility in 2010.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin jokes with former Steeler great Hines Ward during an NBC broadcast last month at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Even the alumni are upset.
Not since Dwight White derided one version of a 1980s Steelers defense as “soft and cheesy” has a former Steelers player or coach leveled such criticism as two did Sunday. It came after the Steelers lost in Cleveland, 31-10, and it came hard and tight from both who described them in similar ways.
“I never thought I would say these words,” former coach Bill Cowher said on CBS-TV, “but Pittsburgh has gotten soft.” He called them “finesse on offense, soft on defense.”
He was not alone. Hines Ward, their all-time leading receiver, chimed in on NBC-TV.
“They’re very close to hitting that panic button … The defense looks soft. Guys are just able to run the ball up and down the field. I look at their personnel; they can’t cover anybody in the secondary. Offensively, I thought I’d never say it, but the Steelers are a finesse offense right now. I don’t even know who these guys are.”
Stinging comments from some of their own, for sure. Ike Taylor and Heath Miller played with Ward and for Cowher. Taylor, rehabilitating a broken arm as he continues to try to return to play, does not agree.
“Nah, I don’t. What we went through last year, when we were 0-4, and there was no panic. There was a sense of urgency, if anything. I don’t see any panic button.”
Miller said there’s nothing wrong with the offense that better play once they get near the goal line would solve. The Steelers rank sixth in the NFL in yards per game on offense (396.5) yet just 24th in points per game (20.7).
When they get inside the opponent 20 or red zone, the Steelers offense ranks next-to-last, having scored touchdowns on just 36.84 percent. Bruce Arians’ Arizona Cardinals rank last in the red zone even though they are 4-1.
“We’re searching for answers,” Miller said. “Obviously, we have to execute better down there. All we can do is try to execute the plays we’re given the best we can, and that should be our focus in this locker room.”
Said tackle Kelvin Beachum, “Offensively, we have to find a way to finish. It’s hard to put your finger on one point, but we have to find a way get 7 points when we get down in the red zone. It’s hard to explain, but we have to find a way to fix it.”
Not so safe at home
As for “soft,” that part of the Steelers schedule has ended, so where might they go from here?
They stay home for the next three games and Heinz Field has not exactly been a safe haven for them. They are 1-1 at home this season, barely, and lost three at home each of the previous two seasons.
“It’s critical for us,” defensive end Cam Heyward said of the home stretch. “Hopefully, we can start gaining momentum. We have to get this first one.”
They are 4-point favorites to beat Houston Monday night, but that’s not likely to be the case when Indianapolis arrives the following Sunday or Baltimore Nov. 2. That is the night they will retire Joe Greene’s number, and the Ravens could retire the Steelers chances at being relevant for the rest of the 2014 season.
The 2013 Steelers developed a pattern — 2-6 in the first half of the season, 6-2 in the second. The 2014 Steelers seem to follow a pattern as well — win, lose, win, lose, win, lose.
“We haven’t stacked two pairs of wins together,” Beachum noted. “That’s something we have to do.”
If they maintain their early season pattern, it would lead to a third consecutive 8-8 season.
“I’m not in the business of getting 8-8 anymore,” Heyward declared. “We got 10 more games? We have a chance to win some games and we better do it.”
The problem is not that they just might not be in the business of going 8-8 anymore, they might not be in the business of winning that often. At 3-3, they would have to split their next 10 just to go 8-8 and they already have played Cleveland twice, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville.
Besides Indianapolis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Cincinnati twice, they play at Atlanta and at Tennessee, no longer pushover wins for them. If they cannot beat Tampa Bay at home, they cannot be assured of winning any game.
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