PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin understands the negativity associated with a four-game slide and stressed his underachieving team would do its best to absorb it and move forward.
It’s a path they’ll have to travel without Cam Heyward. The defensive end and co-captain is out for the rest of the season with an upper-body injury suffered in Sunday’s loss to Dallas.
Heyward posted a message on Instagram on Tuesday afternoon indicating his 2016 season is over.
“My role will change as I can not play but it will not change the goals the team has set out,” Heyward wrote .
Maybe, but the loss of their most consistent defensive player will make achieving those goals far tougher.
While Heyward didn’t specify the exact nature of the injury, Tomlin described it as a pectoral or chest problem. Heyward was examined on Monday and received a second opinion on Tuesday before making the announcement.
“My patience will be tested, but I look forward to 2017,” Heyward wrote. “My hand will remain in the pile no matter what!”
Blow to struggling defense: The loss of Heyward deals Pittsburgh’s already struggling defense with another significant blow. He missed the first two games of his six-year career in October when he tweaked his left hamstring in a win over the New York Jets on Oct. 9.
The Steelers’ run defense collapsed without Heyward, giving up 204 yards to Miami’s Jay Ajayi and 127 to New England’s LeGarrette Blount , games that started a midseason swoon.
Heyward returned against Baltimore on Nov. 6 and the defense seemed to make significant strides against the Ravens and held Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott largely in check last Sunday before giving up a pair of touchdown runs in the final two minutes of a 35-30 setback that left Heyward fuming and led quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to call out some of his teammates for a lack of discipline.
Not exactly the kind of chatter the Steelers expected to be generating in mid-November.
Tomlin understands the frustration of his players. At the same time, he believes emotions are not as important as results.
“We’re not doing enough of the good things well enough to win on a consistent basis,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to change that. We still feel very comfortable that we’re capable of being a good football team. But those (hurt) feelings are less important … than wins.”
Potential reprieve awaits vs. winless Browns: A feeling the Steelers haven’t experienced in more than a month. While a potential reprieve awaits at winless Cleveland (0-10) on Sunday, the way Pittsburgh has played of late — particularly on the road, where it is 1-3 — doesn’t exactly have Tomlin brimming with optimism.
This is the third losing streak of at least four games during Tomlin’s tenure. The Steelers dropped five straight in 2009 and four straight in 2013. Both years Pittsburgh failed to make the playoffs.
Missing out on the postseason seemed farfetched during a 4-1 start, but the Steelers have been so lifeless, careless or both recently that sitting at home in mid-January has become a very real possibility.
“The tape says there are not enough people doing the right things on a consistent basis,” Tomlin said.
A couple of his stars included. Though wide receiver Antonio Brown caught 14 passes for 154 yards and a touchdown against the Cowboys, he also was meekly pushed out of bounds at the Dallas 20 on the game’s final play rather than flipping the ball back into the field hoping for an unlikely score.
Tomlin understands the odds of the ball somehow winding up in the end zone following a series of laterals are slim. Slim, though, is better than none.
“At the end of the game I’d like to see us stay inbounds and see us fight and claw and scratch,” Tomlin said.
Something Pittsburgh will try to do without Heyward, who has embraced the role as the vocal leader of a defense in transition. It’s telling both of Heyward’s effort and Pittsburgh’s issues getting to the quarterback that his 3.0 sacks lead the team even though he missed two full games and the part of another.
“My support for this team will only grow,” Heyward wrote, “and I look forward in watching this team grow and fight on.”
Notes: LB Steve Johnson (ankle) was placed on injured reserve. Pittsburgh added linebacker L.J. Fort to the 53-man roster. … WR Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) is out against the Browns. … The availability of WR Markus Wheaton (shoulder) will be determined later in the week.