Late rally can't salvage win for Steelers

"This isn't like it's Week 8; it's Week 14. We have to buckle down and get this thing straightened out."

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Marvel Smith sat by himself on the Steelers' heated bench, with none of his teammates around him. It was a strange place to find the team's best pass-protecting offensive lineman, especially with Ben Roethlisberger and the offense trying desperately to come back one final time against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The bench likely served as a giant heating pad for Smith's ailing back -- the reason he was out of the game and replaced on the final series by Max Starks, coach Mike Tomlin said.

But he was sitting there, alone, for another reason. Smith, a left tackle, had allowed four of the five sacks against Roethlisberger -- a number every bit as surprising as the rushing totals posted by the Jaguars against what is supposed to be the American Football Conference's No. 1 rush defense.

"He's a fighter," guard Alan Faneca said. "He wanted to stay out there. He wanted to be there. But when they put Max in there, it was time."

It was difficult to determine which pained Smith more -- trying to bend over in the Steelers' locker room or the way he was treated by the Jaguars.

"I don't want to talk right now," Smith said.

Smith usually doesn't give up four sacks in a season, much less one game, but the Jaguars were running around him the way Fred Taylor was running through the defense.

And yet, despite the pressure, despite the poor field and gusty wind conditions, Roethlisberger nearly rallied the Steelers to an improbable victory, throwing three touchdowns to set a single-season franchise record and bringing them back from a 22-7 fourth-quarter deficit.

But, in the end, the Steelers found themselves feeling much like Smith -- pained over their third loss in five games and the surprising collapse of their defense the past two games.

"This isn't like it's Week 8; it's Week 14," running back Willie Parker said. "We have to buckle down and get this thing straightened out."

"It's only a setback if you let it be a setback," right tackle Willie Colon said. "We know the dudes that we've got. We have to get guys healthy. We have to be able to do what we do best, and that's run the ball and play good defense."

The Steelers were able to run the ball, getting 100 yards on 14 carries from Parker, the NFL's leading rusher. Despite getting his second 100-yard game in a row and eighth this season, Parker was not much of a factor because the Steelers were behind, 10-7, at halftime and 16-7 after the Jaguars went on a 20-play scoring drive to start the third quarter.

Still, the Steelers scored twice in a 7 1/2-minute span of the fourth quarter to tie the score on a 30-yard touchdown pass to Nate Washington and a two-point conversion pass from Cedrick Wilson to Santonio Holmes -- a play in which Wilson took a lateral from Roethlisberger, briefly reversed his field and fired a strike in the back of the end zone.

Roethlisberger's touchdown pass was his 29th of the season, breaking Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw's single-season franchise record (28).

"It's a great honor," Roethlisberger said. "Unfortunately, it came in a loss and that's probably what will weigh on my mind more than anything."

For the fourth time this season, Roethlisberger threw at least three touchdowns, and he did not throw an interception for the fifth time this season. He did so despite missing two days of practice last week with a sore throwing shoulder. He also was victimized by three drops -- two by Hines Ward and another by tight end Heath Miller in the end zone.

The latter proved not to be so debilitating because Ward atoned with an 11-yard touchdown catch on the next play.

"It's very unusual to see," Roethlisberger said of the dropped passes. "The elements had a big part in that because those aren't drops that usually happen. I have to put [the ball] on them, but there were a couple times I could see the ball going on to them and, at the last minute, the wind would take it and shift it off them a little bit. It's hard to ask those receivers to catch those balls when they're moving like a knuckleball coming at you."

"I've never been a guy to make excuses," said Ward, who finished with four catches for 31 yards. "I don't care about the weather conditions. I didn't make the plays I was supposed to make."

The Steelers did make plays in the fourth quarter, scoring touchdowns on back-to-back possessions after safety Anthony Smith jump-started the surge by intercepting Jaguars quarterback David Garrard for the second time this season.

Problem is, they waited too long to get going. Before that, the Steelers had five possessions in which the offense went three plays and out. That, Faneca said, contributed to the poor play of the defense, which allowed 421 yards of offense for the second game in a row.

"We left the defense hanging the whole time," Faneca said. "We can't leave them out there for nine minutes and then 11 minutes. We didn't play as a team."


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com .


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