By Christina Rivers
After a devastating moral defeat to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, 31-10, head coach Mike Tomlin hinted at a different look from the Pittsburgh Steelers when they face the Houston Texans on Monday night at Heinz Field. With several players nursing injuries and others under-performing, the Steelers look likely to make a change in personnel moving forward.
Tomlin was open at the beginning of the season, saying that he would make personnel changes based on results of how starters played as well as how their backups performed. “Sometimes the performance is such that it dictates a change,” said Tomlin, “regardless of the alternative…depending on circumstance.” The circumstance that the Steelers coaching staff is facing at this time in the season doesn’t just revolve around injuries to cornerback Ike Taylor, linebacker Ryan Shazier, safety Shamarko Thomas or recent addition, starting nose tackle Steve McLendon. It has more to do with inefficient play, especially in the red zone. The offense has seen too many stalled drives in this area and the defense has had trouble keeping other teams held to field goals instead of touchdowns. Pittsburgh is also 3-3 and fell to the bottom of the AFC North.
“For us moving forward, we have to put ourselves into a position where we make more plays,” Tomlin said on Tuesday. “We need to look critically at what we’re doing. We need to look critically at who we’re doing it with.”
The Steelers fell to second-to-last in the NFL in red zone efficiency following the loss to Cleveland. In 19 trips, Pittsburgh has only been able to earn a touchdown seven times (36.8 percent). One of the challenges has been to find an answer in the slot receiver position – one that was supposed to be solved when the Steelers picked up Lance Moore in free agency from the New Orleans Saints. Moore has been under-utilized and both Justin Brown and Markus Wheaton guilty of mistakes and dropped passes, making some question when Pittsburgh will get rookie receiver Martavis Bryant off of the bench and onto the field.
Bryant, a 6-foot-4 target earned praise from wide receivers coach Richard Mann during the 2014 NFL Draft. Mann said, “(Bryant) will be a great weapon in the red zone for us.” Unfortunately, Bryant has been inactive every game thus far in the season. That could change against the Texans. Early suspicions were that Bryant wasn’t prepared to play at the NFL level, but Tomlin has opened the door to speculation that Bryant will be dressed on Monday. “Given some of the things that happened in the red zone and our lack of execution in situational football,” said Tomlin, “we’ll explore the possibility of utilizing (Bryant) this week.” Far from being a guarantee, the Steelers could benefit from a player stepping up right now.
McLendon’s shoulder injury opens the door for rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers to get his first start in week seven as well. “(McCullers is) a young guy who has worked hard to develop his skills throughout the course of the work weeks here at the practice facility and has improved over the course of the last six weeks,” Tomlin admitted, calling the rooke a “strong candidate” to start. McCullers would be a big addition to the center of the defensive line, and not just because of his size. He has shown the ability to handle double-teams from opposing offensive lines and preventing the run. Against Arian Foster, McCullers may get his first big test at the next level.
Stephon Tuitt is a strong candidate to see more playing time, as is cornerback Brice McCain. Tuitt has been seeing steady increases in the number of snaps he has played with the defense over the past three weeks. Against the Browns, Tuitt saw 18 snaps and has recorded two tackles. McCain, who nabbed a pix-six to seal the win for the Steelers over the Jacksonville Jaguars, is likely to get a boost after a poor performance from the defensive backfield that was shredded by Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland receivers.
“Not only (McCain’s) play is deserving of consideration,” said Tomlin, “but under the circumstances, because of some of the inconsistent play of others, he’s under consideration for more playing time…and rightfully so.”
The overall look of the Steelers will not be a dramatic change. Offensive and defensive schemes are expected to remain the same, but the change in personnel could be beneficial to the struggling Pittsburgh squad against a Houston team that is seeking redemption after back-to-back losses. Tomlin called the changes “an effort to maximize the capability of guys and to adjust the mix of guys we’re playing”. Although he claims that the adjustments are just a normal part of any football season, the move to change how the Steelers look on the field against the Texans may have been predicated by a sense of urgency after such a demoralizing loss in Cleveland.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on