An elephant the size of Heinz Field was in the room during Mike Tomlin's annual Tuesday press conference. A few reporters alluded to it before The Athletic's Mark Kaboly directly asked Mike Tomlin the question every Steelers fan has been thinking over the past three weeks.
Mike, you know it's a pretty passionate fan base here in Pittsburgh, and a lot of people want you to move on from Ben (Roethlisberger) right now. What do you say to those fans who want you to make that move?
Tomlin -- to borrow one of his favorite phrases -- didn't blink when offering his response.
"I think Ben and I have been in our jobs long enough that we know and understand what comes with it," Tomlin said. "We love Pittsburgh PA. We love Steeler Nation and appreciate the passion that they have and we understand the responsibilities that come with our roles. He being the quarterback, me being the head coach, oftentimes we get too much credit when things are going well, and we're always ready to absorb the negativity of our position when things aren't going well. That's just life for us."
The questions surrounding Ben Roethlisberger are not just a result of how the future Hall of Fame quarterback has played over the past three games. It's also a reflection of the current state of the team. At 1-3, the Steelers are two games behind the rest of the field in the AFC North. The offense has scored just five touchdowns in four games. Roethlisberger, who Tomlin revealed is currently dealing with a hip injury, has struggled with his accuracy. He has also received subpar protection from a young offensive line. The Steelers' running game, 32nd in the NFL last season, is 32nd this season entering this Sunday's game against the 3-1 Broncos.
Things look murky in Pittsburgh, but Tomlin and Roethlisberger -- at least record-wise -- have been in similar situations. Let's take a look at some of the Steelers' other rough starts during the Tomlin/Roethlisberger era and how Pittsburgh responded on each occasion.
2009: 1-2 start, 8-5 finish
Close games told the story of the 2009 Steelers. The defending Super Bowl champions had 12 games that were decided by one score. Pittsburgh went 5-7 in those games. A major reason for the Steelers' struggles that season was the loss of future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu, who appeared in just five games after getting injured in Week 1.
After a three-point loss in Cincinnati dropped them to 1-2, Pittsburgh responded with five straight wins that included an impressive 10-point win over Brett Favre and the Vikings. The Steelers' then proceeded to lose five consecutive one-score games that included especially ugly losses in Kansas City and at home against the Raiders. At 6-7, the Steelers rebounded with three straight victories that included a back-and-fourth win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. Pittsburgh's last-season slide was too much to overcome, however, as the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time under Tomlin.
Get the latest Steelers scoop from Bryan DeArdo, our local expert who's on the ground in Pittsburgh, by downloading the CBS Sports app. If you already have the app, favorite the Steelers to get up-to-the-second news.
2011: 2-2 start, 10-3 finish (including playoffs)
After getting smashed in Baltimore in Week 1, the defending AFC champions rebounded with wins over Seattle and Indianapolis before dropping a one-possession game in Houston. The slow start was largely due to a lack of complementary football.
The continuity that was largely missing during the first quarter of the '11 season was largely present for the final three quarters of the regular season. The Steelers also received a herculean effort from their defense down the stretch, as the unit held five of its last six opponents to less than 10 points. The season's signature victory was a 25-17 win over Tom Brady and the visiting Patriots in Week 8. The obvious low point was Pittsburgh's overtime loss to Tim Tebow and the Broncos in the wild-card round of the playoffs. While the score was given up by the defense, Pittsburgh's offense had been playing with a clearly compromised Roethlisberger, who sustained several injuries during the second half of the season.
2012: 2-3 start, 6-5 finish
The Steelers couldn't match the energy level during Peyton Manning's Denver debut in Week 1. The Steelers then proceeded to play .500 football during the season's next four games before winning four straight games to get to 6-3. The catalyst during the winning streak was a defense that allowed just 62 points over that span.
Pittsburgh's lack of a running game, an issue throughout the season, was evident during the second half of the season, as the Steelers went just 2-5 over that span. A three-point home loss to the Bengals in Week 16 eliminated Pittsburgh from postseason contention. The Steelers' 8-8 record was Tomlin's first non-winning record as Pittsburgh's coach.
2013: 0-4 start, 8-4 finish
Pittsburgh was a team in transition in 2013. The defense was starting to lose pieces from a unit that led the Steelers to three Super Bowl appearances over a six-year span. And while the offense had a new player in rookie running back Le'Veon Bell, an injury to Bell left him sidelined for the season's first three games. With a declining defense and a feeble running game, Pittsburgh dropped its first four games by a combined score of 110-69.
Bell's return from injury, a strong statistical season from Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown's emergence as an All-Pro level player helped the Steelers battle back to a 5-6 record. They responded to consecutive one-score losses with three straight wins to close out the regular season. A missed field goal in Kansas City on the season's final Sunday kept Pittsburgh out of the playoffs for a second straight year.
2015: 4-4 start, 7-3 finish (including playoffs)
This was a bizarre season for Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger missed four complete games (and parts of four others) with injuries. The Steelers hosted kickers for a tryout competition after Josh Scobee missed two crucial field goal attempts in a home loss to the Ravens. Bell was lost for the season after suffering a torn MCL during Pittsburgh's Week 8 loss to Cincinnati.
Despite those setbacks, the Steelers clinched a playoff berth behind the play from Roethlisberger, Brown and veteran running back DeAngelo Williams, who was signed during the offseason. Roethlisberger led the NFL in average passing yards game. Brown set career highs with 134 receptions for 1,834 yards. Williams tied for the league lead with 11 touchdowns. And while Pittsburgh's secondary struggled in the year following Polamalu's retirement, the defense still finished 11th in the league in points allowed.
The Steelers also received stellar play from Chris Boswell, who won Pittsburgh's tryout following its Week 4 loss to Baltimore. Boswell made all seven of his field goal attempts that postseason that included the game-winning field goal against Cincinnati in the wild-card round. Injures to Williams, Brown and a crucial second half fumble the following week in Denver proved too much to overcome, as Pittsburgh fell to the eventual Super Bowl champions.
2016: 4-5 start, 9-1 finish (including playoffs)
After a 4-1 start, Pittsburgh was in full panic mode after four consecutive losses. The fourth loss was especially painful for Steelers fans, as rookie Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott led the Cowboys to a 35-30 win in Heinz Field. After straying away from their running game, the Steelers re-committed themselves to getting the ball to Bell, who responded with 835 rushing yards during Pittsburgh's next six games. That run included a franchise record 236 yards in Pittsburgh's Week 14 win in Buffalo.
On Christmas Day, Pittsburgh clinched a playoff berth as well as the AFC North division title following Roethlisberger's game-winning touchdown pass to Brown that was tabbed as the "Immaculate Extension." Riding a seven-game winning streak, the Steelers cruised past the Dolphins in the wild-card round before Bell's 170 rushing yards and Boswell's six field goals lifted Pittsburgh to a 18-16 win over Kansas City in the divisional round. But an injury to Bell doomed the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, as the Patriots rolled to a 36-17 win.
2017: 3-2 start, 10-2 finish (including playoffs)
A 3-2 start isn't that bad, but the manner of which Pittsburgh lost those games warranted inclusion. After a 2-0 start, Pittsburgh laid an egg in Chicago after the team infamously stayed in the tunnel during the national anthem. Two weeks later, Roethlisberger threw five interceptions in a 30-9 home loss to the Jaguars and said afterwords: "Maybe I don't have it anymore."
The Steelers rebounded by defeating the previously undefeated Chiefs in Kansas City behind Bell's 179 rushing yards and Roethlisberger's 51-yard touchdown pass to Brown. The Steelers would proceed to win their next seven games behind the play of Big Ben, Brown, Bell, a rookie named JuJu Smith-Schuster, and a defense that was led by two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier.
Pittsburgh appeared headed towards an AFC Championship Game rematch with New England before Shazier suffered what was ultimately a career-ending injury in Week 13. Pittsburgh's defense never overcame the loss of Shazier; his absence was especially felt when Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski led New England to a come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh in Week 15. The loss to New England dropped the Steelers to the AFC's No. 2 seed, and instead of facing the Marcus Mariota-led Titans in the divisional round, the Steelers had to face the Jaguars, who raced out to a 28-7 lead in their divisional round rematch. Roethlisberger countered with five touchdown passes, but the Steelers ultimately fell short, 45-42.
2018: 1-2-1 start, 8-4 finish
In arguably the oddest Steelers season in recent memory, Pittsburgh entered the 2018 season with the ongoing distraction of Bell's unknown status. In Week 1, the Steelers led 21-7 in Cleveland before settling for a tie. At home in Week 2, Pittsburgh's defense fell victim to Patrick Mahomes, who threw six touchdown passes in his second career start. The Steelers would split their next two games before going on a six-game winning streak that was led by Big Ben, Brown, Smith-Schuster and rookie James Conner, who won AFC Offensive Player of the Month for the month of October. Pittsburgh also received stellar play from second-year linebacker T.J. Watt, who finished the season with a team-high 13 sacks.
The Steelers were 7-2-1 when Bell decided not to return to team before the Week 11 deadline. Pittsburgh proceeded to lose four of its next five games that included two bad turnovers in a loss in Denver, a blown 23-7 lead to the Chargers, and a last-minute loss to the 2-10 Raiders. A 17-10 win over the Patriots in Week 15 showed the Steelers' resolve, but several controversial calls in a Week 16 loss to the Saints one week later took the Steelers' playoff fate out of their own hands. In a foreshadowing of things to come, Brown did not dress for Pittsburgh's season-finale against the Bengals. And while the Steelers managed to beat the Bengals, they were eliminated from the playoffs after Baker Mayfield was unable to rally the Browns to a last-minute win over Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
2019: 1-4 start, 7-4 finish
While the 2018 season may have been Tomlin's worst as the Steelers' coach, the 2019 season may have been his finest work. Tomlin's team appeared to be finished after losing Roethlisberger to an elbow injury in Week 2. But after trading for former Dolphins' first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick, the Steelers' defense morphed into one of the league's best units. Behind Fitzpatrick and a defense that finished the season at or near the top in most major statistical categories, the Steelers won seven of their next eight games following their 1-4 start. Pittsburgh also withstood an injury to quarterback Mason Rudolph, who went 5-3 as the Steelers' starter in place of Roethlisberger. With Devlin "Duck" Hodges replacing Rudolph, the Steelers moved to 8-5 with wins over Cleveland and Arizona.
Pittsburgh's lack of offense finally caught up to them in Week 15, when the Bills came to Heinz Field and left with a 17-10 victory. And while the Steelers would loss their next two games and miss the playoffs for a second straight year, Pittsburgh's success despite Roethlisberger's absence planted the seeds to an 11-0 start to the 2020 season.