Different path not good one right now for Steelers

Defense's woes top long, growing list

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In the five years Mike Tomlin has been head coach, the Steelers traditionally have followed a similar script. They have started 6-2 and parlayed those fast starts into three 12-win seasons in the past four years.

But, after what happened Thursday night in Nashville, Tenn., when the Steelers blew another fourth-quarter lead and lost to one of the NFL's lowlights on yet another last-second field goal, the only thing fast about what they are doing is declining.

And the only script they seem to be following is the disturbing one they manufactured in 2009 when they lost three games in short order to the league's bottom-feeders -- Oakland, Kansas City and Cleveland, none of whom had more than one victory when they faced the Steelers.

The Steelers finished 9-7 that season, thanks to a three-game winning streak to close the regular season. But, one year after their sixth Super Bowl trophy, they missed the playoffs by one game. Had they beaten one of the three lowly teams to whom they lost, the Steelers would have made the postseason.

Three years later, history is starting to repeat itself.

"It's the same thing," said safety Ryan Clark. "You don't want to get to the end of the season trying to find a playoff position, trying to get into the playoffs, and we can't get in because of these games."

The postseason might not even be a possibility for the Steelers (2-3)

They are off to their worst start in the Tomlin era after their 26-23 loss against the Tennessee Titans, a team that had lost each of its previous four games by at least 21 points. And they lost the same way they did against the then-winless Oakland Raiders just two games ago -- blowing a fourth-quarter lead by allowing an 80-yard touchdown drive and the winning field goal as time expired.

What's more, they have lost their past four road games, dating to last season, and play their next game in Cincinnati against the 3-2 Bengals. Because of injuries, it is possible they could be without Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman for that game.

The Steelers are off until Monday so the extent of their injuries likely will not be revealed until then.

"It's starting to become a habit," Clark said. "We can't keep doing it game in and game out. It seems every time we play on the road we get in a dogfight and we need someone to make a play for us and get us out of it and we don't do it."

Then, he added, "The season's not over. We can't pack it in. But it's not going to get easier. We got Cincinnati, and they're a better team than this. They have better receivers and a better quarterback."

"These are the ones we have to have," said Redman, who caught four passes for 105 yards and became the first Steelers running back to have a 100-yard receiving game since Frenchy Fuqua in 1970. "We can't come out and play the way we played all the way around -- offense, defense and special teams. We're not consistent at all. Something's got to change."

Indeed, the defense isn't solely to blame for what happened against the Titans.

The offense managed just two touchdowns against a defense that had been allowing an NFL-high 36.2 points per game and never seemed in rhythm after an 82-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace.

And the special teams committed the gaffe that seemed to inspire the Titans, much the way Darren McFadden's 64-yard touchdown run in Oakland invigorated the Raiders and changed the momentum of that game. The Steelers allowed linebacker Tim Shaw to come untouched and block a Drew Butler punt that was recovered at the 1, leading to a Titans touchdown that gave them a 13-10 lead.

"We just got to make plays at the end of game," said Wallace, who connected for his 12th touchdown of 40 yards or longer with Ben Roethlisberger -- most among active duos in the NFL. "We're just not making the plays to win the game. It's not rocket science."

But it is the failure of the defense to protect the lead in the fourth quarter that has been as disconcerting as it is consistent.

The Steelers have failed to protect a fourth-quarter lead in all three losses. And they blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Eagles before Shaun Suisham won the game with a field goal.

"It's nothing mystical -- people are scoring," Clark said. "We got to find a way to stop this. We have to find a way to plug a hole in the dike."

It appeared the Steelers did when Lawrence Timmons intercepted a Matt Hasselbeck pass at the Titans 45 that led to Suisham's 52-yard field goal and a 23-16 lead. But the Titans scored on each of their final two possessions to come back for the victory.

"I'm not concerned at all," said Woodley, who did not play because of a hamstring injury. "We just got to find a way to close it out. We had the opportunity to close it out, we just didn't take advantage."

That's what they said in '09 when it was already too late.

Saunders gone

The Steelers released tight end Weslye Saunders after he served his four-game NFL suspension for violating the league's banned-substance policy -- a move made because of the development of rookie David Paulson.

The team had until 4 p.m. Friday to decide if they wanted to keep Saunders or release Paulson or veteran backup Leonard Pope.

Pope, who was signed in free agency from the Kansas City Chiefs, where he played for offensive coordinator Todd Haley, has not played the past two games. But, as a vested veteran, Pope would have to be paid the one-year minimum of $840,000 even if he were released.

Paulson, a sixth-round pick, has played extensively the past two games and was lauded by coach Mike Tomlin last week that "he's proven that [the game] is not too big for him ... He's an attention-to-detail guy."

Saunders was suspended because he took the stimulant Adderall, which is on the league's banned-substance list.

No fine for Mundy

Safety Ryan Mundy was not fined for his hit on Philadelphia Eagles receiver Jeremy Maclin, a play on which Mundy was penalized 15 yards for a "helmet hit," an NFL spokesman said.

Replay appeared to indicate that Mundy hit Maclin in the shoulder area with his shoulder pads, not his helmet. Mundy already has been fined $21,000 for a hit on Oakland Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, a play on which he was not penalized.


Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com; twitter: @gerrydulac.


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