Here's hoping Polamalu will return soon
Steelers defensive backs Troy Polamalu and William Gay break up a pass intended for Bengals wide receiver Laveranues Coles.
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The Steelers' collective psyche after a day when their offense did nothing, their defense couldn't make a late stand and their special teams were absolutely atrocious in a brutal home loss to a division opponent? It's just fine, thank you very much. "The season didn't end today," linebacker LaMarr Woodley growled. "There's a lot of football left to be played."
But All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu's left knee? That might be a much different story. His potentially serious injury yesterday was, by far, the worst part of the hurtful 18-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, a defeat that left the Steelers in a jackpot as far as the AFC North Division race goes and means they probably will have to take the dangerous wild-card road to the playoffs.
"Not Troy. Not again," safety Ryan Clark said.
Your sentiments exactly, right?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin revealed little about Polamalu's injury, saying only that he was off at the hospital for an MRI. It's encouraging that the players acted as if the injury wasn't season-ending; ordinarily, they aren't deceitful enough to hide the truth. Then again, the players might not have known how significant Polamalu's problem is. No one was quite sure when he was hurt, although it is believed it happened when he tackled running back Cedric Benson for a 3-yard loss during the Bengals' first possession.
"Normally, he sits right next to me on the bench," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "He was there when we came off the field and then he was gone. It was like he's a ghost."
If Polamalu has to miss at least a few games, which seems likely, it will be a tough blow for him. He was just starting to get back to his otherworldly self after missing four games because of an injury to the same knee in the opener against the Tennessee Titans. He had interceptions in two of the previous three games and, even more significantly, showed the closing burst that separates him from all other defensive players.
If Polamalu is out for a long time, if not for the year, it might be too much for the Steelers to overcome. It's one thing having a star missing games early in the season. It's something much worse having him missing them down the stretch. The Steelers are lucky, to be sure, Tyrone Carter is a wonderful backup. "I thought he made a bunch of big run-stopping plays today," Keisel said. "Every guy in this locker room has complete faith in T.C." No doubt that's true. But Carter is no Polamalu. No one is.
"Troy isn't just the best player on our team," Clark said. "He's the best player in the league. ...
"If he's only out a week or two, the defense probably can sustain and win games. But if he's out longer? Playing against the [Baltimore] Ravens twice? That would be tough.
"But this is the NFL. One way or the other, you've got to go on. No one is going to say, 'Y'all lost Troy. We'll give you a break.' It doesn't work that way. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us."
If the Steelers do fall short in the division chase or -- worse -- in the wild-card race, they'll look back at this game the same way they will at their 23-20 loss in Cincinnati Sept. 27 when, playing without Polamalu, they blew a 20-9 lead in the fourth quarter. "This feels like we let 'em get away again," linebacker James Farrior said.
The offense couldn't get in the end zone, not one time. "We were kind of guessing and we were a little timid out there," offensive tackle Max Starks said, observations you never want to hear on a NFL Sunday.
The defense couldn't prevent the Bengals from running off more than five minutes of clock down the stretch or keep them from stretching their lead to six points with a field goal even though Benson -- the league's No. 2 rusher coming in -- was out with a hip problem after just seven carries. "That's on us," Woodley said.
And the special teams, well, what would a Steelers game be without an opponent's kickoff return for a touchdown? Rookie Bernard Scott's 96-yard return was the third in four games against the Steelers, leaving Tomlin flummoxed. "I'd put myself out there if I thought I could do the job," he said.
Add it all up and you get one of the biggest wins in the Bengals' not-so-glorious history.
"Very sweet. Very sweet. I'm almost diabetic right now, it's so sweet," linebacker Brandon Johnson gushed.
The Bengals, who have made the playoffs once since 1990, are in a fabulous spot even though their 7-2 record is just one game better than the Steelers' 6-3 mark. They are 5-0 in division games and have swept the Steelers and Ravens. The Steelers can win the division only by finishing with a better record than the Bengals. A tie won't do it. That means if the Bengals go 4-3 down the stretch, the Steelers would have to go 6-1.
"They're going to be the division champs," Clark said, flatly. "I know they haven't won it yet. But we'll probably have to win out to win it."
That's unlikely even with a healthy Polamalu. It seems darn near impossible without him for very long.
First Published November 16, 2009 12:00 am