Clark: Steelers must turn things around now
The Steelers almost always do the preseason right. This time they're not, and it greatly concerns a player who usually doesn't worry about games that don't count.
It's not the losses that are bothering safety Ryan Clark — the starters sometimes don't even know the final score immediately after a game. What he dislikes are the errors — by the offense, defense and special teams — and the lack of cohesion, consistency and, it appears, chemistry.
Too many penalties, too many blown assignments, too many wasted opportunities, too much wrong occurring in so little on-field time by the regulars in similar losses to the Giants (18-13) and Redskins (24-13).
“This next game is important,” Clark said. “I know people always talk about the all-important third preseason game. But I think for us and the way we played, not capitalizing on the other team's mistakes, continuing to make mistakes ourselves, it's important that we clean it up.”
The Steelers don't look like the Steelers normally look entering their third and most critical exhibition game, Saturday night against the Chiefs at Heinz Field.
The Steelers traditionally excel during the preseason. Until this summer, they hadn't lost more than one game per preseason while going 19-6 in exhibition play during coach Mike Tomlin's seven years on the job.
One reason there is a sense of urgency, Clark said, is the starters rarely play more than a series or two in the final preseason game, which will be Aug. 29 at Carolina. That's why the Chiefs game, especially the first half, is shaping up as one of the most important preseason games of Tomlin's tenure.
“The thing about that is (the final preseason game) is a tune-up, and you want to have some type of arrow trending upward, some type of positivity in the preseason going in (the season),” Clark said. “The wins and losses, sure, you always want to win when you're out there, but you need to be playing well at some point.”
That hasn't happened yet, as evidenced by multiple special teams mistakes against the Giants, penalties (95 yards) and turnovers (three in the first half) against the Redskins, the offensive line's inefficiency and numerous injuries that have caused considerable lineup shuffling.
By the end of Monday night's game, four of the top five running backs were on the shelf.
Rookie running back Le'Veon Bell's status remains uncertain. Bell, who was being treated for a bruised left knee, had an MRI on his injured right foot Tuesday, but the Steelers did not disclose the results. Normally, only Tomlin discloses major injury news.
The more-experienced defense has looked better than the offense, but Clark said there have been too many mistakes on that side of the ball, too.
“The two big plays by the offense while (the starters) were in, we had guys who we didn't blitz and guys who were supposed to be in the blitz that coach (Dick) LeBeau called,” Clark said. “You can't do that. We won't win football games playing that way. The coaches have been focusing on that, but we have to take it to the stadium. It's up to the players to do that.”
Troy Polamalu said this is one time a team's preseason record is indicative of how it is playing.
“We've been losing both times (the starters have been on the field),” Polamalu said. “If that's a testament to anything, it kind of tells you where we're at now.”
Still, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger senses that an offense that is breaking in a newly configured line, a new running back in Bell and a new receiver in Markus Wheaton is closer to being regular season-ready than it looks.
“We've come into games saying, ‘Let's feature the backs. Let's establish an identity and run the ball, run the ball, run the ball,' ” Roethlisberger said. “So that's why I'm not putting too much stock in what's happened out there. There's a lot of plays that could be made in the passing game that we've haven't taken advantage of because we've been trying to run the ball.”
Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski said what's important now is to identify mistakes, correct them and get in enough quality work that the efficiency and cohesion is there in September.
“I've been on teams that you don't win a game during the preseason and you start on fire during the regular season,” Gradkowski said. “You don't have to look too much into the preseason. You have different guys in at different times. Guys are getting different chances. There's definitely things we need to clean up and keep improving, and that's what the preseason is for. We'll be ready to roll. There's no reason to panic or anything like that.”
Unless that all-important third preseason game is a replay of the first and second.