Steelers willing to make changes to improve

September 24, 2013

PITTSBURGH – Tight end Heath Miller played his first game last weekend in the Steelers’ 40-23 loss to Chicago.

Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell is expected to see his first NFL action Sunday in London against the Minnesota Vikings.

Coupled with the expected return of cornerback Cortez Allen from an ankle injury, the Steelers are as healthy as they’ve been this season.

Now, the question is, will that add up to a victory for a team that has not gone winless in its first four games since the NFL merger in 1970?

“I’ve never been in this situation before at any level,” said offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert. “There probably aren’t a lot of guys in this locker room who have been in this situation.”

Head coach Mike Tomlin can be included in that group.

And Tomlin hasn’t been shy about making lineup changes in an effort to turn things around or show his disappointment with the performance of certain players.

Against the Bears, that included rotating reserve lineman Kelvin Beachum with tackles Mike Adams and Gilbert in the second quarter.

“They told us early in the week that they were going to do that,” said Adams. “I don’t have a problem with it.”

But it was a warning shot fired at both tackles. Either play better or the team will find somebody who will.

Tomlin said he saw some improvement from the offensive line, though quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times against the Bears, two of which led to fumbles.

“Obviously, it’s not enough,” Tomlin said. “Our quarterback is still being pressured too often and we’re turning the ball over because of it.

“Kelvin Beachum worked some tackle last week. I thought that was positive, not only for him, but for the other two guys as well. We’ll continue to look at those combinations in an effort to find the very best winning formula for us.”

Tomlin also challenged left guard Ramon Foster, the team’s senior lineman, despite being only 27 years old, to help fill the void left when center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season to a knee injury in the season opener.

“He’s committed to leading that group through these tough times,” Tomlin said of Foster. “It’s good to have a veteran guy like him who has been around situations in these circumstances.”

Getting all the offensive weapons back should help the line play.

Miller was in for 39 of 66 offensive snaps against the Bears as he was on what Tomlin called a “pitch count” in his first game back after tearing knee ligaments last December. Miller is expected to be ready to play a full game this week.

Bell, a second-round draft pick, could be limited in a similar fashion against the Vikings as he returns from a mid-foot sprain suffered more than a month ago. He returned to practice last week and will participate in two more practices in Pittsburgh before the team leaves Thursday night for London. The Steelers also will practice Friday.

“We’re going to let practice dictate that to us,” said Tomlin of Bell’s playing time. “He’s been doing a nice job of working from a rehabilitation standpoint. We’ve got a better sense of his overall conditioning that we did Heath’s.”

Bell’s return should help a running game that has produced 155 yards in three games. The Steelers have attempted just 52 running plays compared to 121 passing plays. Roethlisberger has been sacked 10 times.

“If you throw the ball 40 times in a football game with five to seven guys protecting and – you do the math – there’s probably over 200 opportunities for people to do their jobs or not,” Tomlin said. “All it takes is five to 10 of those instances to produce catastrophic-like results, and that’s some of the things that are occurring.

“We need to strive for more consistency to minimize those things, to get the type of consistent production that is required for us to win football games.”

Odds and end zones

Defensive end Brett Keisel (hamstring) and nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) could be limited in practice early in the week. ... Tomlin said he sent a note to Pirates manager Clint Hurdle Tuesday morning congratulating the team for clinching its first playoff berth in 20 years Monday night. ... The Steelers are one of five teams allowing fewer than 300 yards per game. Pittsburgh is giving up 298 yards per game. ... The Steelers are the only team in the NFL that does not have a takeway.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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