Mike Tomlin: Road 'getting narrow' for Steelers, Browns as teams prepare for pivotal Week 17 game

The Pittsburgh Steelers are running out time.

There’s the fact the Steelers have just two games left to try to mount a last-ditch playoff run. There’s also the reality these could be Ben Roethlisberger’s final two weeks of his NFL career, beginning with what is potentially his final home game Monday night against the Cleveland Browns.

Pittsburgh (7-7-1) and Cleveland (7-8) enter the prime-time contest in similar situations. Both are coming off disappointing losses that came in very different fashions, and each team knows it needs to win out to have any hope of sneaking into the playoffs.

“The road is getting narrow for us and for them and I think that’s a component to this that I’m gonna keep talking about with our guys during the course of the work week,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “We’ve absorbed some negativity, they’ve absorbed some negativity, it’s about getting the best out of ourselves and I’m sure it’s the same for them.

“So they’re making some decisions about how they want to play ball this week, what best engineers victory for them and so all we have is our in-stadium experience against them and what’s on tape and our in-stadium experience plus what’s on tape tells us that we better work our tails off to minimize their run game and Nick Chubb and we better not let Myles Garrett wreck it.”

Both have also exhibited offensive issues. The Steelers, though, have somewhat of a coaching scapegoat: offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Pittsburgh’s offense has lacked rhythm for much of 2021 and is often defined by one frequent outcome: a short pass in the flat to Najee Harris for little or no gain.

The Steelers have explosive playmakers, but they haven’t been an explosive unit. They’ve also been forced to work their way through playing with a young, inexperienced offensive line, helping explain Harris’ 3.7 yards per carry on 268 attempts.

Fans can point the finger at Canada, but it’s about more than simply play-calling. Tomlin acknowledged as much Tuesday.

“I have no reservations about the play-calling component of his job and what he’s done,” Tomlin said of Canada. “But I also will acknowledge there’s probably a learning curve at every job that pertains to the National Football League. A college equipment man that becomes a pro equipment man, his job is somewhat different as I’m sure someone that covers college football in your space, it becomes significantly different when they cover professional football. I think that’s a reasonable discussion regardless of what we’re talking about in our ecosystem that is football.”

Pittsburgh’s offensive struggles have seen the Steelers fail to score a first-half touchdown in each of their last five games. The Steelers are 2-3 in those contests, recording enough wins to stay relevant but not enough to gain any significant ground on its divisional opponents.

The Steelers can send the Browns into the offseason with a win Sunday, but must figure out a way to gain an early advantage.

“That’s our intentions every week but we’ve come up short,” Tomlin said of scoring touchdowns in the first half. “I’m not gonna run away from that, it is what it is, I’m not going to try to explain it away, we can sit in settings like this and talk about it all day … but that doesn’t solve the problem, actions does. So we have an additional 24 hours of prep we plan to use it from a schematic standpoint.

“We have a number of guys who are working their way back to us either from COVID or injury, how we divide that labor up and highlight their positive attributes and work to minimize our collective negative attributes are going to be a component of that discussion.”

As the quarterback, Roethlisberger is certainly at the center of the offensive issues, even if it hasn’t always been his fault. The 39-year-old has looked his age at times during the season, while also turning back the clock in other instances. The combined result has failed to give the Steelers a reliable expectation for Roethlisberger, undercutting their offensive ambitions.

With two games left in the 2021 regular season — and perhaps in Roethlisberger’s career — there’s little time to reflect on what Big Ben has done in his storied time in Pittsburgh. The focus is correctly on the week ahead, one in which the Steelers can keep themselves alive with a win or turn toward the offseason with a loss.

“To be honest with you, we don’t have enough time,” Tomlin said when asked to summarize Roethlisberger’s career. “I mean, I’ve experienced 15 years of Hall of Fame-caliber play as it pertains to Ben. My focus and his focus this week is this game and preparing for this game and performing well in this game.

“I’m sure there will be an appropriate time in the future where I’ll get an opportunity to sing his praises and I’ll gladly do so. It just doesn’t feel like the appropriate time as we zero in on this opportunity that is Monday Night Football this week.”

Roethlisberger will get his due when the time comes. But he must first attempt to finish 2021 strong, as it might be his last chance to do so in his career.

Otherwise, he’ll be looking at a familiar final scene at Heinz Field, one that defined the end of Pittsburgh’s 2020 season: sitting on the bench, staring into the abyss while the Browns celebrate a monumental win on enemy turf.

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