PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin wasn't trying to undermine his defense's confidence. The Pittsburgh Steelers coach was merely stating a fact.
Faced with a fourth down at the Pittsburgh 29 late in the fourth quarter of a tie game on Sunday, Tomlin made the unorthodox decision to go for it. While he pointed to the short distance as a factor, there was another one at play as well.
"I wasn't going to punt the football to them," Tomlin said. "We hadn't stopped them enough in the second half to do that."
The Steelers made the yardage to keep the ball, but it didn't matter anyway. The Raiders got one more crack at it, and the Steelers' suddenly erratic defense crumbled again in a 34-31 loss.
"We have to chew on this one for a while obviously and it's not going to go down easy as it should," Tomlin said. "But it won't define us."
Maybe, but Pittsburgh (1-2) will need to wait at least two weeks before getting a chance to wipe out the taste of a particularly disastrous fourth quarter in which a 10-point lead turned into a third straight road loss.
The Steelers — below .500 three weeks into the season for the first time since 2009 — are off next weekend before hosting Philadelphia on Oct. 7 in a game that could have more riding on it than state bragging rights. It's early, but with Baltimore (2-1) and Cincinnati (2-1) off to solid starts, Pittsburgh appears to be in serious need of a reboot.
Two weeks after Peyton Manning keyed a second-half explosion that sent the Steelers to a 31-19 loss, Carson Palmer did the same in Oakland.
Four times the Raiders had the ball after halftime. Four times they scored, including Sebastian Janikowski's 43-yard field goal on the game's final play. Oakland converted 7 of 8 third-down attempts in the second half and Janikowski's winning boot came on third and 10.
"If an offense scores 31 points you should win the game," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We have to do better on defense to keep people out of the end zone."
Keisel tried to place the loss solely on his shoulders. While he jumped offsides early in the fourth quarter to give the Raiders a first down deep in Pittsburgh territory, there was plenty of blame to go around.
Pittsburgh's defense allowed Oakland's anemic running game — which began the day 31st in rushing yards and last in yards per attempt — to roll up 119 yards on the ground and average a healthy 5.7 yards per carry.
The Steelers only got to Palmer once on a first-quarter sack by LaMarr Woodley, and Palmer managed to escape a rush from Woodley and Keisel to fire a 6-yard touchdown pass to Denarius Moore to bring Oakland with a field goal early in the fourth quarter.
No wonder Tomlin opted to gamble on fourth down even with the ball well within Janikowski's field goal range should the Steelers have failed. Isaac Redman plowed ahead for six yards, but it still didn't keep Pittsburgh from punting it away to give the Raiders the ball back with 1:43 to go.
Six plays took Oakland 49 yards and suddenly the Steelers — dominant a week ago in a romp over the New York Jets — don't look nearly as imposing.
While Keisel allowed the defense certainly missed injured starters James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, they didn't play against the Jets either and the Steelers managed just fine.
Of course, that game was home. Pittsburgh doesn't look quite so comfortable on the road, where it has dropped four of its last five dating back to last season.
"We've got to step into hostile environments and play ball," Keisel said. "We can't just be reliant upon Heinz Field. In order for us to be the team we want to be we have to play well on the road. We haven't shown that we can do that yet."
Showing anything resembling the tenacity that's been part of the franchise's hallmark for the better part of the last decade would help. At the rate, Pittsburgh's offense is producing, the defense need only be reliable for the Steelers to thrive.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rolled up 384 passing yards and tossed four touchdowns and Pittsburgh controlled possession for more than 36 minutes for the second straight game.
The Raiders hardly needed the ball, however, to post their highest point total in a year and leave the Steelers with a long plane ride home and two weeks of anxiousness ahead.
"We've got to close out," wide receiver Mike Wallace said. "We just kept giving them ways back into the game. We just can't do that, we've got to be able to close out the game. If we want to be a playoff, Super Bowl caliber team, we can't lose games like that."
The Steelers have already lost two of them.
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