PITTSBURGH (AP) – The Pittsburgh Steelers may have reached the defining moment of their season, their losing streak at three games and their quarterback rusty and ineffective following an injury layoff.

The wide receivers’ production has been spotty. The offensive line is having problems providing pass protection. There are trouble signs all around, and the season may be lost if there is not a turnaround this week.

“We don’t really have a lot of time,” wide receiver Hines Ward said.

The Steelers (1-3) should be accustomed to this scenario by now – it’s the same one that confronted them in December, when they responded by winning eight games in a row and the Super Bowl.

Only they didn’t expect to be in this situation a month into the new season, one that certainly hasn’t begun as expected or generated much carry-over from their first Super Bowl victory in 26 years.

“To start the season 1-3 coming off a Super Bowl, I don’t think anybody would have ever thought of that. But we’re playing too inconsistent for whatever reason,” wide receiver Hines Ward said after a 23-13 loss in San Diego on Sunday night. “We’ve got to find a way to turn this thing around, some way, somehow.”

Some players, notably linebacker Joey Porter, ridiculed some preseason predictions the Steelers would finish only third in the AFC North. But that’s exactly where they are, trailing both the Ravens (4-0), who played Denver on Monday night, and the Bengals (3-1).

Never at any stage last season were they so far behind in the division race, even after they lost three in a row to drop to 7-5.

Never in this season have they looked like a champion.

“It makes the next few games very important,” coach Bill Cowher said.

The Steelers knew quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would need time to work back into playing shape and get up to game speed following his June motorcycle accident and his Sept. 3 appendectomy.

But they certainly didn’t expect this after his first three games: no touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 41.7 passer rating that is so low it doesn’t rank among the NFL’s top 30. By contrast, his numbers were reversed – seven touchdown passes, no interceptions – at this stage last season.

“I think he’s working his way back into it, there’s no question about that,” Cowher said. “But we’re not making excuses.”

The Steelers’ inability to throw the ball isn’t entirely Roethlisberger’s fault. Ward has one TD catch and is off to a slow start after missing most of training camp with a hamstring problem. Cedrick Wilson, the other starting receiver, has only six catches.

and was benched at times Sunday for rookie Santonio Holmes.

“It’s not a good feeling, obviously,” said Roethlisberger, who was held to 51 yards passing in the second half by San Diego. “It’s something we need to turn around. We need to look deep inside ourselves and figure out what we need to do to turn it around.”

The most surprising development to the Steelers was the defense’s inability to slow Chargers first-year starting quarterback Philip Rivers, who threw for 242 yards and two scores. Inexperienced quarterbacks often have trouble handling the Steelers’ pressure, yet Rivers was 11-of-16 for 137 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions as the Chargers outscored Pittsburgh 16-0 in the second half.

“We really didn’t have any answers for them in the second half,” Cowher said.

He could have said the same thing two weeks ago after the Bengals outscored the Steelers 14-3 in the fourth quarter of a 28-20 victory in Pittsburgh on Sept. 24.

The Steelers return home Sunday to play Kansas City (2-2), then travel to Atlanta (3-1) and Oakland (0-4). They play Baltimore twice and Cincinnati once during the final six weeks of the season, but the six games before that will determine how important their closing stretch is.

“We don’t have any more bye weeks and we’ve got another hard game (Sunday),” Ward said. “Right now we can’t worry about Baltimore, Cincinnati and Cleveland. We can only worry about ourselves … and figure out how we can, coaching staff included, get this thing turned around.”


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