Browns host struggling Steelers tonight at frigid Cleveland Browns Stadium
By BRETT HUSTON
Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers insisted they weren't panicking about their sinking playoff chances after a three-game losing streak. A fourth straight loss, however, seems to have the Super Bowl champions contemplating wholesale changes.
With their chances of defending that title fading with each defeat, the Steelers hit the road Thursday night looking to halt their midseason swoon with a 13th consecutive victory over the feeble Cleveland Browns.
Pittsburgh (6-6) started the season 1-2, but then ran off five consecutive wins to put itself in position to challenge emerging Cincinnati in the AFC North.
An 18-12 Bengals victory at Heinz Field on Nov. 15, however, gave Cincinnati a one-game lead and a season sweep of the Steelers. Three subsequent losses by three points apiece have now left Pittsburgh's wild-card hopes in doubt.
The Steelers' once-vaunted defense has blown fourth-quarter leads in all three, with its worst collapse Sunday against Oakland. Pittsburgh coughed up three separate leads in the final 8:21, allowing the Raiders' 31st-ranked offense to score 21 points and leave Heinz Field with a 27-24 win.
"I can't even describe how frustrating it is right now to be 6-6," linebacker James Farrior said. "We thought we'd be doing a lot better at this point. But we are what our record says we are."
That record currently has the Steelers on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, but ground can certainly be made up in the muddled AFC wild-card picture the final four weeks. Denver (8-4) and Jacksonville (7-5) are the two current leaders, with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Miami and the New York Jets all 6-6.
The Steelers own a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Broncos and face the Ravens and Dolphins to close the season.
Tomlin, however, is far more concerned with the franchise avoiding its first five-game slide since Sept. 28-Nov. 2, 2003. A week after saying his team "doesn't blink in the face of adversity" and would "unleash hell in December," Tomlin admitted Monday that personnel moves are on the way.
"We can't stay status quo in terms of how we're approaching this and expect the pattern of behavior or outcome to change," Tomlin said. "That's unrealistic. That's hoping. This is not a hope business."
One of those likely moves certainly won't be by choice. Receiver Hines Ward, who has six touchdowns in his last eight games against Cleveland, likely won't play after suffering a hamstring injury late in the loss to Oakland. Rookie Mike Wallace, who has five catches during the losing streak after having 25 in his first seven games, will get the start if Ward can't go.
The other noticeable changes will come in the secondary. All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu (knee) will likely miss his fourth straight game - he left early in the November loss to Cincinnati - and struggling cornerback William Gay might not play after suffering a concussion against the Raiders.
Meanwhile, Tomlin suggested veteran corner Ike Taylor, who was beaten for a 75-yard touchdown Sunday, could be benched, with rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis seeing more playing time in the secondary. Polamalu, who's played in three full games, has three interceptions, but no Pittsburgh cornerback has a pick.
"I'm not going to make excuses," Tomlin said. "I think we're capable of playing winning football with or without Troy. Are we different? Yes, because Troy's a unique individual. Maybe the ceiling is different but the floor, the level of expectation, is the same."
Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the team's Nov. 29 loss at Baltimore with a concussion, had a quarterback rating over 100.0 for his second straight game despite Sunday's loss, and the Ohio native was outstanding against the Browns (1-11) earlier this season. Roethlisberger was 23 of 35 for 417 yards and two touchdowns on Oct. 18 in Pittsburgh's 27-14 win, its 12th straight against Cleveland.
San Diego's 13-game winning streak over Oakland is the active record for most consecutive wins over one opponent.
Much has changed with the Browns since the teams' first meeting, most notably the benching of quarterback Derek Anderson. Brady Quinn, who's started Cleveland's past four games, has never taken a snap against the Steelers.
Quinn also started the Browns' first three games, and had one touchdown and five interceptions to his credit following an ugly Monday night loss to Baltimore on Nov. 16.
Two of his past three starts have been solid statistically, however. Quinn threw for 304 yards and four touchdowns in Cleveland's last-second 38-37 loss at Detroit on Nov. 22, then had 271 yards and 3 TDs Sunday in a 30-23 defeat to San Diego.
Quinn hasn't thrown an interception in his past three games.
"I've been happy with his overall decision making," coach Eric Mangini said. "I think that, offensively, we've made improvements collectively."
Cleveland's defense, however, still has much room for improvement. The Browns rank last in total defense (400.3 yards per game), and the 543 yards the Steelers gained in Week 6 were the second-highest total by any team in 2009.
Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns against the Steelers, including one this season.