Skidding Steelers hoping to avoid self-inflicted wounds
PITTSBURGH (AP) Arthur Moats thought for a second and then basically pulled off the impossible.
He managed to sound both angry and optimistic at the same time when asked how a team expected to run away with the AFC North finds itself mired at an uninspired 4-4 at the midway point following a lifeless loss in Baltimore .
''Frustrated. (Ticked),'' the almost serially upbeat linebacker said. ''Because we know the talent we have, how good we can be. But it's just not been consistent.''
Not even close.
The offense that wanted to average 30 points a game is averaging a full touchdown less than that. The defense hoping to take another step forward in defensive coordinator Keith Butler's second year instead finds itself still looking for traction.
And the special teams? Check Twitter, where GIF-able versions of the blocked punt for a touchdown given up to the Ravens and Chris Boswell's comedic attempt at a late onside kick (think hackey-sack trick gone awry) are there for your amusement.
''We've got to be better,'' guard Ramon Foster said. ''Got to be pros about it, that's the best word I can use for it.''
And perhaps the most polite. A year ago, the Steelers began the second half at a similar crossroads then went 6-2 down the stretch to make the playoffs and give eventual Super Bowl champion Denver a serious scare in the divisional round.
This start, however, feels different. Pittsburgh has dropped three straight, its longest skid since dropping the first four games in 2013. What's worse, they haven't even been competitive on the road.
In each of their past three road losses the Steelers have managed all of 40 points and only one touchdown before pre-garbage time stat fillers that made the outcome more respectable.
''We have to realize we have to be a team that teams want to beat,'' Foster said. ''We've got to treat ourselves like that. We can't drop an egg.''
Let alone three, all against middling teams that are all 4-4 themselves and none that entered September with the hype or the pedigree in Pittsburgh.
''We've got to be the best team in the stadium, at least give the best effort,'' Foster said. ''Yesterday we weren't that team.''
At least the Steelers will be home next Sunday, a place where they're averaging a robust 28.5 points a game.
That's the good news. The bad news? It's against the surging Dallas Cowboys (7-1), who are tied for the best record in the NFL behind rookie quarterback Dak Prescott and rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The kids with the blue star on their helmets have played with poise. The Steelers have not, at least not lately. Pittsburgh's racked up 29 penalties over its past three games.
At one point in the second half in Baltimore, the Steelers had been flagged for more yards than they gained.
''We're shooting ourselves in the foot,'' running back Le'Veon Bell said. ''It's definitely not time to panic for us. We know how good we can be. We've just to go put things together. It's been showing (but) we've lost three straight. We've got to go and put it together.''
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger included. While he managed to suit up just 20 days removed from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, Pittsburgh struggled to get into any sort of rhythm until the Ravens were up by three touchdowns.
By then it was far too late and the Steelers fell to 12-14 on the road in games Roethlisberger has started since 2013.
Roethlisberger, as he typically does, shouldered a large portion of the blame saying ''I need to be more accurate.''
Maybe, but the issues currently plaguing his team are more widespread.
Still, Roethlisberger's brilliance has often been enough to overcome whatever Pittsburgh lacks in certain areas. That hasn't been the case over the past month.
Bell stressed there's no time to panic. And despite the current malaise, the Steelers are still right in the thick of a so-so AFC North.
Considering how poorly they've played of late, they'll take it. Mostly because they have to.
''We can still control what we want to control,'' Moats said.
Better start soon.
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