You think the Steelers defense struggled in the 34-31 loss to the Oakland Raiders Sunday? You should have seen safety Ryan Clark after the game. It took three men to pull off his jersey and shoulder pads, which were on so tight they almost seemed plastered to his body. Clark nearly fell before he finally was extricated. It wouldn't have been surprising if he pulled a hamstring or an oblique.
It was that kind of day.
It was that kind of defeat, which easily could haunt the Steelers in late December when they add up the wins and losses of the AFC teams and set the playoff field.
"We couldn't get one stop," Clark said after he finally was freed of his equipment. "We didn't need a turnover. We just needed a stop and we couldn't get it. Not one. They couldn't stop our offense, but we didn't give our guys a chance. We let them drive up the field like we weren't even out there."
Don't look now, but it's becoming something of a habit. That's what is so troubling. It happened last season in the playoff loss in January in Denver and the home loss to the Baltimore Ravens in December. It happened in the second half in the opening game this season in Denver against a Peyton Manning offense that didn't do all that much in the two games that followed. And it happened Sunday when the defense blew not one, but two 10-point leads in the second half against a Raiders offense that produced a total of 27 points in losses to the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins in their first two games.
"This one is on me," defensive captain Brett Keisel said. "I'll take the heat because I deserve it."
Allow Keisel to list his reasons:
• "The first touchdown was my gap." That was the 64-yard touchdown run by Raiders back Darren McFadden in the first quarter.
• "I don't think I even crossed the line, but they called me for being offsides." The Raiders were lined up for a fourth-and-2 play at the Steelers 6 in the second quarter when Keisel jumped. They scored a touchdown on the next play on a 3-yard pass from quarterback Carson Palmer to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey.
• "On their last touchdown, I had Carson in my hands, but I let him get away. I've got to put him down there." Palmer spun away from Keisel and linebacker LaMarr Woodley to throw a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Denarius Moore.
"As the leader of this defense, I should make those plays," Keisel said. "I shouldn't make those mistakes. I'll take responsibility for this loss."
OK, we can stipulate that Keisel wasn't very good. But he hardly was alone on the Steelers defense. Clark intercepted a Palmer pass on the game's first play, but that was it for the turnovers forced by the Steelers. The Raiders defense forced two on fumbles by running back Jonathan Dwyer and wide receiver Antonio Brown. The Raiders defense stopped the Steelers on their final possession to force a punt when the score was tied, 31-31. The Steelers defense then couldn't keep the Raiders from driving from the Oakland 25 to the Steelers 26 and watched painfully as Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski won the game with a 43-yard field goal at the gun.
The defense was so bad that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers 29 with 3:51 to play. Running back Isaac Redman picked up the first down, but it's still a ridiculous call if you have any faith in your defense. Tomlin didn't, and wasn't afraid to say it.
"I wasn't going to punt the football to them. We hadn't stopped them enough in the second half to do that."
That's beyond troubling for a franchise that prides itself in playing tough defense. It's downright frightening.
Clearly, this isn't your father's Steelers defense or your grandfather's defense. It was difficult to watch this meltdown. LeBeau's bunch wasted a 384-yard, four-touchdown-pass day by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"If the offense scores 31 points, you should win the game," Keisel said.
How does this happen?
Why does it keep happening?
"Man, if I knew that ... " nose tackle Casey Hampton said, not bothering to finish his sentence.
Everybody has an opinion. The game has passed by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 75. (I'm not buying it). The defensive backs -- especially the cornerbacks -- aren't very good. (That point is hard to argue). Players such as Keisel, Hampton and linebacker Larry Foote are getting too old. (I'm not ready to go there). The team misses linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu. (For the Steelers' sake, that had better be the overriding reason).
Harrison hasn't played this season because of a knee injury. Polamalu missed the past two games with a calf problem. Maybe the Steelers' off week is coming at the right time. They don't play again until Oct. 7 when the Philadelphia Eagles come to Heinz Field.
It's not just Harrison and Polamalu who need to get healthy, Keisel said. The entire defense does.
"We've got to chew on this, and we've got to chew on it for two weeks," Keisel said. "We've got to get better in a lot of areas on defense. I've got to get better."
There is some good news.
The defense has to improve.
It can't possibly get worse.roncook
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.