PITTSBURGH (AP) – Cam Heyward didn’t sound like a proud new father or a guy whose team was fresh off a last-second win.
Too many yards. Too many points. Far too much anxiety for a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that thought it had regained some of its swagger under new defensive coordinator Keith Butler.
Sure, the Steelers escaped with a 38-35 win last Sunday against Oakland. Yet what Heyward saw barely 24 hours after the birth of his son Callen Grey was a unit that barely touched Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and let a 14-point lead slip away in the fourth quarter.
“We’ve got to quit riding the roller coaster,” Heyward said. “We’ve got to stay even and got to be consistent in this league. If you’re not, you’re bound to get beat.”
Pittsburgh (5-4) can ill afford a misstep this weekend when struggling Cleveland (2-7) visits. The Steelers will be playing without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose injured left foot will force him to miss his fifth start of the season. Heyward doesn’t mind the additional pressure, saying it’s the defense’s job to make any points the offense manages to put up enough to win.
Maybe, but for all the significant progress Pittsburgh has made in the number of “splash plays” coach Mike Tomlin covets – the Steelers are seventh in sacks (22) and 10th in turnovers created (15) – there remains plenty of work to be done. Pittsburgh is 22nd in yards allowed and can be exploited when it can’t get to the quarterback.
Carr and the explosive Raiders provided plenty of proof. Three of Carr’s four scoring tosses came after a Pittsburgh blitz failed to put any real heat on the second-year quarterback, allowing the wide receivers to get loose in the secondary. Oakland running back Latavius Murray had 96 yards before leaving in the third quarter with a concussion and little used fullback Jamize Olawale chugged 19 yards untouched to the end zone.
“I thought we fell short in a few areas,” Tomlin said. “I thought we needed to sure up some run gaps. From a coverage standpoint, we dropped a few things.”
And yet the Steelers survived due in part to the same aggressiveness that also occasionally costs them. Pittsburgh forced four turnovers, including a Murray fumble that resulted from a thudding hit by safety Mike Mitchell, who is becoming the hammer the team envisioned when it signed him as a free agent before the 2014 season.
Mitchell was so excited he began celebrating with the ball bouncing around on the ground. He made no attempt to get in the ensuing scrum, figuring he had already done his job. Earlier in the game, Mitchell inadvertently cost his team another fumble recovery when he ran out of bounds in pursuit of the ball and scooped it up without re-establishing himself in the field of play.
Oakland ended up retaining possession and punting, though Tomlin took solace in the crowd of teammates around Mitchell as he sprinted to the end zone.
“We had six or seven guys in the frame (on video) as he recovered that ball,” Tomlin said. “That’s the type of defense we have to play.”
The type Pittsburgh has only played intermittently through the first nine weeks. The Steelers gave up 414 yards passing to Arizona last month but used three turnovers to spark a second-half rally. Philip Rivers and the Chargers went over 400 yards but pick six by Antwon Blake kept the Steelers in it until backup quarterback Mike Vick and Le’Veon Bell came to the rescue in the final minute.
The Browns are struggling but occasionally dangerous, particularly if Josh McCown is healthy enough to go. McCown is averaging 308 yards passing over his last six games, a stretch that includes a road triumph in Baltimore and a near upset of Denver. The last time Pittsburgh saw Cleveland, the Browns were ripping off 31 consecutive points in a rare romp over their rivals last October.
The Steelers recovered to win eight of their last 10 and pull away for the AFC North title. At this point they’d settle for a chance to stay in the wild-card race, an opportunity that will require not just big plays from the defense but little ones too.
“We’ve got to get a lot better,” Heyward said. “I’m not going to hide or shy away from it. We’ve got to get a lot better.”
NOTES: Roethlisberger did not practice on Wednesday in favor of treatment on his left foot. … RB DeAngelo Williams was given the day off to ease swelling in his left foot. … LB Ryan Shazier (knee), LB James Harrison (knee) and RT Marcus Gilbert (toe) were also among those who did not practice.