After latest debacle, Steelers eye consistency

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes off on a second-quarter run against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes off on a second-quarter run against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Ralph N. Paulk
| Monday, Dec. 10, 2012, 7:28 p.m.

The voices of disgruntled fans leaving Heinz Field resonated with the Steelers as they jettisoned a rain-soaked stadium after getting embarrassed by an underachieving San Diego team Sunday.

The Steelers didn't resemble the team that a week earlier delivered a Herculean effort in beating AFC North leader Baltimore in its backyard. Instead, this was a hapless, disinterested bunch that played without any semblance of urgency despite uncertainty about its playoff fate.

The Steelers, now 7-6, lost to a team they had beaten in 14 consecutive regular-season home games. They lost to a team that manufactured defeat in seven of its previous eight games.

The Steelers have developed a knack for this sort of thing this season. They consistently play down to the competition.

“If guys play down to the level of their competition, then shame on them,” said nose tackle Casey Hampton. “We are professionals. No matter who we are playing, we are supposed to get up for the game and be ready to play.”

The Steelers have gone on the road and handled top-ranked heavyweights: the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants (8-5), Baltimore (9-4) and Cincinnati (7-6). But they have faltered against bewildered lightweights in Oakland (3-10), Tennessee (4-9), Cleveland (5-8) and San Diego (5-8).

If the 2-11 Kansas City Chiefs hadn't gift-wrapped an overtime victory last month, the Steelers would be 0-4 against the AFC West, a downtrodden division in which Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos (10-3) account for half of its victories this season.

“It wasn't difficult getting up for (San Diego),” said running back Jonathan Dwyer, limited to 32 yards on eight carries. “They just wanted it more. We didn't do our jobs.”

Is it that simple?

Are the Steelers in the habit of coming to play only against playoff-caliber teams? Can they not conjure up the proper motivation against below-average teams?

If coach Mike Tomlin's history is a barometer, then this season of oft-apathetic performances is an aberration. The Steelers were 25-1 against nonplayoff teams at home under Tomlin before the Chargers caught them playing as if they were looking ahead to Sunday's game at Dallas.

Or were they sluggish after an emotional win in Baltimore?

“We're trying to get to the playoffs,” Hampton said. “So that's never going to be an excuse, us being flat after playing a supposed rival.”

Still, it's a perplexing pattern of inconsistency even the players find difficult to explain. They are hesitant to point fingers but dispensed equal fault in the locker room.

“Everyone took turns making mistakes,” linebacker Jason Worilds said. “We can't play like this and expect to win.”

The Steelers can't expect to make the playoffs, either, with similar performances in their final three games against Dallas, Cincinnati and Cleveland.

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

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