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Tim Benz: A quiet ‘Patriots Week’ could be good for Steelers | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz: A quiet ‘Patriots Week’ could be good for Steelers

Tim Benz
| Thursday, December 13, 2018 9:09 p.m
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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (left) and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger speak at midfield after the AFC championship Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass.

This Tuesday, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s weekly press conference lasted 26 minutes. The first 12 minutes were Tomlin’s usual opening statements. The latter portion was a Q&A session with the media.

On the surface, a few minutes longer than normal, but nothing out of the ordinary.

The strange thing was, this was his “Patriots Week” press conference. However, within those 14 minutes, there were only three questions specifically related to the New England Patriots. They are the Steelers’ perennial “elephant in the room,” as Tomlin described last year.

Most of the questions were centered around the club’s gloomy three-game losing streak and the baffling circumstances surrounding that putrid defeat last Sunday in Oakland.

Why was Ben Roethlisberger kept on the sideline? What did Tomlin mean about “rhythm and flow” with Josh Dobbs? Possibly replacing the kicker. Bad turf. Worse cleats. Injuries. A losing streak.

That’s not just a reflection on the media’s priorities. Tomlin himself spoke for more than eight minutes before he even mentioned the Pats.

Keep in mind, he was talking about New England on national television three full games in advance last year!

I’m not being critical of Tomlin or those who cover his team. I was at the press conference myself, asking questions in an effort to seek clarity regarding what Tomlin was thinking by leaving Dobbs in the game and mismanaging his timeouts in Oakland.

There was still way too much meat on the bone there. So much has gone wrong during the last three losses — even going back to the narrow win in Jacksonville — that it’s hard to focus on what threat an opponent poses when the Steelers (7-5-1) are sliding down such a steep arc all by themselves.

Yes, even when the next opponent is the white whale New England Patriots (9-4).

The Steelers defense bleeds points and yards in the second half of games. The kicker is a mess. The run game is somewhere between ineffective and underutilized. The turnover differential is a ghastly minus-8.

With all that disarray in-house, it’s futile to think about the other team and ask: “So? How are you praying you’ll stop Rob Gronkowski this year?”

The yearly narrative that “ THIS is the year the Patriots have taken a step back” is a hard sell when it appears the Steelers have fallen off a cliff.

“I get what you’re saying,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said when I raised this thought to him Wednesday. “We just need to focus on what we need to focus on. With the last three games that we let slip away, each person is definitely making sure they improve their game.”

Hang with me as I grasp at a few straws for a second.

Perhaps some of this helps the Steelers. The hysterical hype usually surrounding a Steelers-Patriots matchup has been muted this season as compared to the five-month crescendo leading up to last season’s game. Maybe this week during New England preparations, Tomlin’s team can look inward at what it is doing right or wrong as opposed to obsessing over every little nuance about the guys on the other sideline.

Is it possible the Steelers will be better served cleaning up their own backyard, rather than feverishly searching for the one tiny patch of crabgrass on Bill Belichick’s lawn?

“That sums it up pretty well,” guard David DeCastro agreed. “I think it’s a good point. This whole year a lot of it has fallen on ourselves for our problems. You lose three games in a row on a skid like this, you don’t care who you are playing next. You just want to get yourself right.”

That’s what the Steelers did in 2012 when they committed eight turnovers and nine penalties at 3-8 Cleveland. That defeat sunk the team to 6-5. They went on the road the next week with Charlie Batch at quarterback and stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Ravens, who had been 9-2.

So, there is precedent.

Yet, there’s also history the other way. Like in November 2013. That’s when the 2-5 Steelers also faced the Patriots after a bad loss in Oakland. New England rumbled to a 55-31 blowout. It was the most humiliating of the 11 defeats the Patriots have handed the Steelers in the Tom Brady-Belichick era.

“They’ve out-executed us. It’s something I’m not proud of,” defensive end Cameron Heyward said. “We have to be totally critical of ourselves if we are going to go forward and beat a good team like that.”

Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Patriots may be giving themselves the same lecture after losing to Miami last week. They hardly will be strolling into Heinz Field with a complacent mindset presuming they easily will walk over the “same old Steelers.”

If 17 years of history against New England — and recent results in 2018 — continue, don’t expect a lot of preview questions for “Saints Week” next Tuesday, either.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@tribweb.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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