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September 25, 2013

Steelers RB Bell could be ready for Vikings

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is trying to keep things as normal as he can these days, believing routine and repetition will lead to a sense of comfort and — he hopes — success.

Good luck with that.

Winless in North America in 2013, the Steelers (0-3) will try to snap out of their funk on Sunday in London when they face the Minnesota Vikings (0-3).

While Minnesota is already overseas, Pittsburgh will remain on this side of the Atlantic until Thursday evening.

By the time the Steelers arrive in London, they will have less than 48 hours to overcome jet lag and try to turn around their season. It isn’t ideal, Tomlin said, but it beats the alternative.

“I value normalcy in the early portions of the week from a preparation standpoint and from a practice standpoint — use of our facilities, the comforts of home if you will,” Tomlin said.

Even if “home” isn’t exactly comfortable these days.

Pittsburgh is off to its worst start since 2000 after falling to Chicago 40-23 on Sunday night. While the beleaguered offense took a major step forward in piling up 458 yards — the team’s highest total in four years — the Steelers also turned over the ball five times. Ben Roethlisberger threw two interceptions and fumbled twice, with two of the miscues leading to defensive touchdowns.

It’s the kind of sloppy play Roethlisberger has generally avoided during his 10 years at quarterback. Then again, he isn’t getting much help from the guys in front of him. The Bears stunted and twisted their way into the backfield all night, leading to what Tomlin called “confusion” that gave Roethlisberger little time to get his feet set and throw.

“All it takes is five to 10 (breakdowns) to produce catastrophic-like results, and that’s some of the things that are occurring,” he said. “Obviously, we need to strive for more consistency to minimize those things.”

A more productive running game would help. The Steelers actually took a significant step forward against the Bears, rushing for a season-high 80 yards, including a 25-yard burst from recently reacquired Jonathan Dwyer.

While it gave Pittsburgh confidence it could run the ball, it didn’t include any job security for either Dwyer or Felix Jones. Both figure to head back to the bench if rookie running back Le’Veon Bell makes his season debut.

Bell hasn’t played since spraining his right foot in a preseason game against Washington last month. He has been cleared to participate in practice, and Tomlin is “optimistic” the second-round pick will be able to run onto the field at Wembley Stadium on Sunday night.

Ditto cornerback Cortez Allen, who has missed the last two weeks with an ankle injury. Slated to start after Keenan Lewis left for New Orleans in free agency, Allen has been slowed almost from the start of training camp. He missed three weeks following a minor knee procedure before the ankle issues popped up.

Though William Gay did a solid, if not, spectacular job in Allen’s absence, Allen has an ability to make things happen when he plays. The Steelers are the only team in the NFL not to create a turnover through the season’s first three weeks. Allen had a hand in two turnovers in the 2012 regular-season finale against Cleveland, the last time Pittsburgh was able to pry the ball away.

And for all the progress the Steelers saw in certain areas against Chicago — including a more consistent pass rush, and wide receiver Antonio Brown’s career-high 196 yards receiving — the biggest issue is valuing the football. Pittsburgh hasn’t done that through 12 quarters. The Steelers’ minus-9 turnover margin is tied with the Giants for the worst in the league.

Tomlin doesn’t like to lay blame in any one place, but allowed that Roethlisberger needs to keep himself and his team out of situations that lead to mistakes.

“I expect Ben to be better, Ben expects himself to be better,” Tomlin said. “We’ll continue to work to do that.”

NOTES: Tomlin said DE Brett Keisel and NT Steve McLendon are dealing with hamstring issues but are expected to play. ... TE Heath Miller, who had three receptions in his return from right knee surgery, will have an expanded role against Minnesota if there are no setbacks this week. ... Tomlin has no concerns about the turf at Wembley Stadium, saying punter Zoltan Mesko — who played there for New England last season — called it “awesome.”

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