Mike Prisuta's Fourth & Goal

At least they've hit rock bottom now, which means there's nowhere to go but up ...

... That's what passes for a ray of sunshine these days amid the storm clouds that have engulfed Steeler Nation.

As bad as it was against Kansas City and Oakland, Cleveland was worse.

Cleveland, a one-win team on merit, actually wanted a game more than the Steelers and actually took a game from the Steelers on Thursday night.

No blown fourth-quarter lead this time, no OT.

Just Cleveland in control from start to finish in a game it never trailed and one in which it never surrendered so much as a touchdown against the defending-Super Bowl champions.

Most discouraging of all was the Browns' obvious superiority in terms of urgency and emotion.

They had nothing to gain but a victory over a rival, but for the Browns that was more than enough.

The Steelers were playing for their playoff lives, but played as if they'd already assessed their prospects along those lines and collectively decided it just wasn't worth the supreme effort it was going to take week after week after week after week just to reach the postseason.

Mike Tomlin said he "liked the fight in the group."

I wonder how many rushing yards have to be surrendered against a gimmick offense, how many times their quarterback has to be sacked and how many more big returns have to be hemorrhaged before the collective "fight" comes into question?

This goes way beyond lining up in the shotgun on third-and-1 after consecutive runs have netted 9 yards, way beyond whether Joe Burnett is playing Ike Taylor's position or William Gay's, and way beyond whether James Farrior failed to make a play because he couldn't beat Chris Jennings to the edge or because he couldn't tackle Josh Cribbs.

The problem is the Steelers have lost their sense of self.

The players are absolutely staggered by their collapse from 6-2, as they should be. And because they're now 6-7 and plummeting they can no longer trust their process, their preparation and their faith in the player lining up next to them and their collective ability to rise up when called upon as an offense, defense or special teams.

That's what used to help separate the Steelers, what used to sustain them through the good times and steady them in tough times.

They knew that their method was proven, that if they stayed focused and stayed patient and stayed the course their plan and their personnel and their perspective would prevail, if not ultimately than at least often enough to contend.

But when you lose to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns in the midst of a free fall, such beliefs are shattered.

And now all the pieces are broken.

Even heading into Cleveland, they could still look to a defense that had been tougher to run against than any in the National Football League and a franchise quarterback with a habit of improvising nothing into something when necessary for salvation.

But the Browns' Wild Cat shredded the Steelers' run defense for 171 yards. And Ben Roethlisberger, while in the process of being sacked eight times, was flinching and ducking from pressure that wasn't there by the second half.

Tomlin at least acknowledged that when a team gets "beaten in all three phases, schematically and performance-wise, we're all to be held accountable for that and we are."

That starts with Tomlin, who, in the quest for his second Super Bowl ring, must start from scratch when the Steelers begin preparations for Green Bay.

This needs to be reconstructed from the ground up.

Time to find out how the new guy builds a program.


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