A promising 2-0 start for the Pittsburgh Steelers has turned into a midseason slide as injuries have taken their toll.
Pittsburgh is 4-3 during its off week and patiently waits for a number of important players to return to the lineup.
There are signs that a few of them might heal in time for the Nov. 6 game in Baltimore, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, right tackle Marcus Gilbert, receiver Markus Wheaton and defensive end Cam Heyward.
When the Steelers have their full cast of players, they're one of the most talented teams in the NFL. But injuries at key positions have spotlighted problems with depth across the team, and it's been a struggle in recent weeks as teams have exploited weaknesses created by injuries.
With Heyward out of the lineup, Miami and New England ran all over the Steelers - including Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount rushing for 127 yards. That prompted inside linebacker Ryan Shazier to call the performance of the run defense "garbage" and Heyward to accuse his teammates of quitting.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler didn't agree with Heyward, but acknowledged there are problems with the run defense.
"We have to play harder," Butler said. "We have to play more physical. I don't know what his (mindset) is on that. We're all frustrated at this point in time. We don't like being 4-3. We'd rather be 5-2 or 6-1. There's a little more frustration for all of us."
The run defense isn't the only thing that's ailing for Butler's unit. The pass defense continues to give up nearly 300 yards per game. The secondary doesn't have an interception and the team only has eight sacks through the first seven games.
"Everything is hurting right now," Butler said. "It's not just the secondary. It's rush and coverage. It's tackling. There are a lot of things we're not doing well. We need to take care of some intricate details of the defenses. And that's on the coaches. We have to do a better job coaching."
With Roethlisberger and many of his skill players in and out of the lineup, the offense hasn't developed consistency - although there is a strong feeling things could come together again soon when players get healthy.
"That can't be an excuse for us," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of the injuries. "Whoever is in there has to execute their job on a down in, down out basis because we're not looking for excuses. We had every opportunity to put ourselves in position to win Sunday and it was the little details why we didn't get it done. It's guys doing what they're supposed to do. That would have been plenty good enough to give ourselves a chance to win."
Even when Roethlisberger was healthy and he had a healthier supporting cast, the Steelers have been up and down on offense. The same team that scored 30 points or more against the Redskins, Chiefs and Jets scored 16 or fewer against the Patriots, Dolphins and Eagles.
"It's pretty obvious we need to be more consistent game in and game out," Haley said. "We've shown we're capable of putting up a lot of points when we execute (the) run and pass. In the games we haven't (scored as much), we haven't executed the finer details of the game plan. We just need to have more consistency across the board. If we do that, we'll make good things happen."
-- Tight end Ladarius Green practiced with the Steelers for the first time Tuesday. Green signed as a free agent in March, but an ankle injury and recurring headaches prevented him from practicing with the Steelers this spring and summer. He spent the first seven weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list.
The Steelers have 21 days to decide whether they'll activate him to the 53-man roster or keep him on the PUP list for the remainder of the season. After two practices this week and four more before the Ravens game, Green said that's plenty of time to prepare for his first game.
"I would hope so," said Green, when asked if six practices were enough. "I'd just have to see how it feels that week and see how the coaches feel about it. I wanted to play the first game. It's up to the coaches and what they feel is best."
-- Butler is witnessing something he hasn't seen a lot in his 14 years with the Steelers. Opponents have run the ball almost at will on his defense the past two weeks.
One week after Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi ran for 204 yards, Blount rushed for 127 at Heinz Field.
"Some of it, we're just getting knocked off the dang gumball," Butler said. "Some of it we have to be a lot more physical than we were. And we're trying to correct that. I think these guys have enough pride and the history of this franchise is that we've always played the run pretty well. In the 14 years I've been here, we've always been good against the run. We intend to be that again this year."