With Broncos next up, Steelers mystified by two-game collapse

Updated: October 6, 2003, 8:19 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Bill Cowher didn't get a chance to chew out the Pittsburgh Steelers following one of the worst two-games stretches in franchise history. Hines Ward beat him to it.

Ward, worried the Steelers' season is fast slipping away amid a myriad of turnovers, breakdowns and poor preparation, challenged his teammates Monday to turn themselves around Sunday at Denver.

"I stood up in front of the team and spoke what I thought and what I felt," Ward said. "We have a great team, but the three losses we have were all by mistakes and you can't do that. I just felt like somebody had to say something. ... I had to get it off my chest."

Players rarely stand up and speak at the weekly meeting, but Ward made an exception following a 33-13 loss Sunday to Cleveland, only the Browns' second win in Pittsburgh since 1989. That dismal performance was nearly identical to a 30-13 loss to Tennessee the week before.

The losses were the Steelers' worst in home games played on consecutive Sundays in 35 years since they lost 45-24 to Cleveland and 45-28 to San Francisco during a 2-11-1 season in 1968.

The two most recent losses aren't necessarily ruinous; the Steelers (2-3) trail Baltimore (2-2) by only a half-game in the AFC North. But they look nothing like the Steelers teams that were a combined 25-10-1 the last two seasons, counting the playoffs, and they know it.

The offensive line is offering little protection to quarterback Tommy Maddox and creating almost no running lanes for the NFL's sixth-worst rushing offense. The secondary is again having problems defending against four-receiver sets, leading to breakdowns that have caused the defense to allow 30 or more points in 11 of the last 22 games.

The fans might be focusing on Maddox's frequent turnovers, but Ward said they are far from the Steelers' only problems. He also made a point of stressing that to his teammates.

"Tommy started the season being our quarterback and we're going to finish with him being our quarterback," Ward said. "Tommy's our guy, and I wanted to let everybody know we have confidence in him."

Still, Touchdown Tommy has suddenly become Turnover Tommy. The Browns intercepted Maddox twice, including Daylon McCutcheon's 75-yard return for a touchdown, and forced a fumble that led to a field goal. Of Maddox's eight interceptions, three have been returned for touchdowns and a fourth was returned to the Steelers' 1, leading to another touchdown.

"We're losing games by mistakes. We're not losing because we're getting outmanned," Ward said. "We have to help Tommy out, take some of the pressure off him and not just let it be on his shoulders."

Maddox became agitated Sunday night following repeated questions about the mistakes, finally saying, "What do you want me to do, jump off a cliff?"

On Monday, his anger had turned to frustration. But Maddox said he hasn't lost confidence in himself or an offense that, remarkably, still leads the NFL in passing yardage.

"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm not frustrated," Maddox said. "It probably wouldn't be as frustrating if I didn't feel as strongly as I feel about this team and what we can do."

Cowher isn't contemplating a quarterback change, but Maddox realizes he can't keep playing like this and keep backup Charlie Batch on the bench much longer.

"I think quarterbacks are always on a short leash," Maddox said. "But that's not something you worry about going into a game. If you do, you're not going to play well."

The Steelers' bad start is nothing new -- they are 2-3 for the fourth time in five seasons -- but their schedule is about to toughen up, beginning Sunday at Denver (4-1). After a bye week, they play St. Louis at home, then make cross-country trips to Seattle and San Francisco within a span of three weeks.

"Now there's a sense of urgency, every game," Ward said. "We have 11 games left, and we have to put on a streak. This is almost a must-win situation for us."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index