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Kevin Gorman’s Take 5: Mike Tomlin wants Steelers to get rhythm

October 3, 2018

The Steelers' Ryan Shazier pumps up the crowd next to head coach Mike Tomlin during the fourth quarter against the Chiefs Sunday, Sept. 16, 2018, at Heinz Field.

Mike Tomlin didn’t like the position his Pittsburgh Steelers are in through the first four games, so he pressed the pause button.

Tomlin opened his weekly news conference at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex by talking about his “quarterly report” - aka State of the Steelers - and the trends that have contributed to their 1-2-1 start.

What Tomlin calls trends, others might call patterns.

“More than anything, we talked about being 1-2-1 and not liking it,” Tomlin said. “Looking at the perspective from where we are in the division, acknowledging that there’s 12 games to play and that 1 1/2 games back is not insurmountable by any stretch. A lot can happen.

“More importantly than all of those things, the potential and possibility is to just simply about this group getting singularly focused on prep and play this week. In an effort to reverse the trends, we’ve got to win football games. We’ve got to win a football game at home. We’re excited to have an opportunity to do that this week versus Atlanta.”

I don’t recall Tomlin taking about a quarterly report last season, but maybe that’s because the Steelers were 3-1. Tomlin’s answer to the problems, apparently, is for the Steelers to find their rhythm.

1. Rhythm of the Night: Tomlin talked about everything from getting out of the gate faster and not spotting their opponents points to reducing penalties and turnovers.

Those are the obvious things, which would have been addressed before Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field. The slow starts are a problem in all three phases, whether the Steelers are getting penalties on kickoffs or early in possessions that put them in long down-and-distance situations or turnovers that put the defense on its heels early in the game.

As much as people want to point to the defense as the problem, the Steelers have them on offense and special teams, too. And they just lost special teams ace Nat Berhe (pectoral) to the injured reserve and Darrius Heyward-Bey (ankle) is a question mark.

2. The Rhythm Ranch: Where Berhe has been replaced on the 53-man roster by cornerback Brian Allen, the Steelers could have bigger problem if Vince Williams’ hamstring becomes an issue.

Williams downplayed it on Sunday night, but nickel corner Mike Hilton (elbow) did the same after the Monday Night Football game in Tampa Bay - and Hilton was inactive against the Ravens.

Who would replace Williams?

When asked if undrafted rookie Matthew Thomas could fill in at inside linebacker, Tomlin called Thomas a “potential option.” These injuries shouldn’t be discounted, as the Steelers had to play without offensive linemen David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert at Tampa Bay and without Hilton and strong safety Morgan Burnett against Baltimore. They take a toll not only on the starting lineup but on special teams, too.

3. Let the Rhythm Run: One of the focal points for Tomlin was the Steelers’ running game, which has been most affected by the penalties, turnovers and early deficits.

Interestingly, Tomlin talked most about the running game after evading a question about Le’Veon Bell, who told ESPN.com’s Jeremy Fowler that he would return for the Week 7 bye.

“I have not talked to Le’Veon,” Tomlin said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The statistics show that the Steelers miss Bell, as they dropped from 159 rushing yards on 35 carries (4.5 yards per) at Cleveland to 19 yards on 11 carries (1.7 yards per) against Baltimore.

When asked if the Steelers needed to be better in the run game or run more often, Tomlin didn’t hesitate to answer “both” and note that they got one-dimensional against Kansas City (13 carries for 33 yards) and Baltimore.

Here’s the good part: Tomlin talked about needing “more detail” and better perimeter blocking to find a rhythm in the run game, but credited James Conner for his improved receiving and pass-protection and said he has been “really solid, both with the ball in his hands and without.”

That puts the onus on the quarterback and offensive line.

4. Let the Rhythm Hit ’em: As Tomlin talked about taking a global look at his team, the word “rhythm” kept popping up.

Not only do the Steelers need to find a rhythm in the run game, but he believes they are “finding our rhythm defensively” - despite allowing four second-half field goals in the loss to the Ravens.

The Steelers have played three of the hottest offenses in the Chiefs, Buccaneers and Ravens, all with prolific passing attacks, and that is a trend that is changing the way we look at NFL defenses.

“There’s not a lot of negative consequence from dropping back and throwing the ball,” said Tomlin, who later added that the Steelers can mix things up and help coverage by “creating more duress in the pocket.”

That sounded like a thinly veiled shot at his pass rush, and given that outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree have three sacks apiece it appears it was a shot at his defensive line. Javon Hargrave has two sacks, but Cameron Heyward had his only sack in the opener and Stephon Tuitt has yet to record one.

5. Rhythm is Gonna Get You: Pro Football Focus reported that Ben Roethlisberger had a passer rating of “just 55.9” when targeting Antonio Brown against the Ravens.

Roethlisberger targeted Brown 11 times but they completed five for 62 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown. But Big Ben also threw into triple coverage twice, with one an interception late in the fourth quarter.

That brings Roethlsiberger’s passer rating on the season to 65.5 when throwing in Brown’s direction, a precipitous drop from their 100.0 rating the past two seasons.

“We missed some opportunities in that game, no doubt, particularly on possession downs,” Tomlin said. “But I’ve seen that tandem over the years. They’ll smooth it out. They’ll find a rhythm.”

Tomlin talked about how the Falcons have thrown six touchdown passes to rookie Calvin Ridley, as defenses have focused on stopping the Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones connection.

“Oftentimes, people spend a lot of time in the offseason working to minimize tandems such as Ben and AB,” Tomlin said. “Usually, over the course of the journey, the cream rises and they’ll show what they’re capable of. They’ve done it for a long time. I anticipate that happening. ...

“We’ll find our rhythm. They’ll find their rhythm. They will be the formidable tandem that they always are.”

If not, prepare for another State of the Steelers in four weeks.

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