PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin keeps throwing bodies at the problem. Buddy Johnson. Marcus Allen. John Leglue. Rashaad Coward. Ray-Ray McCloud.
None of them figured to be part of the plan last summer. Not in a meaningful way, anyway. Yet all five found themselves on the field for the Pittsburgh Steelers during Thursday night’s 36-28 loss to Minnesota as Tomlin searched not so much for a spark but some semblance of urgency for a team on which urgency is in desperately short supply.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough. Again.
The defensive front seven was gashed. Again.
The offensive line was pushed around for far too long. Again.
As a result, it was another step back in a maddeningly uneven season in which the Steelers have flip-flopped between competitive and confounding with alarming regularity.
Pittsburgh (6-6-1) has one victory in its last five games. The four non-wins (including a tie with Detroit) fit a largely familiar pattern. The opposing quarterback turns around and hands it off to a running back who sprints through gaping holes. The Steelers’ offense spins its wheels for long stretches before showing signs of life, typically after it’s too late.
“It’s Groundhog Day,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “It’s unacceptable.”
It’s also reality.
Injuries and ineffective play have overwhelmed the defensive front seven. The new-look offensive line littered with rookies or practice squad players turned contributors like Leglue and Coward remains an erratic mess three months into the season.
In theory the Steelers are still alive in the wide-open AFC, where every team with a pulse seems to have a shot. Yet whatever wiggle room existed is now gone, and the idea they can find consistency against good teams — something that’s been elusive for 13 games — is a very tough sell.
“We have a long week coming up, and we will make good use of that time and assess what we are doing and what we are doing with it,” Tomlin said. “We will do whatever we can to strengthen ourselves.”
That’s part of the problem. In early December, the options are limited. Pittsburgh has spent most of the last four months doing the NFL’s equivalent of dumpster diving by plucking players off waivers or other teams’ practice squads in search of impactful depth. The results, like everything else, have been scattershot at best.
Last Sunday, defensive lineman Montravius Adams — signed away from Seattle at the beginning of the week — looked like a difference maker in a stirring comeback victory over Baltimore. Barely 96 hours later he was mostly an innocent bystander as Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook carved up Pittsburgh’s defense for 205 yards rushing, the third-highest total the team has allowed in the history of a franchise that dates back nearly 90 years.
Adams was hardly alone. Minnesota’s offensive line manhandled whoever happened to be across the line of scrimmage. Just like Cincinnati did to the Steelers two weeks ago. And the Chargers before that. And the Lions before that.
Leglue and Coward and Pittsburgh’s disjointed offensive line were onlookers at times as the Vikings pounded 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger while building a 29-0 lead. Minnesota sacked Roethlisberger five times, including a couple of clean but vicious shots when Vikings raced in untouched before unloading.
“To be blunt, we are getting handled up front on both sides of the ball, and that makes it difficult, difficult to do what we desire to do,” Tomlin said. “Difficult to maintain balance. It makes it difficult to dictate to our opponents what happens and what happens next.”
It’s been that way for much of the year. Narrow wins against largely mediocre clubs thrust Pittsburgh into the postseason mix. It increasingly looks like the surge was done with smoke, mirrors and the All-Pro play of outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
Watt spent the second half on the sideline in sweatpants after tweaking a groin injury. It’s the third time Watt has found himself out of action late. In those games, the Steelers are 0-3.
“We’re running out of time,” Roethlisberger said.
It already may be up.
The offense has looked sharp during the swoon with one major caveat: that sharpness only comes into focus when the Steelers are playing from behind, often hopelessly from behind. Pittsburgh has tried to establish the run and play deliberately early in games. Maybe it’s time to just let Roethlisberger, whose status beyond this season is uncertain at best, let it rip and let him go down swinging.
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Steelers are consistently getting whipped in the trenches. It’s unlikely “help” is going to come anytime before free agency begins in March. The best Tomlin can do is patch things together and see if anything sticks.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon picked off two passes in the second half that allowed Pittsburgh to put together an improbable rally against a Vikings team that is almost pathologically incapable of doing anything other than playing close games.
Wide receiver Chase Claypool remains a tantalizing but immature enigma. He was benched in the first half for drawing a personal foul penalty but also caught eight passes for 93 yards. He inexplicably dropped to a knee and made the first-down motion after converting a fourth down on Pittsburgh’s last drive, a motion he did with the clock ticking that briefly delayed the officials’ chance to spot the ball.
Watt’s status going forward is uncertain. He initially injured the hamstring in Week 2 against the Raiders and ended up sitting out the next week. Maybe the layoff before a visit by Tennessee on Dec. 19 will give him time to heal.
18 — number of years the Steelers have gone between losing seasons. It’s on the table considering Pittsburgh wraps up the year against four clubs — the Titans, Chiefs, Browns and Ravens — all in the playoff hunt.
Rest up and hope the magic they summoned during a thrilling victory over Baltimore returns in time to salvage what is likely the last month of Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame-bound career.