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Steelers search for answers in ground game

| Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, 6:48 p.m.
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Steelers running back Isaac Redman looks for an opening against the Titans on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. (Getty Images)

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin rarely, if ever, deviates from the norm during his postgame press conferences. In victory or defeat, he's largely stoic and confident.

Yet he seemed genuinely concerned about his team's future following a 26-23 loss to underdog Tennessee at LP Field on Thursday night.

Tomlin's confidence was shaken by injuries to several key players. He sounded like an exhausted corpsman checking off the wounded in sick bay, mostly the forces that power an already crippled ground game.

The Steelers (2-3) lost nearly half their offensive linemen — center Maurkice Pouncey (knee) and tackle Marcus Gilbert (ankle). Running backs Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles) and Isaac Redman (ankle) limped off the field, forcing Baron Batch into the most extensive duty of his abbreviated career.

Batch, who sustained a season-ending knee injury during last year's training camp, couldn't envision being in this position. Suddenly, after having only six carries through Week 5, he was handed the ball 12 times with the Titans targeting the run game.

Predictably, the numbers weren't pretty.

Batch averaged 2.2 yards per carry for 22 of the Steelers' 56 yards against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL. In contrast, the Titans' Chris Johnson silenced his critics with a 91-yard effort to temper the Steelers' assault of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.

“Individual performances aside, we all could have done more,” Tomlin said. “We didn't do the job.”

The offensive line — even at full strength — didn't get it done.

The Titans manhandled the Steelers and shut down every escape route for Mendenhall, who rushed for 6 yards on six carries, including five attempts that netted 1 yard.

“We just have to execute the plays that are called,” Batch said repeatedly. “It's as simple as that.”

The Steelers have nine days to sort through the debris of a broken ground game. The Cincinnati Bengals are likely to deploy a defensive strategy similar to Tennessee's when they host the Steelers on Oct. 21 on “Sunday Night Football.”

With Mendenhall, Redman and Jonathan Dwyer among those in the infirmary, Batch is hoping to give the Steelers an emotional lift as they try to avoid nudging closer to the Cleveland Browns in the AFC North basement.

“We just have to keep working and not ride the emotional roller coaster — just keep plugging away,” Batch said.

At least Batch and Redman seem confident about the future.

“We have to smile in the face of adversity,” Redman said. “Good teams are able to bounce back … it's just time for guys to step up.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923.

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