Tomlin's response to the Super Bowl champions' latest improbable loss and the franchise's longest losing streak since a five-game slide in 2003? He's taking out an eraser and wiping away names.
A starter gone here, a backup moving up there. A rookie starts, a veteran goes to the bench.
The Steelers traditionally don't make panicky personnel moves or bench a player because of a bad game or two. But what Tomlin calls "a pattern of behavior that's unacceptable" during a four-game slump will result in lineup changes Thursday in Cleveland.
"I assure you there are going to be some," Tomlin said Monday, calling the Steelers "a very average team ... and our recent record might indicate that's a kind assessment."
Rookie cornerback Joe Burnett is expected to start for the oft-beaten William Gay, who sustained a concussion late in the Steelers' can-you-believe-it 27-24 loss to the Raiders on Sunday. Gay might not play in Cleveland.
"We can't stay status quo in terms of how we're approaching this and expect the pattern of behavior or outcome to change," Tomlin said. "That's unrealistic. That's hoping. This is not a hope business."
Tomlin, who hasn't been tested like this previously during his three seasons in Pittsburgh, stayed patient during an 18-12 loss to Cincinnati and twin overtime defeats to the Chiefs and Ravens. Losing three leads in the fourth quarter against the lowly Raiders (4-8) made him lose that, and a lot more.
Tomlin was as close to agitated as he gets in public on Monday, suggesting longevity and loyalty don't count for nearly as much when a team is losing like the Steelers are.
"Nothing stays the same in this game," Tomlin said. "Players are ascending, players are descending. People catch up with schemes, schemes evolve. Playing and coaching, this thing is ever-changing."
A defense that was easily the NFL's best a year ago squandered three leads in the final eight-plus minutes Sunday as Bruce Gradkowski became the first Raiders quarterback in 30 years to throw three TD passes in the fourth quarter. It was the fifth time in six losses the Steelers' defense couldn't hold a lead in the fourth quarter.
Wide receiver Santonio Holmes said "the party was getting ready to get started" when Ward caught an 11-yard TD pass in the final two minutes that put Pittsburgh ahead 24-20, but the defense didn't hold up.
"That's how we felt, knowing that the offense went down and did our job," Holmes said. "We left everything to the defense. A couple of mishaps here and there, and they (the Raiders) won the ballgame."
A couple of mishaps against the Chiefs and Raiders, two teams that figured to give them little trouble, and the Steelers are 6-6 instead of being at least 8-4. No wonder Tomlin is concerned about his team's confidence, which was shaken when the special teams recently gave up four kickoff return touchdowns in five games.
"You've got to acknowledge the potential this can be kind of a shaken group," Tomlin said. "We've swallowed a lot. I'm going to be looking very closely at these men ... in terms of who legitimately is mentally tough and who can stand the test of adversity."
No matter what happens down the stretch, the Steelers are expected to undergo more changes than usual during the offseason. There could be coaching staff moves -- none was made following the Super Bowl win -- and more departing veterans than usual, particularly from a defense loaded with starters in their 30s.
It hasn't helped that star safety Tory Polamalu has missed seven games and most of two others with a pair of left knee injuries. The Steelers are 2-5 when he doesn't start, and he's unlikely to play in Cleveland.
"I'm, not going to make excuses," Tomlin said. "I think we're capable of playing winning football with or without Troy. Are we different? Yes, because Troy's a unique individual. Maybe the ceiling is different but the floor, the level of expectation, is the same."
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press