There are many words that could be used to describe the ongoing issues that face the Steelers and contributed to their 27-24 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Two words however, stand out not just for this past game, but for much of the season as well: lackadaisical and lax.
Lackadaisical is an adjective meaning "without interest, vigor, or determination; listless, lethargic". For example: "Antonio Brown appeared lackadaisical given the way he failed to notice the punt was 17 yards short in the last two minutes of regulation".
Lax is an adjective meaning "lacking in rigor, strictness or firmness". For example: Todd Haley was extremely lax in his use of the running game against the Cowboys.
Many of the key Steelers have been in a lackadaisical mind set in four of their last five games. How else to explain the Steelers "coming out flat" against the Chargers and Browns (and before them the Chiefs)? How else to explain more than one player describing a lack of focus, a lack of attention or a lack of determination?
Tomlin brought in Todd Haley to design an offense that would maximize franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's skill sets, but with a "Rooney suggested" emphasis on "running better".
And how well is that "running better" turning out? It's hard for the running game to be better, or even exist when the best back on the team is suspended and the designated lead running back only gets nine touches in an important game.
How else to describe Todd Haley's commitment to the running game against the Cowboys, other than lackadaisical? It seems almost as if while putting together the game plan, Haley thought to himself: "oh, tra la la la la, let's try a run just for fun".
The very first play of the game, Dwyer ran over the left tackle for six yards. He wouldn't touch the ball again until the eighth Steelers play, which came in the second series; Dwyer ran over the left tackle again for four yards but again wouldn't see the ball again until the third series, this time for no gain.
For the entire game, the Steelers only ran the ball 17 times, or barely 30 percent. It is hard to believe Haley felt the Steelers couldn't run on the Cowboys, because in the third quarter he called for Dwyer to run behind rookie RG David DeCastro from the one yard line when the Steelers needed a crucial touchdown to tie the score. If Haley had such concerns over their ability to run, why didn't he call for a fade route to Mike Wallace, even if just to make sure Wallace was paying attention?
Two weeks ago Steelers WR Mike Wallace said: "When I don't get the ball for a certain amount of time, I lose focus sometimes. It hurts me when it's time for me to make a play,"
Last night, Steelers WR Antonio Brown was quoted as saying: "After the fumble, I got a little lax back there," Brown said.
How else other than lackadaisical can you describe the way Brown has been playing recently? Brown was referring to what he was doing just before Dallas' punt at the 2:11 mark in the fourth quarter, with the score tied and the Steelers' depleted secondary having forced the Cowboys to punt on from their own 17 yard line. Brown was back deep and allowed a 42 yard punt that hit on the Steelers 37, 17 yards in front of him, to bounce its way to him where he side-stepped and watched as the Cowboys downed it on the 20 yard line.
A 17 yard difference in field position in a tied game at the two minute warning in the fourth quarter; how much more of an important point in the game does Brown need to find himself before he's capable of not being "a little lax"? Couldn't he have day-dreamed about the touchdown he scored instead of the fumble he committed?
Lax is how Brown held the ball while returning a punt for 22 yards earlier in the fourth quarter, enabling the Cowboys to easily knock it loose and giving the Cowboys the ball on the Steelers 44 yard line, and ultimately resulting in them tying the score. Lax, as in holding it without firmness, his adherence to proper ball handling lacking in rigor (rigor: an inflexible adherence to something).
This, coming on the heels of last week's lapse where he failed to fall on a loose ball in the end zone and allowed the San Diego Chargers to fall on it for a touchdown.
Lackadaisical is also how best to describe Curtis Brown's obvious mindset after the Ravens game two weeks ago; it's a word he should have used to describe his lack of focus and lack of the proper "spirit" in preparing for the Chargers, who torched him so well.
And lax is a fine word to describe Mike Wallace, from his own confession of "losing focus" during a game. He just can't seem to manage a full 60 minutes of rigorous attention to the game. Wallace played fairly well against the Cowboys, four catches for 95 yards, especially his 60 yard catch setting up Dwyer's touchdown run. Sadly, such effort was for naught as he apparently lost focus again in overtime and only half-heartedly attempted to down Cowboys' LCB Brandon Carr after he intercepted Roethlisberger's slightly errant throw. Wallace hesitated a few too many crucial seconds, which allowed Carr to get to his feet and out-race (?) Wallace down the sideline. Of course, flinching away from a defender approaching from his right to block him didn't show much rigor on Wallace's part either.
This season is already being compared to the Steelers' 2009 fiasco of a year, where they lost five in a row and ultimately missed the playoffs. This year, their streak isn't five consecutive losses, but nonetheless it's four losses out of the last five games, and counting. And while the Steelers still remain mathematically in the hunt for a playoff position, and many fans are thinking "tra la la la la, what's one more loss?", what credible evidence do we have that the Steelers will overcome their listlessness and rediscover the vigor and determination they will need to manage to get to 9-7 and into the playoffs?