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Robinson: Steelers coach Tomlin says it's time to shape up

| Saturday, June 8, 2013, 10:33 p.m.

Fit and finish.

It's a Motor City term for how well a car goes together — do the hood and fenders blend together seamlessly? Does the dashboard rattle and shake? Was the carpet installed without seams showing, or was it thrown down as an afterthought?

What's evident during the Steelers' offseason practices is that coach Mike Tomlin didn't like the fit and finish of his 2012 model team.

He didn't believe it was fit, and he certainly didn't like how it finished games.

The Steelers' five losses by three points all occurred as the result of their uneven fourth quarters. They meant the difference between a team that was 8-8 despite splitting a pair of three-point games with the Super Bowl champion Ravens and one that might have gone 12-4 for a third consecutive season.

Talk about the fine line Bill Cowher always discussed.

“Four games we should have won. Do that, and we're 12-4, but that's how the league goes,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “The year before, we made the playoffs and we could have lost four games. The bottom line is we lost some games that we should have won and we didn't.”

The four games he likely meant were the losses to the Raiders (34-31), Titans (26-23), Browns (20-14) and/or the Ravens home game (13-10) and the overtime Cowboys game (27-24). The Steelers led in the fourth quarter of the Raiders, Titans and Cowboys games, plus a season-opening loss to the Broncos.

Given how incessantly Tomlin has preached the importance of conditioning this spring — it has been a daily theme, according to his players — he apparently believes that a lack of conditioning contributed to those close losses last season, plus the numerous injuries.

During postseason interviews in January, team president Art Rooney II emphasized that the organization's conditioning regimen would be examined. Apparently, it was, given the Steelers' adjustments to their daily practice routine.

“Conditioning has gone up a notch,” Foote said. “Everybody has to do stress tests. We're trying to get after it.”

Specifically, running back Isaac Redman said, “Before practice, we do a little different routine, try to get our bodies warmed up and not try to run right into practice, to try to prevent those little hamstring injuries. I've never done that since we've been here. It's kind of a new thing. It's working out. We don't see too many hamstring (problems).”

Of course, it's very early. But it was late in the games last season when the Steelers struggled, and it somewhat perpetuated the thinking among some in the NFL that an aging team had peaked and is past its prime.

They outscored their opponents, 91-70, in the fourth quarter, but that's a misleading statistic. Of their 16 lost fumbles, six came in the fourth quarter, as did six of their 14 interceptions.

And there's this: Steelers opponents threw only one touchdown pass and had four interceptions in the first quarter but had five TD passes and two interceptions in the fourth.

And Steelers opponents threw 12 touchdown passes and only one interception and completed seven passes of 25 yards or more when losing. By comparison, the Steelers had 12 touchdown passes but 10 interceptions when behind.

Apparently as a result, players said Tomlin has emphasized the necessity of being a more disciplined team that controls the ball, the clock and the lead in the fourth quarter. That's where conditioning partly comes in because tired teams often are mistake-prone teams.

“The plan starting now is to have discipline in the fourth quarter of games,” safety Ryan Clark said.

Better late than never.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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