Steelers starters might be finished

No more motivational slogans from coach Mike Tomlin. No more talk of his Pittsburgh Steelers redeeming themselves for past mistakes. No more grandiose promises to unleash havoc on the NFL for the rest of the season.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

PITTSBURGH — No more motivational slogans from coach Mike Tomlin. No more talk of his Pittsburgh Steelers redeeming themselves for past mistakes. No more grandiose promises to unleash havoc on the NFL for the rest of the season.

Tomlin’s response to the Super Bowl champions’ latest improbable loss and the franchise’s longest losing streak since a five-game slide in 2003? He’s taking out an eraser and wiping away names.

A starter gone here, a backup moving up there. A rookie starts, a veteran goes to the bench.

The Steelers traditionally don’t make panicky personnel moves or bench a player because of a bad game or two. But what Tomlin calls “a pattern of behaviour that’s unacceptable” during a four-game slump will result in lineup changes Thursday in Cleveland.

“I assure you there are going to be some,” Tomlin said Monday, calling the Steelers “a very average team … and our recent record might indicate that’s a kind assessment.”

Rookie cornerback Joe Burnett is expected to start for the oft-beaten William Gay, who sustained a concussion late in the Steelers’ can-you-believe-it 27-24 loss to the Raiders on Sunday. Gay might not play in Cleveland.

Another rookie cornerback, Keenan Lewis, plus defensive end Ziggy Hood and wide receiver Mike Wallace, also might earn elevated status for the Browns (1-11). Wallace is expected to start if Hines Ward (hamstring) can’t go, which seems likely given the short week.

“We can’t stay status quo in terms of how we’re approaching this and expect the pattern of behaviour or outcome to change,” Tomlin said.

“That’s unrealistic. That’s hoping. This is not a hope business.”

Tomlin, who hasn’t been tested like this previously during his three seasons in Pittsburgh, stayed patient during an 18-12 loss to Cincinnati and twin overtime defeats to the Chiefs and Ravens. Losing three leads in the fourth quarter against the lowly Raiders (4-8) made him lose that, and a lot more.

Tomlin was as close to agitated as he gets in public on Monday, suggesting longevity and loyalty don’t count for nearly as much when a team is losing like the Steelers are.

“Nothing stays the same in this game,” Tomlin said. “Players are ascending, players are descending. People catch up with schemes, schemes evolve. Playing and coaching, this thing is ever-changing.”

A defence that was easily the NFL’s best a year ago squandered three leads in the final eight-plus minutes Sunday as Bruce Gradkowski became the first Raiders quarterback in 30 years to throw three TD passes in the fourth quarter. It was the fifth time in six losses the Steelers’ defence couldn’t hold a lead in the fourth quarter.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes said “the party was getting ready to get started” when Ward caught an 11-yard TD pass in the final two minutes that put Pittsburgh ahead 24-20, but the defence didn’t hold up.

“That’s how we felt, knowing that the offence went down and did our job,” Holmes said.

“We left everything to the defence. A couple of mishaps here and there, and they (the Raiders) won the ballgame.”

A couple of mishaps against the Chiefs and Raiders, two teams that figured to give them little trouble, and the Steelers are 6-6 instead of being at least 8-4.

No wonder Tomlin is concerned about his team’s confidence, which was shaken when the special teams recently gave up four kickoff return touchdowns in five games.

“You’ve got to acknowledge the potential this can be kind of a shaken group,” Tomlin said.

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