You'll remember that last week the Steelers were quick to say they left everything on the field in Baltimore, and apparently on Sunday they went back there to get it, because there was no one around to welcome the San Diego Chargers to Heinz Field.
At least no one of any competence.
The record must show that the dreadful Chargers got their first regular-season victory in Pittsburgh, the notarized arithmetic being Chargers 34, Steelers 24, but in the broader sense, Mike Tomlin's team simply wasn't home.
The highlight for a disgusted December audience of 61,359 was probably the halftime punt, pass and kick contest, primarily because it interrupted the punt, punt and punt contest staged by the Steelers offense for the game's first 30 minutes.
But there's no sense flagellating any one of the so-called three phases, because this third Steelers loss in four games was a total team initiative, even if the most stunning element was the quizzical contribution of Dick LeBeau's third-down defenders.
"We lost situational football," was among Tomlin's first impressions. "They converted too many [third-down opportunities] on defense."
Here was the situation the way nobody much cared to portray it all week: Ben Roethlisberger was returning to the offense after missing three and a half games with a hyper-scrupulously documented shoulder/rib/endangered aorta injury, just as Ike Taylor was vacating a 135 consecutive start streak with a sore foot that was barely noticed.
Taylor, the favored target of a feverish fan base that reacts with a vitriol Pittsburgh normally saves for Marc-Andre Fleury any time something untoward happens in this secondary, is the Steelers most important and accomplished defender against the pass.
You can start with this: In the six games before Sunday, opponents were a combined 16 for 76 on third down (21 percent); with Ike in street clothes, the Chargers converted 12 times in 22 attempts (55 percent). The Chargers won on third down more Sunday than the Steelers' past four opponents combined.
"They were putting themselves in good situations on third down," Taylor said. "They were third-and-1, third-and-2 a lot, and when that happens, the playbook gets big for them and small for us. [San Diego's Michael] Spurlock was getting open a lot. It was like him and Philip Rivers had a bead on our defense and our coverage."
Here's the bead. The old offensive coordinator and soon to be former head coach Norv Turner noticed that Taylor was on the sideline.
"We thought we could exploit their corners," said Spurlock, the journeyman wideout who caught seven throws Sunday. "Our skill players are as good as theirs in those matchups."
Sure they are, if Ike's watching from the sideline.
Since Taylor became a starter in 2005, the Steelers have led the league in pass defense. In 124 regular-season games since, the Steelers have allowed seven receivers to catch 10 or more balls, and nine passers to throw for 300 yards, none this year.
"It's a big problem having him out," said linebacker Larry Foote. "Our young guys have to deliver. They delivered for us last week in a hostile environment and now they have to do it again."
Despite Taylor's assertion that San Diego had put itself in makeable third downs (10 of the 22 were third-and-5 or shorter), Rivers and his rangy wideouts were the equal of just about any predicament. They got 11 on third-and-8, 10 on third-and-10, 17 on third-and-13, 11 on third-and-6, and, on a third-and-1 from the Steelers 39, Rivers zipped a touchdown pass to 6-5 Danario Alexander behind overmatched corner Curtis Brown in the part of the field Taylor commonly shuts down.
The ultimate insult came at the start of the second half, when the Chargers slugged out a 17-play drive covering 78 yards and nearly 10 clock-chewing minutes on their way to a 20-3 lead.
"That was ugly, demoralizing," said Foote. "It's like getting hit in the gut. A great drive by them."
The Chargers were 5 for 5 on third down in that drive.
"We'll make an effort to make our corrections," Tomlin said. "We'll prepare for our next opportunity, but we're not going to change the formula in which we address it or prepare. We're too far down the road for that and it's not broken. What is broken is our execution and performance here today."
Fortunately for the head coach, there is plenty of introspection in progress across the AFC North this morning, as Baltimore and Cincinnati both lost. The net result is the same as if they'd all won, except, of course, for the stinking.
Gene Collier: email@example.com First Published December 10, 2012 5:00 AM