Steelers closing ranks as losing streak mounts

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs after making a catch during the second half of an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Ramon Foster knows the drill, even if it’s one the Pittsburgh Steelers have been largely able to avoid most of the last four-plus decades.

When a team that began September with realistic Super Bowl expectations finds itself listing as Thanksgiving nears like the Steelers (4-5) are following a late defensive meltdown cost them against Dallas on Sunday, drama – either real or imagined – is sure to follow.

It’s why Foster found himself at his locker on Monday answering questions about everything from the team’s confidence in coach Mike Tomlin to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s grousing about accountability.

“When you have that type of hype and you don’t live up to it in the middle of the season, you kind of lose a lot people,” Foster said. “I’m OK with that. We’ll be fine.”

Eventually perhaps, but not at the moment. While Foster remains resolute that there’s time for Pittsburgh to get it together – starting with a trip on Sunday to winless Cleveland (0-10) – he understands the angst. The Steelers were supposed to challenge Denver and New England for AFC supremacy. Instead they’re under .500 and behind underwhelming Baltimore in the blah AFC North.

“The thing we can’t do is bury ourselves,” Foster said. “At this point it seems everybody is against us.”

Yet Foster stressed the Steelers are not against themselves. Asked if he’s aware of a sense of growing dissatisfaction from the outside about Tomlin, Foster just shrugged his shoulders.

“It’s easy to do that,” Foster said. “You go for the head. If (anything) goes wrong, it rolls from the top down.”

Foster thinks the blame is better resting elsewhere, namely on the 53 men who are in the middle of a four-game slide that’s removed all of the good vibes surrounding a 4-1 start. He has little issue with Tomlin’s decision to attempt four 2-point conversions, even if all of them failed.

“I’d do it again though,” Foster said. “We practice it. Who’s to say, maybe it’ll work for us in the Super Bowl?”

Foster punctuated the response with a smile. Considering the state of the division, the Steelers are hardly out of it. Yet they hardly look like a team capable of making any sort of postseason noise should they even manage to make it.

They did at times against the Cowboys, taking an early nine-point lead and twice scoring touchdowns to go in front in the fourth quarter. If either of those touchdowns hold up – Le’Veon Bell’s lunging 1-yard dive or Roethlisberger’s fake spike that turned into a 15-yard lob to Antonio Brown – Pittsburgh is back above .500 after knocking off the hottest team in the NFL.

It’s a razor thin margin between narratives and it doesn’t take someone who’s been around like Foster to figure it out. It’s why rookie safety Sean Davis couldn’t stop replaying the 15-yard facemask penalty on Cowboys tight end Jason Witten that set the stage for Ezekiel Elliott’s clinching 32-yard sprint with 9 seconds to go.

“Yeah, it ate me up a little bit last night,” Davis said. “But it’s over. Can’t do anything about it right now. You shouldn’t see any more facemask penalties for me for a very long time.”

That’s Davis trying to hold himself accountable, an issue Roethlisberger hinted at in frustration in the middle of a quiet Pittsburgh locker room Sunday afternoon. Roethlisberger called his team “undisciplined and not accountable” but declined to get into specifics, simply calling it a feeling.

Foster described Roethlisberger’s message as simply “take on your own battles first,” meaning handle your business before worrying about someone else’s. Of course the tenor changes completely if Dallas doesn’t score last.

“That’s the NFL,” linebacker Arthur Moats said. “There’s no moral victories. It’s pass/fail. We understand that coming in … we know the type of team that we have. We know the potential we have.”

They’re running out of time to show it. Four of Pittsburgh’s next five games are on the road and even the luckless Browns hardly seem like a pushover for a team that hasn’t won away from Heinz Field since Week 1.

“At this point we’d be very idiotic to think Cleveland is not going to play us as hard as they can,” Foster said. “They’re 0-8 or 0-9 and we’re freaking 0-4 in our last four games. They’re going to be champing at the bit.”