Cook: Steelers' real test is staying together
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger gives wide receiver Santonio Holmes a hug after scoring a touchdown in the second quarter yesterday at Heinz Field.
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After conceding the Steelers could win their final four games, finish 10-6 and still not make the playoffs, defensive end Brett Keisel unwittingly played the role of a straight man yesterday. "The ball isn't in our hands anymore," he said.
A wise guy couldn't help himself.
"You guys probably would drop it anyway," he said to Keisel.
I still can't believe the big man didn't see the humor there. I thought it was a really funny line. In fact, the only thing more laughable on this dismal day at Heinz Field was the Steelers' performance in a humbling, humiliating 27-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders.
Isn't that what coach Mike Tomlin promised his Steelers would do after their loss in Baltimore a week earlier?
Well, this was merely hell to watch.
It was the Steelers' fourth loss in a row and left them at 6-6. They are closer to the Cleveland Browns in the AFC standings than to the Indianapolis Colts. That's pathetic.
Did somebody really ask Tomlin about the playoffs as he attempted to sort through what appeared to be his team's autopsy report?
"Huh!" Tomlin fairly squealed. "I'm just trying to win a game."
The 1-11 Browns are the next opponent Thursday night in Cleveland. The Steelers can't possibly lose that one, right? Of course, they couldn't lose to the Raiders or to the Kansas City Chiefs a few weeks ago, either. But they did. Sadly, they have proved they can lose to anyone. Sadly, they have proved they're not nearly as good as they think they are.
I have to admit, I'm having a hard time wrapping my arms around that, but 'mediocre' is the only word to describe a team that is 6-6 and a million miles behind in the playoff race. The beauty of sports is you almost always get what you deserve. When you lose to the Raiders and Chiefs, you don't deserve to make the playoffs. You deserve only ridicule.
"We're a good team, we're just not playing good football right now," wide receiver Hines Ward said.
Sorry, I'm not buying. I bought it after the loss in Baltimore when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't play. I even bought it after that disgraceful loss to the Chiefs. Not now. Not after this defeat.
A good team doesn't keep blowing fourth-quarter leads. The Steelers' defense blew three yesterday. All of the problems can't be blamed on not having safety Troy Polamalu. The secondary is weak. It made Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski look like Dan Marino with 308 passing yards and three touchdowns. Who knew the free-agent loss of cornerback Bryant McFadden would be so devastating?
It's easy to blame rookie defensive back Joe Burnett for dropping an easy interception that would have saved the game in the final minute. But that was his first play in place of injured William Gay and, after all, he merely was following the lead of veteran teammates such as Ike Taylor and Ryan Clark. You want to blame someone, blame Taylor for allowing a 23-yard completion to wide receiver Louis Murphy on the next play despite being in perfect position to knock the ball down. That was ridiculous.
"We had defensive players come up and apologize to me," Roethlisberger said. "I said there is no reason to apologize. We win and lose as a team."
Don't give Roethlisberger too much credit for his magnanimity. He and his offense played lights out in the fourth-quarter when he led two touchdown drives and completed 10 consecutive passes for 166 yards before his desperation pass to the end zone was knocked away on the final play. But there was nothing even remotely resembling that production in the first three quarters. Drives that went to the Raiders' 15, 5, 16 and 25 ended with a field goal, Roethlisberger being stopped short on a fourth-down sneak, a Roethlisberger interception in the end zone and a missed field goal after a sack. This game never should have come down to another defensive meltdown.
Now, it's on to Cleveland ...
The Steelers' toughest opponent this week won't be the Browns. It will be the fight to stay together as a team. I've always said linebacker James Farrior is a terrific leader. He and the other veterans will be greatly tested now that their "playoff picture is bleak," to quote offensive tackle Willie Colon.
"It won't be hard staying together," Farrior insisted.
"We're brothers in arms," Colon said.
Added offensive tackle Max Starks: "We didn't play well at all as a team today, but if you're a competitor, you don't give up and you don't get discouraged. I've bled and sweated with all of these guys. I have the utmost confidence in every one of them. There's no quitting in this room at all.
"As long as we still have an opportunity ..."
The Steelers need to finish 4-0 to have any shot at the playoffs. Even that might not be good enough without a lot of help. Stark knows that reality.
"At least if we win out, we'll go down fighting," he said.
Like Tomlin, I'm starting to wonder if the Steelers will win another game.
First Published December 7, 2009 12:01 am