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Popcorn problems? Steelers’ issues are piling up

October 1, 2018
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner (30) is tackled by Baltimore Ravens defensive back Tony Jefferson (23) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Sept. 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Fred Vuich)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — One of Mike Tomlin’s favorite metaphors when things aren’t going well for the Pittsburgh Steelers is likening his team’s issues to popcorn. Translation: The problems are scattered and unpredictable.

And they’re spreading.

The two-time defending AFC North champions woke up on the first day of October tied with Cleveland for last place in the division at 1-2-1. It’s no longer just the defense that’s under fire. Pittsburgh managed all of 47 yards in the second half of a 26-14 loss to Baltimore on Sunday night that left the rival Ravens practically strutting off Heinz Field, and the Steelers wondering when the turnaround is going to happen.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tried to shoulder most of the blame and he was hardly crisp while going 8 of 18 for 50 yards with an interception in the second half. Yet the passing game was downright dynamic compared to how Pittsburgh ran — or technically, didn’t run — the ball.

Roethlisberger handed off four times over the final 30 minutes. The Steelers gained 5 yards. And it wasn’t like Pittsburgh was throwing the ball because it was in catch-up mode. The game was tied at the break.

The Ravens, by comparison, ran 20 times in the second half while putting together four long drives that ended with Justin Tucker field goals, allowing them to slowly pull away.

“We’ve got some things to fix,” center Maurkice Pouncey said Monday. “Starting off a little bit faster on offense, running the ball a little bit better.”

Or, perhaps, a lot better. After piling up 159 yards rushing in Week 1 against Cleveland, the Steelers have managed 130 over their last three games combined, the absence of running back Le’Veon Bell — who has yet to sign his franchise tag — becoming more acute by the day.

Tomlin admitted “that’s a good question” when asked late Sunday night why Pittsburgh got away from the run so quickly against the Ravens.

“We were not able to find enough traction tonight,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t run it a lot and I’d imagine the more we run it, the more traction we will find.”

Provided Pittsburgh can stay within striking distance on the scoreboard. That’s been a rarity of late, at least at home. Long a place where they have been dominant, Heinz Field has become a haven for quality opponents. The Steelers haven’t won a game that counted within the city limits since topping Cleveland in the 2017 regular-season finale.

All three losses — by three to Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs, by five to Kansas City in Week 2 and by a dozen on Sunday — followed a familiar pattern. Pittsburgh would fall behind early, scramble to get back in it, only to have the defense succumb late.

While the Chiefs bombarded the secondary behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Ravens took a more pragmatic approach. Save for a couple of deep throws in the first half to John Brown, Joe Flacco kept hitting teammates underneath for small gains that allowed Baltimore to eat up the clock.

The Steelers had the ball less than three minutes in the fourth quarter as the Ravens played keepaway. Pittsburgh produced two sacks on Flacco, who dropped back 44 times. He faced little pressure, saying afterward having a clean pocket — a rarity during his career when facing the Steelers — helped him methodically pick Pittsburgh apart.

“When we keep getting shots (to get off the field) and we don’t get off the field, that’s just not a good recipe for success,” defensive end Cam Heyward said.

Things don’t get any easier next week when snake-bitten Atlanta comes to town. The Falcons, depleted by injuries on defense, are 1-3 despite the sublime play of quarterback Matt Ryan, who has 10 touchdowns against two interceptions and guided an attack that piled up 495 yards in a brutal 37-36 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday.

The Bengals’ last-second win and Baltimore’s first triumph in Pittsburgh in three years left the Steelers staring up in the division for the first time in a while. Pittsburgh tends to improve as the season goes on — Tomlin is 30-13 in October during his decade-plus tenure — and there remains no real sense of panic, at least optically.

“We’re not worried about what everybody’s record is,” cornerback Joe Haden said. “Our record isn’t good enough. We have to be able to come out and win games.”

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