Steelers walking wrong side of NFL's fine line
Saying the Super Bowl champion Steelers' 6-7 record ``hacks you off,'' coach Mike Tomlin channeled one of the most oft-used phrases by predecessor Bill Cowher to explain the team's five-game losing streak.
``In this league, there's a very fine line between winning and losing,'' Tomlin said Tuesday. ``The line is not so fine when you're playing dominant ... But when you're not playing dominant, we've got to find a way to make significant plays at correct moments.''
Right now, the Steelers are walking the wrong side of the line. They would be in AFC playoff contention if they'd only beaten Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland, but the NFL's best team only 10 months ago lost to three of the league's weakest teams.
A fine line, indeed. The Steelers are 1-7 in games decided by seven points or fewer. A season ago, they were 7-2 in such games, counting the Super Bowl, and that statistic alone explains why the Steelers (6-7) are barely on the fringe of the playoff race only five weeks after they owned a 6-2 record.
``We have to knuckle up and swallow some of the things that we're swallowing right now,'' Tomlin said.
Tomlin isn't as concerned with trying to make sense of how such a good team could go bad in such a short time as he is with salvaging something out of the season - if that's possible. The Steelers haven't had a six-game losing streak in 10 years, but they'll be stuck in one unless they beat Green Bay (9-4) on Sunday at Heinz Field.
``I think anger would be one,'' Tomlin said when asked about the state of his team. ``Disappointment, definitely. But it cannot rule us. We've got to focus singularly on the opportunity which is in front of us. Excuses and explanations for what has happened recently are really kind of irrelevant. You want to know what kind of team you are, look at your record or turn your tape on. The tape hasn't been pretty and neither is our record.''
To get turned around, Tomlin said the solution is simple.
``We have to step into the stadium and make plays,'' he said. ``The more plays we make, the more rhythm we get, the more confidence we'll get and, hopefully, we'll be able to put enough of those together to win.''
The Steelers players had the day off Tuesday, the fourth such off day in the last five, but their locker room was quiet and downcast on Monday, reflecting the team's perplexed state of mind. In mid-November, a return to the Super Bowl appeared to be a possibility; now it would take three weeks worth of upsets and their own about-face to get the Steelers into the postseason.
Tomlin tried rallying his team by promising there would be ``Redemption Sunday'' in Baltimore; the Steelers lost in overtime. After that, he said the Steelers planned to ``unleash hell'' in December, only to watch them lose to the Raiders (4-9) and Browns (2-11) in a span of five days.
Tomlin's inability to successfully find a motivational tool has led to questions whether a coach who won the Super Bowl in only his second season may have somehow lost the Steelers during one of the worst closing stretches in team history.
``It doesn't upset me,'' Tomlin said. ``I think those kinds of judgments and things come with losing. That's a byproduct of losing. If you're in this industry and you're a competitor, you wear that. I wear that. I accept that. I'm always less worried about what's said from an outside standpoint and more concerned with what I see from the people I interact with and coach. So some of these things haven't been a bigger concern of mine. ... That (criticism) comes with losing. If we don't like that, we need to win a football game.''
Injuries also are becoming a worry. Left guard Chris Kemoeatu will sit out the Green Bay game with right wrist and right knee injuries; Tomlin said he has been playing ``one-handed'' at times. Safety Troy Polamalu will miss a fifth consecutive game with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
``I really just think the healing process is slower than we anticipated,'' Tomlin said. ``Based on what our doctors have seen from an MRI standpoint.''
Polamalu hopes to play in the Steelers' final regular season game Jan. 3, but there is a possibility he could miss the rest of the season. One of the league's best defensive players has played in only three full games, all of them Steelers wins.