PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin believes the Pittsburgh Steelers' lack of physicality in a one-sided loss to Houston is nothing a padded practice can't fix.
Less than 48 hours after promising “changes” in the immediate aftermath of a 30-6 demolition at the hands of the Texans, Tomlin struck a different chord on Tuesday.
The changes — if any — ahead of Sunday's visit from AFC North rival Baltimore (3-1) will be subtle, and they won't include tinkering with who is calling the plays for an offense that has managed all of four touchdowns through four games and is last in the NFL in first downs.
Asked specifically if he was going to shift play-calling responsibilities away from embattled offensive coordinator Matt Canada, Tomlin responded simply “at this juncture, no.”
Instead, Tomlin stressed the need to put the pads on during practice, something the staff chose not to do over the past two weeks following primetime games, one of which included a return trip home from Las Vegas that was interrupted by an unexpected layover in Kansas City because of a mechanical issue with the club's charter plane.
Tomlin believes the lack of padded practices forced the Steelers to need time to “warm up” to the game on Sunday. Houston didn't have that problem, rolling up 451 yards while manhandling Pittsburgh for long stretches.
“The physicality component of it needs to be non-negotiable,” Tomlin said. “That’s just how we function. That’s Pittsburgh Steelers football.”
Maybe historically, but not so far through the opening month of the season. Pittsburgh's offense has sputtered, particularly early in games. And the run defense has been spotty at best with veteran defensive tackle Cam Heyward sidelined for at least two months while recovering from groin surgery.
The Steelers have given up at least 139 yards on the ground in three of their four games. And while the Texans didn't break off a run the way San Francisco and Cleveland did earlier in the season, the pile was “always moving forward” when Houston tried to run.
Tomlin said it became apparent early on his team was not ready to match Houston's toughness, admitting he said during the middle of the game his club would ramp it up in practice this week.
If Pittsburgh (2-2) wants to have any chance to slow down the Ravens, it doesn't really have a choice. Baltimore and star quarterback Lamar Jackson are in the top four in the NFL in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns through four games.
“We have got to rectify (our physicality),” Tomlin said.
On both sides of the ball, which could be a challenge with Pittsburgh's offensive line in flux. First-round pick Broderick Jones will get his first start at left tackle with starter Dan Moore Jr. out with a knee injury. Tight end Pat Freiermuth is doubtful with a groin injury, though Tomlin is optimistic guard James Daniels will be able to play after sitting out in Houston with a groin issue.
Quarterback Kenny Pickett, who left in the third quarter with a bone bruise in his left knee, will practice on Wednesday. Pickett's response to the practice load will determine whether he will be able to play on Sunday. If he can't go, backup Mitch Trubisky will get the start.
Tomlin would like whomever is under center — particularly if it's Pickett — to make quicker decisions early in games in an effort to get the offense going. The Steelers have just three first downs in the first quarter this season and while much of the heat has been directed toward Canada, Tomlin believes more “fluid" play by Pickett would help Pittsburgh get things going sooner.
Pickett is 29th in passer rating and completion percentage and has already thrown four interceptions, three of which have come in the first half.
“I think that’ll be a focus for him and for us because it’s not just him,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to be assignment perfect. If we hit the ball and come out on time, guys got to be where they need to be. They’ve got to win individual one-on-one matchups and do so quickly.”