Will injuries, lack of performance result in Steelers changes?

Updated: October 10, 2003, 4:44 PM ET

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to find out whether coach Bill Cowher was only trying to motivate them by threatening to make changes or if he really meant it.

After the Steelers (2-3) lost 33-13 at home to Cleveland, their second dismal performance in as many weeks, Cowher dropped hints he was considering some personnel moves for Sunday's game at Denver (4-1).

Cowher didn't go into specifics, saying only that, "Anything can change."

But quarterback Tommy Maddox found out Cowher might not have been bluffing when he went to take snaps from center Jeff Hartings during practice and found him lined up at guard.

"It's good for those guys to work around and play different positions because you never know what's going to happen," Maddox said.

Because left tackle Marvel Smith (shoulder) has played only one series in two weeks and will be out Sunday, the Steelers have been forced to work players at different positions.

They'll go into Denver with only one fully healthy tackle, left tackle Oliver Ross. Right tackle Todd Fordham is bothered by a strained back and Mathias Nkwenti, who didn't play in a game last season, has back spasms but still practiced. He could wind up playing Sunday on either side of the line.

Left guard Alan Faneca was an emergency backup tackle at LSU and probably could move there if necessary and Hartings can play guard. Backup center Chukky Okobi also made five starts last season when Hartings was out with a knee injury.

What Cowher really wants to change are two disturbing trends that are threatening to lead to the Steelers' first three-game losing streak since 2000.

The first is their defense's inability to keep opposing quarterbacks under control. The Titans' Steve McNair and the Browns' Tim Couch, both relying heavily on extra-receiver sets, were a combined 35-of-41 with four touchdown passes against Pittsburgh the last two weeks.

The second major concern is a running game that has gone from ineffective to almost invisible, generating only 60 yards against Cleveland and 69 against Tennessee. The combined 129 yards once would have been a good afternoon's work for Jerome Bettis, but he's spent most of the season on the bench.

Bettis, the No. 10 rusher in NFL history, has only 94 yards on 30 carries, a career-low 3.1 average, as Amos Zereoue (52 yards a game average) has gotten most of the playing time.

Now, the latest run of injuries on the offensive line could make it even more difficult to get a running game going in Denver.

"We've got to get better," Faneca said. "It is definitely up to us. The running game sits on us."

Wide receiver Hines Ward said if the running game continues to be nonfunctional, the Steelers should abandon it.

"Whatever it takes to win," Ward said. "If we can't run the ball, let's go out there and pass it 50 times. Right now, we're just not doing a good job in either area (running or passing)."

The Titans and Browns also effectively took away what has long been the Steelers' most reliable force on defense, their wide assortment of blitzes. The Steelers have only nine sacks in five games, well off the pace that saw them get 50 sacks last season.

So far, they've stayed mostly with a four-man rush so they can drop extra defenders into pass coverage, not that it's been very effective. Denver quarterback Jake Plummer, formerly of Arizona, probably can't believe the Steelers employ many of the same blitzes they used to sack him 10 times in 1997.

"Right now, we have to take care of some of the things that have been plaguing us the last five weeks, the little things," linebacker Jason Gildon said. "I think we're definitely a good-enough defense to make that happen again."

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