Steelers' luster melting away

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On a typically cold Pittsburgh December afternoon, the fast-fading Steelers lost in atypical fashion, with the great Hines Ward dropping passes he almost always catches and the team's once-dominant rush defense being savaged by the Jacksonville Jaguars.

We all should have seen this coming. Really, this 29-22 defeat in the wind and snow of Heinz Field isn't surprising at all.

This is a football team that hasn't been the same since it peaked Nov. 5 in a Monday night thrashing of the Baltimore Ravens. Visions of a deep run in the playoffs accompanied that victory, but in retrospect, especially after the 4-10 Ravens lost to previously winless Miami yesterday, that 31-point win isn't quite so impressive.

And, for certain, nothing since has been.

After beating the Ravens, the Steelers rallied from a 15-point deficit to defeat Cleveland, a team it had whacked by 27 points two months earlier; lost to the 3-11 New York Jets; beat the 1-13 Dolphins by three points; beat nine-loss Cincinnati; lost by 21 to New England in a game that wasn't that close.

The loss to Jacksonville yesterday left the Steelers with a 9-5 record, same as Cleveland. If the teams end the season tied, the Steelers will win the AFC North Division based on their head-to-head competition against the Browns. Judging from the weak remaining opponents both teams have -- the Steelers play St. Louis and Baltimore, the Browns Cincinnati and San Francisco -- the Steelers will win the division and get the first-round home game in the playoffs that goes with that accomplishment.

But no one necessarily will be saying they're the best team in the AFC North.

After opening the season 4-1, the Steelers are a mediocre 5-4. Their only wins of note are against the Browns and Seattle Seahawks. But their losses tell us more. They were beaten by Arizona, Denver and the Jets, teams that are 6-8, 6-8 and 3-11. Teams with realistic postseason hopes don't lose those kinds of games.

And when they're in a showdown against a first-rate opponent at home, as was the case yesterday, they have to perform better.

"We're not playing well enough to win right now," said coach Mike Tomlin, who showed as much anger as at any point this season. "We can't look at anyone else to solve our problems. The answers to our problems are right in that room."

Clearly, though, they weren't there yesterday.

Not only did Fred Taylor rip through the Steelers for 147 yards on 25 carries, but Maurice Jones-Drew added 69 yards on 12 carries and, in total, the Jaguars romped for a stunning 224 yards on the ground.

It was the most rushing yards the Steelers had allowed since Nov. 19, 2000, when Taylor ran wild for 234 of the Jaguars' 240 yards.

The total dominance the Jaguars displayed obviously reflects poorly on the defense and indicates the team's one-time formula for victory is no more. It once was almost automatic that if the Steelers got a 100-yard rushing game they won. Well, they've lost two in a row despite consecutive 100-yard performances from Willie Parker.

Much was made of how the Steelers came back from a 22-7 fourth-quarter deficit to tie the score. But all that was erased by a too-easy, eight-play, 73-yard drive put together by the Jaguars after the Steelers had tied it. On that drive, Taylor ran for gains of 9, 13 and 12 yards and Jones-Drew for 20.

Inside linebacker Larry Foote got to the heart of the matter.

"We've got to be in our gaps, we know that," he said. "We pride ourselves on being a smart team. But when [the Jaguars] roll up their sleeves, we know they're going to run. The fundamentals go out the window. We've got to be tougher than them, beat our guy, make the tackle."

There was no more disheartening display of authority by the Jaguars than on the first possession of the second half. They took the kickoff and moved 74 yards on 20 plays that ate up 9:40.

What the Jaguars did to the Steelers is what the Steelers used to do to other teams.

Ward's two drops were large, particularly the first one. On a second-and-12 from their 17, with the Steelers leading, 7-3, in the second quarter, Ben Roethlisberger hit Ward in the chest with a pass that would have been good for a first down. But Ward couldn't hold the ball. When a third-down pass also went incomplete, the Steelers had to punt, and from there the Jaguars began a 68-yard touchdown drive that put them ahead.

"I didn't make the plays I was supposed to," Ward said. "I'm not going to blame it on the wind or the snow. I have great pride in myself to make all the plays if [the ball] touches my hand."

Nor were there any heroics from Roethlisberger, who threw for three touchdowns but who completed only 16 of 33 passes for 146 yards. On the Steelers' final drive, with Heinz Field rocking in anticipation of a come-from-behind win, Roethlisberger completed only 2 of 6 passes for 9 yards.

The Steelers still look like a team headed to the playoffs, but perhaps no time in their history has the thought of a trip to the postseason generated so little excitement.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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