Jacksonville out-toughs the league's top defense

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Steelers linebacker Larry Foote nailed it.

Not Jacksonville Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, certainly. Foote and his buddies on the once-proud Steelers defense barely touched those guys yesterday. Taylor and Jones-Drew combined to run for 216 yards in their 29-22 win, which wasn't anywhere near as close as the score indicates.

No, Foote nailed the story of this gruesome mauling.

"They showed us who's tough today."

Do you have any idea how hard that admission is for a football player? An inside linebacker, no less? It's one thing to say the other guys were better, which the Jaguars clearly were. It's something much different -- much more painful -- to say you were, ah, soft.

"They whupped our butts all day," Foote said.

There were explanations, of course. There always are explanations. The Steelers didn't tackle well. Their gap control was awful. Defensive end Aaron Smith didn't play because of his season-ending biceps injury, a bigger loss than anyone outside the team's headquarters realizes. Taylor is a fabulous running back -- "Spectacular," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called him; "A beast," defensive end Brett Keisel said -- and Jones-Drew provided a nice change of pace.

But it kept coming back to one thing.

"They just ran it down our throats," linebacker James Farrior said. "We couldn't hold up on defense."

What's amazing is the defense came in ranked No. 1 in the NFL, which just shows how deceptive statistics can be. That defense has played poorly in large chunks of too many games, especially in the fourth quarter. The Jaguars won with an eight-play, 73-yard drive after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led something of a miraculous comeback from a 22-7 fourth-quarter deficit to forge a 22-22 tie. This was the fourth time in the Steelers' five losses that their defense crumbled at the end and allowed long scoring drives, the others against Arizona, Denver and the New York Jets.

Somehow, though, this one seemed worst.

It was at home, for one thing. It was in a game the Steelers badly needed to maintain tight control of their playoff fortunes. And it was against a team that didn't try to trick 'em the way the New England Patriots did a week earlier when quarterback Tom Brady rocked their defense for 399 passing yards and four touchdowns.

Who could have guessed the Steelers would lose two in a row when their offense didn't have a turnover in either game and running back Willie Parker ran for 100 yards in each?

Who knew the defense could play so poorly, especially against the run?

This was the first time in more than seven years that the Steelers allowed the opponent to rush for 200 yards. Remember how much pride the defense took in allowing only one runner to get 100 yards in 62 games before the Jets' Thomas Jones did the trick Nov. 18? Well, now it's happened twice in five games.

"I don't know what's going on," Keisel said. "I wish I could tell you."

Keisel headed home immediately to watch the game tape and start looking for answers, something he does after every defeat. If you call him a masochist, especially after this game, he probably wouldn't disagree. "But it's something I have to do or I'll go nuts."

Keisel didn't believe his eyes when he watched the Jaguars' winning drive. Jones-Drew ran for 20 of his 69 yards on a third-and-11 draw play from the Steelers' 32 and Taylor had runs of 9, 13 and 12 yards, those final 12 coming when he went untouched off right tackle into the end zone. Taylor finished with 147 yards on 25 carries, his fourth consecutive 100-yard game.

Keisel also probably wanted to climb under his blanket when the tape got to the Jaguars' touchdown drive to start the third quarter. These are numbers you don't see often in an NFL game: 20 plays for 74 yards in nine minutes, 40 seconds. The Jaguars converted four third downs and two fourth downs on the drive.

Oh, brother.

Now, suddenly, the Steelers find themselves in a fight to win the AFC North Division and -- worse -- maybe even make the playoffs. They must bounce back quickly from this physical beating to play Thursday night at St. Louis and finish the regular season Dec. 30 at Baltimore.

Their troubles on the road are bad enough -- a 2-4 record -- but they'll have to play those two games without Smith and perhaps top cornerback Ike Taylor, who left in the second half yesterday with a knee injury.

"If there's no sense of urgency now, something's wrong," Keisel said. "We'll see what type of character this team has."

Character isn't the problem.

The question is this:

Will the Steelers find a way to man up and win two road games against dreadful teams to restore a little momentum heading into the playoffs?

A better question, maybe, after this licking:

Can they?

Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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