As the sun rose on the morning of Monday, Nov. 3, the Steelers were 6-3, and Ben Roethlisberger had cast himself as an NFL MVP candidate. Today, the Steelers are 7-5 with losses in two of their past three games during which Roethlisberger's passer rating has declined a little bit each week.
Those were heady times back in early November, the days immediately after the Steelers had defeated the Ravens, 43-23, to complete a stretch where they had gone 3-0 at home, where they had defeated Houston and Indianapolis and Baltimore and scored 124 points in the process, where Roethlisberger had thrown 14 touchdown passes and no interceptions, where the offense was being talked about as among the very best in the NFL.
In the three games since, the Steelers are 1-2 and their offense has scored 72 points, with Roethlisberger throwing for four touchdowns and five interceptions.
At his news conference today, Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the difference, but he said the drop-off shouldn't necessarily be attributed solely to the play of the quarterback.
"He hasn't been as accurate as he has been," said Tomlin a couple of days after Roethlisberger completed 55.2 percent against the New Orleans Saints. "Some of it is due to some pressure created in the pocket. Some of it is due to game circumstance. Some we lacked cohesion in some instances. None of those things happen in a vacuum when you're talking about quarterback play. It's usually unit-play oriented. He can play better, we all can play better, and we're looking forward to doing it this week."
As far back as training camp, the makeup of this particular Steelers team was such that it seemed as though any push into the playoffs would have to be fueled by the offense, because of some significant turnover on the defensive depth chart. It took a while, and after some flashes early in the season – such as the 37-19 win in Carolina on Sept. 21 – things seemingly all came together during that three-game home stand.
But the offensive production hasn't been the same since. There have been instances where the passing attack seemed out of sync in terms of the quarterback and his receivers being on the same page, and against the Saints Roethlisberger was wild high at various times over the first three quarters.
"When you're looking at accuracy, or inaccuracy, mechanics are the first place you look," said Tomlin. "Again, sometimes outside forces can affect mechanics. There were certain instances, particularly in early stages of the game last Sunday, where he was high on some throws. He couldn't step into some throws, the pocket was collapsing on him a little bit, and it didn't allow him to have the proper throwing mechanics, which affected his accuracy."
There also seemed to be an issue with Roethlisberger's right hand, but he didn't come out of the game and afterward said it didn't affect his performance.
"I didn't (talk to him about the injury), because virtually every Sunday things happen where he goes through some pain or discomfort, or is dealing with something physically, and I don't make it an issue unless it is one," said Tomlin. "He didn't make it an issue, so we kept our conversations on where we normally keep them, which is what we needed to do as a group. I knew that if it was a real issue for him in terms of jeopardizing his ability to perform that he would talk to me about it, or the doctors would."
Steelers Nation Unite members were rewarded during Alumni Weekend at Heinz Field.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE**
"Brett Keisel had surgery on his triceps, and he was replaced on the roster by Clifton Geathers. There could be work available to (Geathers this week in Cincinnati) with Brett's situation and with the question of whether Steve McLendon will be available to us. That question will be answered as we work through the rest of the week, particularly Steve's ability to work in pads.
"Brice McCain injured his hamstring in the game and wasn't able to return, but it was a mild hamstring injury. We'll let him practice and watch that practice participation this week. He's got a chance to be available to us. Ryan Shazier has a strong chance of being available to us; he was close a week ago with his ankle. We'll watch him this week and see how he responds to the work he gets. Marcus Gilbert, same thing. At the 11th hour last week he wasn't healthy enough, and we'll see if he's healthy enough this week. In all probability he will be.
"With Steve McLendon, it's a strength thing with his shoulder. The best way to test it is in practice, and we'll do that. We'll watch not only how he performs (in practice) but how he responds to that.
"Ike Taylor had a minor shoulder discomfort that shouldn't minimize his participation in this game, and there was no negative consequences from his previous forearm injury. James Harrison will have his left knee looked at. Should be minor and not affect his participation in the game but may affect his participation in practice early in the week.
"We will continue to march Jarvis Jones back. I thought he had a very positive week last week. We have a window to identify when he'll be able to participate, and we're comfortably within that window. We're comfortable with the things we're seeing from him. We want to see him take another step when we go out on the practice field (Wednesday) and we'll see if we have a decision to make regarding him this week. He possibly could be an asset to us in this football game."