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Mike Tomlin cites Steelers ‘situational defense’ as problematic

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Running back Ezekiel Elliott (15) of the New England Patriots dives for a touchdown in the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium on December 07, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin addressed the media Monday, opening up his press conference addressing the team’s Week 14 loss to the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football. A big part of that, of course, was addressing the defense, having allowed 21 total points to the Patriots — their second-highest point total all season after entering Week 14 with a 2-10 record.

“Certainly, we’ve had some ills that have been kind of consistent throughout the year, but particularly in the past couple of weeks, I thought our situational defense was significant — our inability to hold people to field goals in the red area. We’ve talked a lot about it, about the attrition component of the interior portions of our defense at linebacker and subpackage and what that has done to us in terms of some schematics,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin was referring to their recent struggles at inside linebacker following season-ending injuries to starter Cole Holcomb and then to Kwon Alexander. Since Week 11, linebacker Elandon Roberts has played a pivotal role with the bulk of snaps at inside linebacker, with depth pieces Mykal Walker and Mark Robinson rotating in and out of the lineup. Given how crucial the linebacker position can be to the overall communication of the defense, it’s not difficult to understand where some of these lapses have originated.

Tomlin does note, however, the positives here; now, after playing Week 14 on a shortened schedule due to Thursday Night Football, they’ve had a bit more time to fully evaluate their linebacker corps and the best way to utilize their skillsets moving forward.

“I’m excited about getting a full week opportunity to clean some of that stuff up. First of all, some of the guys that we’re using, it’s reasonable to expect those guys to be better with more exposure, but also, we’ll get a full week to craft a plan to highlight what it is that they do well and divide the labor up in a way that can limit some of those things that transpired,” Tomlin said.

In that planning, the coaching staff will need to spend a good amount of time addressing a plan for coverage over the middle of the field. Walker in particular has struggled in coverage, having allowed 114 receiving yards and three touchdowns in just 97 coverage snaps over the past four games per PFF. The tight ends, in particular, have taken full advantage in those games, as the Steelers have allowed a league-high four touchdowns to the position since Week 11.

Tomlin closed out his thoughts on Week 14 by addressing some of the things they need to get back to on defense — namely, regarding their red zone defense.

“We got put on a short field a week ago and we weren’t able to hold them to a field goal and really, that’s the difference in the outcome in the game. Under normal circumstances, as a defense, we get off in those tough circumstances; we hold people to field goals. We keep them out of the end zone. We play better red zone defense than we have in recent weeks. And so, we have some work to do, obviously, there.” The Steelers allowed a touchdown on each of the Patriots' two red zone drives in Week 14.

The Steelers again have a short week, set to play the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, December 16 as part of a special Saturday three-game NFL slate in the absence of college football.