First Posted: 10/8/2013
PITTSBURGH — The problems the Pittsburgh Steelers face, to borrow one of coach Mike Tomlin’s favorite words, are obvious.
The solutions? Not so much.
Given an extra week to stew over the worst start in 45 years, Tomlin is tweaking the lineup hoping to find a spark that will help his team begin the long road back to respectability.
Defensive end Cameron Heyward will start on Sunday against the New York Jets. Embattled left tackle Mike Adams will sit. Kelvin Beachum and newly acquired Levi Brown will both get a look at Adams’ vacated spot. Rookie Vince Williams will line up alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker.
The moves are not an elixir, to be sure, but a step toward a fresh start for a team in desperate need a reboot following an 0-4 September.
“I like the attitude, demeanor and approach to work that the guys have taken,” Tomlin said. “That’s just part of the equation. Obviously, putting it together and producing victory is the most significant part of the equation.”
One the Steelers have failed to solve. They remain the only team in the league yet to create a takeaway. Their minus-11 turnover differential is second only to the even more hapless New York Giants (0-5), and their four sacks are dead last.
Heyward could provide a boost. The former first-round draft pick spent the first month of the season as the third man in a four-man rotation at end behind Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood. While Keisel has looked downright spry at times at age 35, Hood continues to be a disappointment. Tomlin plans to keep Hood and Al Woods in the mix but believes Heyward has earned the right to get more snaps.
“I think he’s been really solid, not taking anything away from Ziggy,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, both guys will continue to play. We just want Cam to play more than he’s been playing and in order to ensure that, we’re going to put him in the starting lineup.”
Tomlin doesn’t need Heyward to create havoc so much as simply do his job for a defense that is surprisingly benign. The Steelers are 11th in the league in yards allowed, giving up 321 a game. Not bad by most standards, but hardly acceptable at a place that has been ranked No. 1 in fewest yards surrendered four times in the last decade.
While the pass rush has been toothless, the run defense has been even worse. Pittsburgh is 25th against the run, allowing an average of 122 yards. The Steel Curtain has become little more than a warm blanket.
Tomlin admitted he’d like the defense to be more “sound” against the run. What he would really like, however, is for his players to be more physical. Though the number of padded practices is limited under the collective bargaining agreement, Tomlin thinks his players don’t have to be suited up to improve their mindset.
“We have to minimize the big plays,” he said. “I think that has been an issue for us … We just need to get more solid in that area, minimize big plays and make people work to produce points against us. That’s how we’ve done it for a long period of time. We have to quickly get back to that.”
Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell was a revelation in his debut against the Vikings, running for a pair of touchdowns. His workload figures to increase against the Jets, and he’ll likely have at least one and perhaps two new faces in front of him.
Tomlin called Brown — brought in from Arizona in a trade last week — a “critical addition” and isn’t ruling out the prospect of the fifth overall pick in the 2007 draft starting. Guard Ramon Foster remains bothered by a strained pectoral muscle and his status won’t be determined until later in the week. If Foster doesn’t heal in time, Brown will likely start at left tackle, with the versatile Beachum replacing Foster.
It’s not exactly the line the Steelers projected in August. Then again, that might not be a bad thing considering how the unit underachieved in September after center Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending right knee injury.
Already three games behind AFC North rivals Baltimore, Cleveland and Cincinnati in the standings, Pittsburgh needs to start moving. How it begins is irrelevant. When Tomlin talks about the route Adams can go to get back on the field, the coach might as well be talking about his team too.
“It’s time for Mike to roll his sleeves up and go about working to find more consistency,” Tomlin said, “so that he can be the player that we know and he knows he is capable of being.”