CINCINNATI -- It seemed impossible for any defense to play worse than the Pitt defense did Saturday in a loss at North Carolina State when it gave up 38 points and 530 yards. But the Steelers' defense might have been worse yesterday. For the second week in a row and the third game in the past four going back to Super Bowl XLIII, it collapsed in the fourth quarter. Only one word describes its late play: Terrible.
I mean, really, put the blame for the 23-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals exactly where it belongs.
Sure, it's easy to finger quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, and wide receiver Limas Sweed, who dropped a touchdown pass a few plays later, just as it was easy to blame Jeff Reed a week ago for missing two field goals in a 17-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. It's especially easy to finger Sweed. He looks like a bust as a No. 2 draft pick in 2008. Too bad coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians didn't "forget" about him yesterday the way they did in the opening-game win against the Tennessee Titans.
But the Steelers still led, 20-9, in the fourth quarter. That should have been plenty for its defense, which was the best in the NFL last season ...
Doesn't last season seem like a lifetime ago about now?
The Bengals put together two long touchdown drives to win, just as the Bears had two long scoring drives to win that game and just as the Arizona Cardinals had two touchdown drives to take a late lead in the Super Bowl only to be trumped by a wondrous winning drive led by Roethlisberger.
Once is a bad day at the office. That's what the dependable Reed had in Chicago. But two in a row and three in four games? That's a rotten trend.
"Walking off the field today, I couldn't believe it," defensive end Brett Keisel said.
Who could have predicted the Steelers' defense would melt down again?
"It's surprising because we're so used to someone -- anyone -- making a play for us," defensive back Deshea Townsend said.
A better question:
Why is this happening?
"It's usually a myriad of reasons, quite frankly," Tomlin said. "Tighter coverage, better pressure -- they go hand-in-hand. The bottom line is that we need significant players -- and we have quite a few of those -- to make significant plays in significant moments."
All of it is enough to make you at least wonder if the defense has aged before our very eyes. You know, gone from a veteran, experienced defense to an old defense.
Townsend, 34, was late on a few coverages. Defensive end Aaron Smith, 33, had his hand -- two hands, actually -- on Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer when he completed an 11-yard pass to running back Brian Leonard on a fourth-and-10 play on the winning drive. "I wish I would have had one more step on him," Smith said. Linebacker James Farrior, 34, couldn't quite keep up with Leonard on that play or tackle him short of the first down.
Safety Tyrone Carter is 33, nose tackle Casey Hampton 32, Keisel 31 ...
"No, I don't think we're too old," Townsend said. "We're just not finishing games right now."
"I don't believe that has anything to do with it," Smith added. "There were plays five or six years ago when I wished I had one more step."
You expected the fellas to say they should be put out to pasture?
The Steelers also didn't want to play the Troy Polamalu card as an excuse even though the All-Pro safety missed his second consecutive game with a knee injury.
"If we can stop a team for 3 1/2 quarters, we can stop them for four," safety Ryan Clark said. "I think Troy is our best player and our most talented player. We all miss him. But the guys we have out there should be able to make the plays."
So if it's not age and not the Polamalu factor, then what it is?
"It's about executing in situational football," Farrior said. "We're not doing that right now. I'm not doing that.
"I feel like I cost us this game. That dude [Leonard] was my man. He just beat me. If I tackle him, we win the game."
Farrior hardly was the lone villain. When the defense gives up a 6-play, 85-yard touchdown drive and a 16-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, there's plenty of blame to go around. Twice on the winning drive, the Bengals converted fourth-down plays.
"Point blank, put it on us -- on the secondary," Clark said. "You don't have to write about anything else. Just talk about us -- the defensive backs. Something's got to be fixed. Carson Palmer is a great quarterback and he has a lot of weapons. We've got to get closer to those guys ...
"[Cornerback] Ike [Taylor] made all the plays he can make. I think he had three or four [passes broken up]. But the rest of us have got to help him out. He can't do it by himself."
It's admirable that the Steelers' defensive players line up to take blame. But it would be even more admirable if they got things "fixed" -- to use Clark's word -- and started making the plays to close out games.
"We've just got to go to the lab and work on some things," Townsend said. "Don't press and stick together. The plays are going to come."
Or as Keisel put it, "We've got to take the punches and move on."
What an interesting choice of words.
The Steelers' defense took two huge blows on the past two Sundays.
As a result, the champion is staggering.
Many more days like this and the champion will be knocked out.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .