Their game against San Diego in Heinz Field last Sunday was all too typical for the Steelers and not just because another team with a losing record upset them. They forced no turnovers and had one sack for no loss in yardage.
The defense that once lived by the fierceness with which it savaged quarterbacks and created turnovers and other havoc has turned into a small-play defense. It leads the league in fewest yards allowed but ranks in a tie for next to last with just seven interceptions and is 20th in sacks.
The Steelers defense has played so softly, the NFL doesn't even fine them anymore.
"Last year and this year," safety Ryan Clark rightly pointed out. "We used to excel at that."
The Steelers defense forced its fewest turnovers in its modern history, at least back to the 1970 merger, when it came up with 15 last season -- four fumble recoveries, 11 interceptions. Those interceptions tied for the third fewest in franchise history. They can lay claim to another No. 1 by the end of the season, setting a new record for a franchise low.
The Steelers swiped nine passes in the 11-game 1940 season that stands as their low-water mark, according to research by Steelers Digest. Unless they come up with two more over the next three games -- a big order for them the past two seasons -- they will go down in history as the worst team in the 80 years of the franchise at picking off passes.
They're not doing much better recovering fumbles. They have five, one on a muffed punt, giving them just 12 forced turnovers. They've lost three games by three points and another by six, and the reason could be they also have lost their once innate ability to turn the ball over to their offense.
The Steelers defense also is on pace to dip below its sack total of 35 last season, its lowest in 21 years. They have 26 sacks or two per game.
"I guess they kind of go hand in hand," Clark said. "When you get pressure, you force bad throws and make turnovers; when you cover well, you force sacks. So, those things work together.
"We're failing on both ends right now."
Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley reasons that quarterbacks are throwing the ball more quickly to avoid the Steelers pass rush.
"Teams are doing stuff differently against us. Teams are doing a lot of 3-step and get rid of the ball when they play against us. They haven't been holding the ball that long. That's what most teams are doing against us this year.
"We're just not getting any turnovers because they're getting rid of the ball."
Clark believes injuries, like those to Woodley, have taken a collective toll on the defense and its ability to force turnovers.
Woodley will return Sunday after missing the past two games with an ankle sprain and one earlier in the season.
Fellow outside linebacker James Harrison missed the first three games with a knee injury, and it took him longer to return to form. Safety Troy Polamalu has missed nine games.
Those are their three best playmakers when they're in full health. Harrison's strip-sack of quarterback Joe Flacco that helped deliver a win in Baltimore Dec. 2 was typical for him, but rare this season and last.
"You miss certain players that you have in place to do that," said Clark. "There's also the chemistry that's built when those guys are on the field together. We don't have it right now."
Burress wants to stay here
Wide receiver Plaxico Burress flashed his old form when he caught an 18-yard pass over the middle Sunday to convert a third down. It was his first reception with the Steelers in eight years. Will there be one more season?
"If I do play another year of football, this would be where I'd want to end it. No doubt. I wouldn't want to go anywhere else," said Burress, who will turn 36 Aug. 12.
"We'll see what happens. I'm pretty sure I'll sit down with [general manager] Kevin Colbert and [coach] Mike Tomlin after the season.
"I'll see how I'm feeling physically and make a decision. If they give me an opportunity to come back and play, I'll play here."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been lobbying for more playing time for the 6-foot-5 Burress, who said he is getting back into football shape after the Steelers signed him Nov. 20.
"I'm getting my sea legs back a little bit, getting a little more spring. I think around the time where I'm getting back to being able to do some of the things I know I can do, it'll be at the right time."
He noted the three young receivers ahead of him, but said it is possible the Steelers could use some sets of four and five wide receivers down the stretch.
"If we get to a point where we can use four or five wide, I think we can be pretty special as far as how teams are going to match up with us.
Woodley went through a second day of full practice, said he felt good but was coy as to how much he might play Sunday in Dallas. The Steelers eased Polamalu back in when he returned to play in Baltimore Dec. 2.
"I guess we'll see on Sunday," Woodley said. "I don't know. I can't show you until Sunday."
Cornerback Keenan Lewis (hip) also went through a full practice after missing Wednesday, and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders returned as well. Besides injured players already known to be out, others who missed were Polamalu, cornerback Cortez Allen and Harrison, who was sick for the second day.
First Published December 14, 2012 5:00 AM