Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger talks with Antonio Brown during practice on the South Side Wednesday afternoon.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The more the Steelers try to run, protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and play good defense, the more they fail to do so.
Roethlisberger is on a record pace with 2,330 yards passing halfway through the season -- and also with 31 sacks. Antonio Brown is on record pace with 61 receptions -- and also for number of times the NFL's leading receiver has been yanked from a game by his coach.
Their once-unyielding run defense is a sieve, ranked 31st in the NFL and waiting to tackle -- if that can be a word -- the league's No. 7 rushing attack Sunday, the Buffalo Bills.
Their once unstoppable ground game looks more like the 40-foot rubber duck the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust just put in mothballs -- a large curiosity that moved nowhere for weeks. The Steelers rank 28th in the league in yards rushing per game. They have gone 16 games without a runner topping 100 yards.
These are not your father's Steelers, not even your mother's.
It wasn't so long ago that Steelers president Art Rooney II said that, "We need to figure out how to get better running the football."
That was after the 2009 season, when they ran for 1,793 yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. If Rooney thought that production was awful, what must he think of the one he's watching this year? Halfway through this season, they average 3.5 yards a carry and are on pace to have 1,178 yards rushing.
They are threatening the franchise low of 1,092 yards rushing in 1966, when they played only 14 games. That team averaged 78 yards per game; this one clocks in at 73.6 yards per game.
That lack of a ground game, particularly in the first halves, has forced the Steelers to throw the ball more than they want in an attempt to catch up. That is why Roethlisberger is on pace to break his team record of 4,328 yards passing, and why Brown is on pace to obliterate Hines Ward's record of 112 receptions.
With that might go the sack record, too. Roethlisberger was sacked a career-high 50 times in 2009 and is on pace for 62 this year. Cliff Stoudt holds the team record with 51 in 1983. Roethlisberger could pass that by Thanksgiving. First up, Buffalo with 29 sacks, including 11 by defensive end Mario Williams.
"He's one of the best in the game," Roethlisberger said.
"Our offensive line is going to have their hands full. They have a good pass rush."
Spence's season ends
There will be no miracle for linebacker Sean Spence in 2013. The Steelers Wednesday physically-unable-to-perform list, which ended his season before it began.
The Steelers deemed that Spence, a third-round draft choice from Miami in 2012, was not ready to play after he was permitted to practice for three weeks. He has been trying to overcome a left knee injury that required surgery after two ligaments, his kneecap and a nerve were damaged in the final presesason game of his rookie year.
He spent that season on injured reserve and spent this year on the physically-unable-to-perform list, before they started a three-week window for practice. That deadline ended Wednesday, and they kept him on PUP, with no chance for him to play this season. Spence also sustained another setback in practice two weeks ago when a hand injury required surgery. Linebackers coach Keith Butler predicted in the spring that it would be a "miracle" if Spence played in 2013.
"He did some good things," coach Mike Tomlin said of Spence's practices. "I like his growth and his play."
Clark defends LeBeau
Safety Ryan Clark came to the defense of his coordinator, Dick LeBeau, whose defense was riddled for a team-record 55 points Sunday by New England and has not been up to standards of his previous defenses, including the past two that led the NFL in fewest yards allowed.
The Steelers rank 12th overall in fewest yards allowed. Their two fumble recoveries are tied for next-to-last in the league, their four interceptions are one from the fewest and their six total takeaways also are one from the fewest.
"There is nothing anyone can say outside of our group that would ever bother me about Coach LeBeau," Clark said. "We know what type of man he is. We know what he means to us. We know how much passion and love coach LeBeau puts in, not only into what we do as football players but men.
"We don't have to defend him. His resume speaks for itself. Coach LeBeau wouldn't even want us going out and saying anything negative about the media or those comments to defend. He's a Hall of Famer and more so as a person than a football coach. We'll keep lifting him up and respecting him and doing our best for him."
* Safety Troy Polamalu, who has one year left on his contract, inferred he wants to play in 2014, "God willing."
* Rookie receiver Markus Wheaton, who missed the past four games with a broken right pinky finger, returned to practice Wednesday full time and could dress as the fourth receiver Sunday as he did before he was hurt.
" ... Hopefully, I'll be able to play," he said.
* Both players who left the New England game with concussions, cornerback Ike Taylor and inside linebacker Vince Williams, did not practice. Offensive guard David DeCastro (sprained ankle), who missed the game went through a full practice.
■ Game: Steelers (2-6) vs. Buffalo Bills (3-6), Heinz Field.
■ When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
■ TV: KDKA.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.
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