Troy Polamalu missed practice for the second straight day Thursday with a strained Achilles tendon, and losing him is not something a reeling and limping Steelers defense needs after a 350-yard performance against Tom Brady. The good news: He returned to full duty Friday.
Coach Mike Tomlin said even if he plays, he may not be close to the Tasmanian Devil style of play that has made him a five-time Pro Bowl safety.
In fact, his play has not been up to his standard most of the season after he missed 11 games in 2009 with two separate knee sprains. Polamalu, who had seven interceptions and 11 passes defensed in his last full season of play in 2008, has two interceptions and no passes defensed through nine games this season.
The Steelers defense went south last season with Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith each missing 11 games. They've been without Smith for the past three games with a torn biceps (they lost two of those) and he will not return until late in the season, if at all.
They also have been without their other starting defensive end, Brett Keisel, for three of the past four games with a hamstring injury. Keisel has participated in practice in a limited manner in each of the past three days.
Hines Ward has practiced hard over the past two days after he left Sunday's game in the first quarter with a concussion, ending his 186-game streak with a catch, the third longest in NFL history.
"He wanted to prove to everybody he was healthy," said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, "and, boy, he had two great practices and showed a lot of the younger guys how to do it."
--The Steelers were buzzing when they returned to work Wednesday after coach Mike Tomlin abruptly canned veteran kicker Jeff Reed the day before.
Many were suspicious about why it was done.
"I hate to see Jeff Reed leave under the circumstances in the middle of the season," said wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. "I'm sure something other than just kicking had to be involved in that deal."
That rang especially true because the Steelers replaced Reed with Shaun Suisham, whose statistics do not measure up to Reed's and who has never kicked in Heinz Field. Suisham also has a reputation for missing crucial kicks. He missed a 23-yarder late in the game for the Redskins in an overtime loss to New Orleans last December. Cut two days later, he signed with Dallas, and missed two in the dome in Minnesota in a Cowboys playoff loss.
"He's a great kicker," long-snapper Greg Warren said of Reed. "He's going to get a call at some point either this year, end of the year, whatever. He's going to be ready and he's going to kick well for somebody."
Suisham has never kicked in Heinz Field, one of the trickiest stadiums in the NFL for kickers with its unpredictable winds and its grass field. One time a punted ball stuck in the Heinz Field mud, point up.
Reed ripped the surface after he missed a 26-yard-field goal Sunday night, saying there was a hole in the ground that prompted that miss. His holder, punter Daniel Sepulveda, confirmed as much.
The kicker affair has drawn attention away from some other Steelers deficiencies, like their inability to run or pass last Sunday -- at least until the game was out of hand in the fourth quarter vs. New England. And, of course, their inability to stop Tom Brady, who had 350 yards passing.
"I hope that everybody's pissed off," said linebacker James Farrior, their defensive captain. "The way we played last week was definitely unacceptable. It's something we can't have if we're going to be a championship team. So, I think guys are going to be focused in this week and into practice every day this week and we're going to come back ready to play."
The Steelers defense has slipped to No. 9 overall and while they are No. 1 against the run, they rank 26th in the NFL defending the pass. That may be good enough this week because Oakland prefers to run (No. 2 in the league) and has not done well passing (No. 25).
"The Raiders are playing well right now," Farrior said. "Those guys are looking like a playoff-caliber football team so we're definitely going to have to be on our game."
Just as they did last season, the Steelers won six of their first eight games -- and then lost game No. 9. They hope things will be much different in 2010, however, because they lost five straight after going 6-2 last season, including a game to Oakland at Heinz Field.
"We definitely want to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen this year," Hines Ward said.
19th regular-season meeting. Raiders lead series, 10-8. The teams also have split six playoff games. The Raiders, 3-8 at the time, upset the Steelers in Heinz Field, 27-24 to win their second straight in this series. Pittsburgh also lost 20-13 in Oakland in 2006. These two rivals were bitter enemies in the 1970s and even squared off in a court trial.
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