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 PITTSBURGH (AP) -Mike Tomlin knew this was coming. He just didn't know when.
Six games into his NFL head coaching career, Tomlin is dealing with this question for the first time: Did the Pittsburgh Steelers lose a game because he was outcoached? Or because he overcoached?
The Steelers' run-heavy offense appeared to have the perfect matchup against Denver and its AFC-worst rushing defense. In their previous game, the Broncos gave up 214 yards rushing in a 41-3 loss to San Diego in Denver.
Instead of trying to exploit Denver's biggest weakness, the Steelers all but abandoned the run early and, despite scoring on their opening drive, twice fell behind by 14 points before losing 31-28.
No wonder the post-game water cooler talk in Pittsburgh has centered on why the Steelers appeared so determined to win with the pass rather than the run, even if Tomlin disputed that notion Tuesday.
``The reality is our game plan was really no different than what it's been all year,'' Tomlin said. ``Willie Parker ran the ball 10 times for 48 yards in the first half, and he ran it 10 times for 17 yards in the first half (Oct. 7) against Seattle. But Seattle was characterized as a great running game because of how we finished, how we won the game.''
However, Tomlin's explanation differed from what he offered minutes after the Steelers lost their second in a row on the road. Then, he intimated the Steelers were forced to throw when Denver loaded eight defenders along the line of scrimmage to try to stop the run.
``We knew they would come out in preparation to stop the run, and they (did),'' Tomlin said after the game. ``It's the same cat-and-mouse chess game.''
Tomlin insists the Steelers didn't overreact by giving up on the run early and weren't duped by Broncos coach Mike Shanahan into abandoning the run, even though Ben Roethlisberger threw, or attempted to, on 10 of the first 13 plays.
On their opening drive, the Steelers threw six times on an eight-play, 60-yard drive that ended with Roethlisberger's 1-yard scoring pass to tight end Heath Miller. Parker carried twice for three yards on that drive, then got the ball only once on the Steelers' next two possessions.
``I don't think it (the game plan) was any different than it is any other week,'' Tomlin said. ``We always come out with the plan we're going to spread the football around, and explore what we're capable of doing to a team, making them defend the entire field horizontally and vertically.''
Despite Parker finishing with 93 yards on 21 carries, the question persists. Why didn't they run more when they had a chance to take control of the game early.
The Steelers' 119 yards rushing were easily the fewest against Denver since Buffalo ran for 112 during the Broncos' season-opening 15-14 victory.
``We win by attrition, we wear teams down over the long haul, over 60 minutes and we run the ball,'' Tomlin said. ``But when you're down 14 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter, you don't have the opportunity to do that and that's the reality of that.''
While Tomlin dismissed poor game planning as a possible reason for the loss, he was unhappy with a defense that allowed Jay Cutler to throw for three touchdowns and 248 yards and Denver to pile up 324 yards.
``Don't get me wrong, you give credit to your opponent for executing, but their success is usually your failure,'' Tomlin said. ``There were instances in this football game where we just weren't where we were supposed to be. That's just the reality of it.
``When the quarterback had a nice 31-yard play on a scramble, we weren't where we were supposed to be. When they hit the tight end down the field on their first scoring drive, for a significant gain, we weren't where we're supposed to be. We've got to get better and we've got to get better in a lot of areas.''
Notes: WR Hines Ward, who returned after missing two games, had some post-game swelling and pain in his right knee but no more than was expected, Tomlin said. ... Tomlin on rookie LB LaMarr Woodley: ``You're talking about a guy who probably has played 65, 66 snaps and has three sacks. That tells us we need to play him more,'' possibly starting Sunday at Cincinnati.
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