PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin describes himself as a man of "great patience."
Might be time to lose it following the franchise's worst start in 45 years.
The Steelers head into their off week 0-4 for the first time since 1968 following a 34-27 loss to Minnesota in London on Sunday, a frustrating 60 minutes that effectively ended any hope of a return to the playoffs less than a month into the season.
"It stings," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's hard to talk about."
Even if Roethlisberger and his teammates are getting used to it.
The Steelers remain one of four winless teams in the NFL after the defense imploded against a second-string journeyman quarterback and one of the greatest running backs of this — or any — generation.
Matt Cassel passed for 248 yards and two touchdowns and Adrian Peterson rushed for 140 yards and two scores, building a 17-point lead before Roethlisberger led a furious fourth quarter rally that ended with a play that served as a symbol of just how frustrating things have become.
Trailing by a touchdown in the final minutes, Roethlisberger led the Steelers all the way to the Minnesota 6. Facing third-and-goal, Roethlisberger took a snap and looked for an open receiver. The pocket — as it has done all too often through the first four weeks of the season — collapsed around him. Roethlisberger fumbled, the Vikings recovered and Pittsburgh's misery continued.
"I'm holding it out like a loaf of bread because I'm trying not to just take it to the ground," Roethlisberger said. "They got it out late. Even if I'd held on to it, I don't if we would have had enough time."
To save the game and, in essence, the season.
The Steelers haven't missed the playoffs in consecutive years this millennium. At the moment, the idea of a miraculous recovery even in the wretched AFC North — where no one is better than 2-2 — seems far-fetched even for the guys pulling on the jerseys.
"We are in uncharted territories and the water is dangerous right now, so we have to stick together and get out of it," Roethlisberger said. "We have to stay together."
Not the easiest thing for a team unaccustomed to losing. The Steelers have been one of the most stable and successful franchises in the NFL for the last four decades due in part to their unparalleled stability.
That might change somewhat when the Steelers travel to New York in two weeks to face the Jets. While there are no quick fixes in sight, Tomlin indicated he's not going deal with players who can't help Pittsburgh turn it around.
"We are going to focus on getting better," Tomlin said. "That's what's going to change the outcome of these football games. Those that don't (work), aren't going to be a part of us."
The biggest moves may come along the offensive line, which hasn't stabilized after losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the rest of the year just minutes into the opener against Tennessee.
Thought to be a strength in the offseason, the line has become a disaster. Left tackle Mike Adams was dominated by Minnesota's Jared Allen on Sunday. Allen collected 2½ sacks and spent half the afternoon in the Pittsburgh backfield. Kelvin Beachum briefly replaced Adams before moving to left guard when Ramon Foster left with a pectoral injury.
When given time — or when able to create it on his own by escaping the pocket — Roethlisberger was able to make plays. He passed for 383 yards and a touchdown, remarkable numbers considering he was constantly on the run.
Rookie Le'Veon Bell delivered in his first NFL start, running for two touchdowns and showcasing why the Steelers took him in the second round of the draft.
All positive signs — ones that were erased by a defense that has stopped creating turnovers or generating a pass rush. Pittsburgh remains the only team in the league yet to record even one takeaway.
Not exactly the recipe for success. Even facing the darkest hour of their careers, however, Roethlisberger and his teammates are trying to remain upbeat.
Really, they have no choice.
"I have to hope and believe we can turn it around because you have to believe we can still be part of something special," Roethlisberger said. "That's the approach I'm going to take this week and next week. I'm going to do the best I can to lead these guys and let them see how I go about my job."
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