PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin understands and likely shares (on some unspoken level anyway) wide receiver Diontae Johnson's problems with the officiating during Pittsburgh's unwieldy 20-10 loss to Jacksonville on Sunday.
Yet the longtime Steelers coach isn't about to blame another three-plus hours of erratic play on the officials.
The way Tomlin figures it, there's one sure way to make them irrelevant: play better.
“It is our desire to win definitively where potentially controversial calls are less significant,” Tomlin said. “That’s what good teams do. That’s what elite teams do. It is our desire to be a good and elite team.”
Desire, yes. Reality, no. At least not yet. Not by a long shot.
Nearly halfway through 2023, Pittsburgh's margin for error remains impossibly thin.
For all the grit the Steelers show when things get tight — they're 4-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer this season — one misstep or one call that doesn't go their way can have ripple effects that extend far beyond the next snap.
The bizarre and rarely enforced offside penalty that cost the Steelers a field goal late in the first half against Jacksonville took on an outsized meaning in the game because of the offense's continued inability to play with any sense of rhythm.
Instead of being within 9-6 at the end of the half, Pittsburgh trailed 9-3. The difference is sizable for a team that has nine offensive touchdowns — or four fewer than San Francisco's Christian McCaffrey has by himself.
Twice the Steelers defense kept the Jaguars in check to start the third quarter and twice the offense did nothing with backup Mitch Trubisky taking over for the injured Kenny Pickett.
Jacksonville finally broke through late in the quarter on a 56-yard touchdown pass from Trevor Lawrence to Travis Etienne that gave the Jaguars a 14-point lead that felt much larger.
Pittsburgh needs to capitalize on every opportunity to score because they simply don't come around as often as required for a team that likes to think it's a contender in the AFC North.
There was a time when the roster was littered with playmakers who could erase sizable deficits or break games open instantly. At the moment, they have rarely do either.
Every game is nip and tuck, decided by a few plays here and there. While Tomlin dismisses his team's notoriously slow starts — it took Pittsburgh four series to generate a single first down against the Jaguars, a not uncommon occurrence this season — a little early scoring would go a long way to helping the Steelers avoid situations such as Sunday's, when a call or two (or three) that doesn't go their way can play an outsized role in the outcome.
“You just simply got to make those things, those (calls) less significant by the quality of your play, by winning and winning definitively," Tomlin said. “Obviously, we didn’t play well enough for that to transpire.”
Might be time to start.
The defense continues to give up yards, but consistently makes up for it by producing turnovers. The Steelers created three takeaways against Jacksonville, all of them in Pittsburgh territory when the Jaguars had a chance to extend their lead.
Whether that's sustainable with All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick out indefinitely with a hamstring injury is uncertain. While Fitzpatrick doesn't have a takeaway this season, his presence on the field creates opportunities for others.
There is an almost metronome-like quality to the start of Steelers games. The offense jogs onto the field, runs three plays, and then punter Pressley Harvin III punts.
Five of Pittsburgh’s seven games have begun with the offense going three-and-out. The Steelers have yet to generate any points on their opening drives this season ... or even take a snap in opposing territory.
While offensive coordinator Matt Canada has become the focus of derision — some of it oddly personal — from the fan base, Tomlin has made it a point to put the onus on the players. And considering there were plays they left on the field on the opening series against Jacksonville, he's not wrong.
Rookie outside linebacker Nick Herbig continues to make an impact while playing limited snaps. A week after getting his first career sack with a takedown of Los Angeles Rams' star Matthew Stafford, Herbig forced a fumble by Jacksonville's Tank Gigsby to snuff out a Jaguars' drive.
The tight ends have virtually disappeared with starter Pat Freiermuth on injured reserve after aggravating a hamstring injury. Connor Heyward caught two passes while rookie Darnell Washington saw the field for 10 snaps or two fewer than recently promoted practice squad player Rodney Williams.
Tomlin left the door “ajar” for Pickett to play against Tennessee. If he can't go, Trubisky will start. ... Veteran defensive tackle Cam Heyward could be available against the Titans. Heyward has been on injured reserve since tearing a muscle in his groin against San Francisco in the season opener. Heyward returned to practice last week.
7-1 — Pittsburgh's home record on Thursday nights since the format was introduced on a regular basis in 2006.
Bring Titans rookie QB Will Levis back down to earth after Levis threw four touchdown passes in his first start on Sunday against Atlanta.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL