Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words about the position the Pittsburgh Steelers are in, coming off two consecutive defeats that clouded their playoff picture.
An even more significant loss came with word that running back James Conner is out for Sunday’s game at the Oakland Raiders with a sprained ankle.
“We’re not seeking comfort,” Tomlin said of his 7-4-1 Steelers, who have a half-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC North and are trying avoid the wild-card playoff round. “We’re going to dwell in this misery.”
No one bothered to bring up Le’Veon Bell, considering he can’t play this season anyway. But the Steelers’ contingency plan for his skipping the season has hit a bump in the road with a worst-case scenario, even if it is against an opponent with a 2-10 record. Just as the run-pass ratio was becoming a big topic, the Steelers are down to a pair of reserve rushers who have combined for 30 carries for 87 yards and no touchdowns by ground this season.
Dwell on that misery.
1. Backing up the backups
Tomlin said the Steelers’ intentions are to use a running back-by-committee approach, a foreign concept to a coach who prefers relying upon a workhorse.
Tomlin expressed a “great deal of confidence” in veteran Stevan Ridley and rookie Jaylen Samuels. Tomlin also talked up Trey Edmunds, who was activated from the practice squad and singled out as someone who can contribute on special teams.
Samuels is averaging 2.6 yards per carry (12 for 31 yards) but has been effective as a receiver, with seven catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns. But he never has been a featured runner in his career.
Tomlin said the Steelers “were thoughtful in Ridley’s inclusion” to the backfield, given he once ran for 1,263 yards and 12 touchdowns in a season. Of course, that was six years ago. Ridley has 18 carries for 56 yards (3.1 ypc) and three catches for 18 yards this season.
That Tomlin touted having a veteran backup “who’s been in some playoff football” appeared to be a positive, but more likely a coach putting a brave face on a bad situation.
2. It’s official
If you were expecting Tomlin to complain about penalties in the Steelers’ 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, he didn’t disappoint.
Tomlin pinpointed a pair of penalties that proved costly. Both, however, were committed by the Steelers and not against them.
The first was a holding penalty in the third quarter by left guard Ramon Foster that negated Conner’s 22-yard run on second-and-4 from the Chargers 48. It forced a punt that led to the Chargers’ 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive to cut their deficit to 23-15.
The second was a holding penalty by left tackle Alejandro Villanueva that negated an 8-yard screen pass to Conner on second-and-9 at the Steelers 31. The Chargers answered this punt with a touchdown on Desmond King’s 73-yard return to tie it at 23-23.
“You can’t have quick strikes,” Tomlin said, “and that punt return was a quick strike.”
3. Going wide
It seems there is a new injury each week that depletes the depth at a certain position. First, it was at right tackle, then at tight end and, last week, at dime linebacker.
Now, it’s at receiver.
With Justin Hunter (shoulder) placed on injured reserve and Ryan Switzer in concussion protocol, the Steelers have a shortage of receivers, especially in the slot. JuJu Smith-Schuster has lined up inside more often than not this season, and Darrius Heyward-Bey was forced into action on the outside.
Tomlin said Eli Rogers is a “possibility” but called it an “opportunity for things to boomerang back around” for rookie James Washington, who was inactive against the Chargers.
Washington might want to show off his combat-catch ability and hang onto this boomerang better than he did on that ball in Denver.
4. Look in the mirror
Tomlin didn’t try to sidestep the strategy that allowed Chargers receiver Keenan Allen to take advantage of mismatches against the Steelers nickel corner and linebackers for 14 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown and a two-point conversion.
Tomlin blamed it on the absences of strong safety Morgan Burnett (back) and cornerback Cameron Sutton, who was inactive after missing practice for personal reasons.
“It was no secret we were without Morgan Burnett and Cam Sutton, two of our core interior sub-package defenders,” Tomlin said. “There was going to be some smoke-and-mirror play, if you will, and it was. When you’re playing a guy like Philip Rivers, who has big-time autonomy at the line of scrimamge, sometimes you run out of smoke. And I did.”
5. Something special
One year ago, Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal-cord injury on “Monday Night Football” that left the star linebacker motionless on the field at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.
Shazier left on a stretcher and required a stabilization surgery two days later, and there was concern whether he would be paralyzed. On the one-year anniversary of Shazier’s injury, Tomlin was asked about how much it means to see Shazier’s progress to stand up and walk again and to have him around the team this season.
“Ryan is a special guy,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know if I can give what we witnessed just due by talking about it. To be around him every day, to witness it, is a special thing. He’s a special guy. He inspires us. He continues to inspire us. And I just appreciate that he allows us to be as close as we are to his journey. His journey is ongoing, so we’re going to continue to support him and continue to learn from him.”
This would be a good time for the Steelers to learn something from Shazier and his Shalieve motto about taking steps in the right direction until they can stand strong in the face of adversity.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at email@example.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.