No 'sweeping changes' ahead for Steelers as Mike Tomlin digests three-game skid

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers' Cameron Heyward (97) and head coach Mike Tomlin leaves the field before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Monday, Dec. 21, 2020, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Even before any tough questions could be asked about the big picture of the state of the Steelers, coach Mike Tomlin got ahead of it. "It" being the disastrous December slide his team is on for the third year in a row, this one continuing with a loss that might be worse than any in his previous seasons.

"There won't be sweeping changes in terms of our approach to what it is we do," Tomlin said in the opening statement of his Tuesday news conference. "We just simply have to do it better."

A 27-17 loss Monday night at Cincinnati leaves the Steelers at 11-3, a record that feels worse than it is as frustration mounts and injuries pile up coming down the stretch. On that front, Tomlin noted that the Steelers are excited about the potential return of three would-be starters (maybe; more on that shortly) in running back James Conner, guard Kevin Dotson and inside linebacker Vince Williams.

Williams has been on the reserve/COVID-19 list since Dec. 10, and after missing the past two games he is now in the "ramp-up procedure" for return, according to Tomlin. Dotson likely would slot back in at left guard in place of Matt Feiler if he can return from his shoulder injury. Tight end Eric Ebron (back) and fullback Derek Watt (head) are still being evaluated for the injuries that knocked them out of the game early, and Tomlin called it "too soon" to know if they'll be back Sunday.

Backfield issues: In the backfield, there's more to deal with. With Conner sidelined by a quadriceps injury, second-year backup Benny Snell seized the role and stood out as one of the team's few relatively bright spots Monday, rushing for 84 yards plus a touchdown on 18 carries. Snell added 23 yards on three receptions for the most productive day from scrimmage for a Steelers back since Conner ran for 101 yards in Week 6 against Cleveland.

"We'll ponder those possibilities," Tomlin said when asked if Snell could stay in the starter role. "You've got to admit that Benny was an awesome element of play for us in the last game when we didn't have a lot of awesome elements of play. His efforts were appreciated, and so I'm sure he'll have an opportunity to be impactful in this one regardless of James' availability."

Telling JuJu to tone things down? It sounds as if Tomlin already has pondered the possibility of telling the leader of his receiving room to tone down his pregame shenanigans. A week after he mostly dismissed a question about JuJu Smith-Schuster's penchant for dancing on the opposing team's logo at midfield before the game, Tomlin took a bit of a different stance Tuesday.

Smith-Schuster followed through on his promise to do it again in Cincinnati, and Bengals safety Vonn Bell made him pay with a huge hit that forced a fumble in the first half, smiling widely about it afterward. Tomlin didn't connect those two events, but the situation has crept further onto his radar.

"I am aware of it and I do plan to talk to JuJu," Tomlin said. "But we're professionals. I doubt any of those antics and things of that nature are legitimate motivating factors as you step into professional stadiums. But it's about respect, so we'll have a conversation."

Evaluating everyone and everything: Tomlin closed with an answer on his quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, who surely had more Steelers fans calling for his removal than in any game in recent memory. But it extended to everyone who has culpability in turning a perfect record into a putrid streak.

"Man, we evaluate everything and everyone, at all times," Tomlin said. "That includes myself. If you're not in the critical evaluation of performance continually, you're not trying to get better, and that's something we're continually trying to do."