FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It's official. It's hockey season in Pittsburgh. The Steelers are no longer relevant, at least not as a playoff contender or even a potentially decent team. The good news is the Penguins are off to an 11-4 start and are running away with the NHL's Metropolitan Division. The postseason is in their future.
Even Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu seemed to realize as much Sunday night after the New England Patriots put a 55-31 licking on him and his humiliated team.
Check out his analogy.
Steelers Report: Patriots 55, Steelers 31
Steelers beat writers Ed Bouchette and Gerry Dulac talk about the Steelers 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots. (Video by Peter Diana; 11/3/2013)
"It was like we played all game with two men in the penalty box," Polamalu said. "We were playing with nine out there."
Forgive Polamalu for exaggerating.
It seemed as if the Patriots played against four defenders, five tops.
Quarterback Tom Brady threw for 432 yards and four touchdowns. Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola each had 100-yard receiving games. Stevan Ridley rushed for 115 of the team's 197 rushing yards.
Swiss Cheese is a much more accurate label for this Steelers defense.
"I've never been a part of anything like that in my life," Polamalu said.
No defender who played for the Steelers before Sunday had. The Patriots' 55 points were the most against the Steelers in franchise history. So were their 610 yards.
Critics have been saying for years that the Steelers defense is old and slow. They finally might be right. And didn't defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau look especially old, as well? Maybe it was the chill of the New England night. But LeBeau looked every bit of his 76 years in his snow cap. Certainly, he didn't have any answers as his defense hemorrhaged yards and points.
It's hard to come to any conclusion but this:
The Steelers defense is plain bad. It hardly gets sacks or forces turnovers. It gives up one big play after another, many at the worst possible times. The Patriots had pass plays for 34, 27, 34, 57 and 81 yards. Running back LeGarrette Blount had a 23-yard run.
"No excuses. Poor defense," Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.
"It's embarrassing," safety Ryan Clark said. "As a defense, we let [the team] down. The big thing is we weren't stopping anything. We were kind of at their will. They did whatever they wanted. When you do that and you're playing against Tom Brady, that's what happens. He had it working today. He hit all the spots he was supposed to hit. If there was a weakness in the defense, he found it. That's why he's going to get a [Hall of Fame] jacket five years after he retires."
The Steelers defense played well for two series at the start of the game, forcing a three-and-out and then stopping Ridley for no gain on a fourth-and-1 play at the Steelers 1 thanks to big efforts by nose tackle Steve McLendon and Polamalu. It also played well for two series at the start of the second half, getting a turnover when Polamalu caused a Ridley fumble and then forcing another three-and-out to give the Steelers offense a chance to score two touchdowns and tie the score, 24-24, with 7:10 left in the third quarter.
Here's the trouble, though:
The Patriots scored three touchdowns and a field goal on their other four first-half possessions and a field goal and four touchdowns on their other five second-half possessions.
But, hey, the Penguins will be in New York Wednesday night for a big game against the Rangers.
"It was a 24-24 game and, obviously, they handled us and they handled us well," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
"I am angry, disappointed. You know, we are capable and better than that. We've got to be better than that."
Everyone in the losers' locker room was queried, pressed for reasons how such a once-proud defense could fall so far. When I say everyone, I mean everyone. Someone actually asked new punter Mat McBriar for his assessment of the mood of the team after this defensive collapse.
"I don't know if I am best to answer that," McBriar said. "I've only been here for a few days."
Probably long enough to wonder what kind of mess he landed in.
McBriar is from Australia.
Hopefully, he will learn to like hockey.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.