Coach Mike Tomlin promised that his Steelers would unleash hell, not look like it.
Yesterday's 27-24 tumble to the Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field might have been stunning if it had not happened so often this season. The Steelers have now lost to a 14-point underdog and an 11-point underdog in the past three games, and they lost their fourth in a row to tumble to 6-6 and maybe out of the playoff race.
And they lost the way they've become accustomed as their once Mariano Rivera-like closing defense collapsed; they've allowed fourth-quarter leads to slip away in five of their six defeats.
Their most egregious fourth quarter el foldo occurred yesterday. Oakland (4-8), which had produced only 10 touchdowns all season, scored three in the fourth quarter to come from behind three times.
The Raiders final score come with 9 seconds left when Pittsburgh native Bruce Gradkowski did his best Ken Stabler imitation and threw his third touchdown pass, good for 11 yards to rookie Louis Murphy.
"We couldn't lose this game, but we lost," said cornerback Ike Taylor, who botched one of the defense's many chances to end the Raiders' comeback when Murphy caught a 23-yard jump ball along the sideline even though Taylor had position on him.
Taylor called the Steelers' chances to get the playoffs, "Slimmer than a dog on a diet."
The Raiders also said they fed off Tomlin's "unleash hell" comment.
"Oh, yeah," wide receiver Todd Watkins said. "We had his comments up on the board. That kind of drove us all week, when you make a statement like that, that just fired us up."
Hines Ward had said last week his team could not lose to Oakland or "we're pretty much out of it" and no one in the Steelers' locker room argued that point afterward.
"Obviously our playoff picture looks really bleak," tackle Willie Colon said.
"Huh?" Tomlin responded when asked about the playoffs. "I'm just trying to win a game, man. What's coach [Jim] Mora's response to that? That's where we're at."
Yesterday, Tomlin's offense waited to get going until the fourth quarter. His offense scored two touchdowns in that period.
Ben Roethlisberger (18 of 24, 278 yards) threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward with 1:56 left to lift the Steelers to a 24-20 lead as the fans in Heinz Field, in a surly mood as time and again the Raiders ripped through the Steelers' defense in the fourth quarter, celebrated.
"When I scored that touchdown I just knew that was the game-winning touchdown," said Ward, who hugged Roethlisberger as they left the field. "We were going to go on our way, get back on the winning track."
Gradkowski, making his third consecutive start -- he is 2-1 -- after coach Tom Cable replaced JaMarcus Russell, had other ideas. The Raiders drove 88 yards on 11 plays that included a drop by rookie cornerback Joe Burnett of a ball right into his chest, and Taylor's missed chance along the sideline.
The touchdown came on yet another late miscommunication by the Steelers' defense in which a blitz was called for one side and instead it came from both sides, leaving their secondary thin.
"I think when you get in the moment, guys hear and just go but we have to do a good job of relaying the call across the board," linebacker James Farrior said.
Missed calls, missed interceptions, missed tackles, they all added up to one big collapse for last year's acclaimed defense and the Super Bowl champions.
The Steelers' offense gave its defense scant help through three quarters, coming away with only Jeff Reed's 33-yard field goal in the first quarter and Santonio Holmes' 34-yard touchdown catch from Roethlisberger in the second.
They blew two other chances when Roethlisberger slipped on a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 at the Oakland 5 and when safety Hiram Eugene intercepted a Roethlisberger pass in the end zone on first down from the Oakland 16.
Afterward, some defensive players apologized to the offense for their play, but as Ward noted: "There's not need to apologize. If we score when we get down in the red zone, maybe this game isn't even close."
It was close, at 10-6 entering the final quarter after a scoreless third and a lackluster first half. Then the fireworks came.
Gradkowski, who completed 20 of 33 passes for 308 yards and no interceptions, threw his first touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Chaz Schilens from 17 yards out to give the Raiders their first lead, 13-10.
The Steelers responded with their second two-play touchdown drive to reclaim the lead at 17-13. Roethlisberger completed a 57-yard pass to Santonio Holmes, who caught the ball at the 38 and ran 35 yards to the Oakland 3. Rashard Mendenhall, who rushed for 103 yards on 20 tries, then broke a couple of tackles as he raced around left end for the score with 7:13 to go.
And then it was the Raiders turn to strike back. It took them three plays to do so, starting from their 16. They had a third-and-1 at the 25. Gradkowski faked a handoff and threw deep to Louis Murphy. He caught it at the 35 and beat Ike Taylor to the pylon for a touchdown that put Oakland back on top, 20-17, as the fans booed.
"He's supposed to stay inside of him, inside of that man and potentially could pick up some help from the backside," Tomlin said. "Of course, neither happened."
They were on their feet cheering moments later as Roethlisberger completed a 27-yard pass to Heath Miller on the first play and, later a 20-yard pass to Holmes. Then, he found Ward and the whole stadium celebrated as if they had won a Super Bowl.
Not this year, it would appear.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com . First Published December 7, 2009 5:00 AM