With a chance to make the playoffs despite losing five of its past six games, Pittsburgh needs a little more help from others. The Steelers first need to get their own house in order.
The Steelers all of a sudden cannot play defense.
It has been a stunning fall for a defense that dominated the NFL last season. It's gotten so bad that coach Mike Tomlin, out of near desperation, ordered an onside kick with his team up by two and only four minutes left Sunday against Green Bay.
He thought his defense could not stop the Packers and wanted enough time left for his own offense to respond if they did not cover the onside kick.
"If we were not able to stop them, I felt we'd have significant amount of time to navigate down the field," Tomlin said.
They did just that and won 37-36, but now that defense has to stop Baltimore and Miami, or at least slow those two down because the Steelers for all practical purposes have to win their last two games to have a shot at a wild-card playoff berth.
The most dramatic falloff for Pittsburgh's defense has come against the pass. The Steelers led the NFL in pass defense in 2008. Today, they are No. 17 and falling fast. They allow 221.1 yards per game passing this season compared to 156.9 yards last season.
Not only do they allow that whopping difference, but they have gotten fewer sacks and interceptions: 40 sacks and eight interceptions this season, 51 and 20 last season.
It began to fall apart for the defense when Troy Polamalu left the opening game early with a sprained MCL. He missed the next four games, which the reigning Super Bowl champs split. When Polamalu returned, they lost their valuable left defensive end, Aaron Smith, for the season with a torn rotator cuff. Polamalu played four games and left again with a sprained PCL in the same knee. He has missed the past five games, four of them losses.
Losing those two players had a snowball effect on the entire defense. Polamalu still leads the team with three interceptions despite missing nine full games and most of two others. Smith remains fourth on the team with 15 quarterback pressures even though he has not played since the fifth game of the season.
They were their two best defensive players and they have not been able to make up for their loss. The Steelers were trying to get Polamalu back into the lineup Sunday against Baltimore but it is more realistic he will not return until their finale Jan. 3 in Miami, a game they hope still has meaning.
For that to happen, they must beat the Ravens in Heinz Field on Sunday. They came close in Baltimore Nov. 29 with
28th regular-season meeting. Steelers lead series 16-11. That includes a 9-4 record in Pittsburgh. The Steelers also are 2-0 in the playoffs vs. the Ravens. Baltimore won the first meeting this season in overtime, 20-17, in a game in which Ben Roethlisberger did not play because of headaches he said he had after leaving the previous game with concussion-like symptoms. Baltimore has swept the annual two-game series only once, in 2006.
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