What the Pittsburgh Steelers need to do

At 2-4, the Steelers are off to their worst start under head coach Bill Cowher. And perhaps the most troubling thing is how it has occurred.<br> <br> It hasn't been a play here or there that has doomed the Steelers to failure and three consecutive losses as much as it has been full-scale breakdowns in certain areas of the game.

Fundamentally, the Steelers have not played very good football - they haven't blocked very well, haven't tackled well at other times and have been one of the most-penalized teams in the league, averaging eight per game.

With 10 games remaining coming out of their off-week, the Steelers aren't out of the playoff race in the weak AFC North as of yet. But unless they make some adjustments, they can forget about a playoff spot and start planning next year's draft strategy. Following is a look at what the Steelers have to do to turn their season around:

Opponents are doing what once would have been unthinkable against the Steelers - playing a cover-2 defense, dropping both safeties back to double team receivers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress.

It hasn't slowed down Ward much as he's been able to continue to work underneath the zone to catch 41 passes.

But as the Steelers' primary deep threat, it has killed Burress' production. After catching 13 passes for 231 yards in the first two games, Burress has just 15 receptions for 199 yards in the last four, as the Steelers have seen opponents plays a cover-2 scheme almost exclusively.

The solution to that problem?

The Steelers thought adding tight end Jay Riemersma would help by running him down the seam to occupy one of the safeties. But because their offensive line has been so porous - they are on pace to allow a team-record 53 sacks - they have had to use the tight end as an extra blocker, eliminating him as a threat over the middle.

The return of left tackle Marvel Smith, who missed the past three games, would help, but who knows when that is going to happen?

That is part of the reason Cowher handed the running back duties back to Jerome Bettis. Cowher's hoping Bettis' pounding running style can at least make teams respect the Steelers running game a little bit.

If that doesn't draw the safeties up a bit, the Steelers must dink and dunk their way down the field using short passes.

That means quarterback Tommy Maddox is going to have to be more patient. He'll have to take the four- or five-yard passes the defense is giving him, using them like running plays - something that is a staple of the West Coast offense - and cut down on his own mistakes.

Several of Maddox's eight interceptions this season have been thrown because he's been under extreme pressure, something his teammates must alleviate.

Maddox also hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 14 quarters, a streak that has to end soon.

Who would have thought at the end of last season the Steelers would have the No. 1-rated defense in the league against the pass and in total yards allowed?

That has been the case, but it hasn't added up to any more victories, thanks - at least in part - to an offense that has repeatedly put the defense in a hole by allowing three touchdowns on returns and another that set up a short touchdown.

At the same time, the defense must do a better job of keeping opponents out of the end zone and forcing them to kick field goals.

The Steelers have had just three field goals attempted against them through six games, and have allowed opposing offenses to reach the end zone 13 of the 16 times they have driven inside the Pittsburgh 20 this season.

Part of the reason for that is the Steelers' lack of playmakers in their seconday. Cornerback Chad Scott has two interceptions this season, but has been beaten often. Fellow corner Dewayne Washington has been solid in coverage, but too often loses track of the ball on deep passes.

And No. 1 draft pick Troy Polomalu hasn't made the impact at safety the team expected and still hasn't broken into the starting lineup.

There have also been too few big plays from the linebackers. The quartet of Jason Gildon, Joey Porter, Kendrell Bell and James Farrior has combined for just four sacks, three of which came in a 17-10 win over Cincinnati. That's not going to get it done in the Steelers' defensive scheme.

Kimo von Oelhoffen has picked up some of the slack with four sacks, but there's no reason to believe he can keep up that pace. The Steelers have to get more pressure from their front seven, especially from the linebackers.

Special teams
Placekicker Jeff Reed has picked up where he left off last season, making nine of 11 field goals. Reed looks as if he could be the solution to the Steelers' kicking problems for a long time. On the other hand, punter Josh Miller, the team's oldest player, is obviously not the same player he has been in the past. Miller's punts have become very inconsistent and he no longer hits the booming kicks that once were a staple of his game.

Antwaan Randle El seems to have lost his elusiveness in the return game, especially on punts. He is averaging less than seven yards per punt return and has had trouble fielding the ball, allowing it to bounce and roll extra yards. Freddie Milons, acquired in a preseason trade with Philadelphia, may be given a shot at the job before long if Randle El's struggles continue. Rookie Ike Taylor has come very close on a few occasions to breaking a kickoff return for a touchdown. Taylor has world-class speed but suspect hands, so using him on punt returns probably won't work.

The coverage units have gotten better each week as the young players have gotten more accustomed to what is being asked of them. The Steelers did surrender a kick return for a score and a long punt return to set up another to Kansas City's Dante Hall, but Hall has done that to nearly everyone this season.

A good portion of Pittsburgh's troubles inside the red zone stems from playcalling. Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and defensive coordinator Tim Lewis have to get a little more aggressive with their calls inside the 20 because what they're doing now isn't getting it done.

That's especially true for Lewis.

Overall, the defense hasn't performed badly, forcing teams to drive the length of the field rather than giving up big plays as it did last season. But once they get down inside the 20, Lewis has to blitz more because opponents are just marching right on into the end zone once they get down there. Lewis might as well take some chances and hope some good things happen, because they aren't happening otherwise.

Cowher made two big decisions during the preseason, benching tight end Mark Bruener and Bettis in favor of Riemersma and Amos Zereoue.

The switch to Riemersma was a no-brainer, but the benching of Bettis in favor of Zereoue never worked out.

At least Cowher wasn't too stubborn to admit his mistake, showing he's grown over the years in that department. But will he make more changes to ruffle some feathers if the team continues to play poorly.

Gildon hasn't performed well at outside linebacker and the team may want to take a look at Clark Haggans or second-round draft pick Alonzo Jackson at his spot.

And free safety Brent Alexander isn't in the team's long-term plans. Taking a look at second-year man Chris Hope at that position, or sliding strong safety Mike Logan over and putting Polamalu at strong safety could also be a move in the works.

Nobody thought Pittsburgh was going to be 2-4 at this point, especially the Steelers.

But the slow start has given this team a sense of urgency that may be just what it needs. The remaining schedule isn't especially difficult, so there's no reason to think the Steelers can't win at least seven of their final 10 games, giving them a 9-7 record.

That should, at the very least, put them in the running for a wildcard spot. And in the ridiculously weak AFC North, it very well could still win them the division title.

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