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12-31-2007, 01:20 AM
The Steelers' spirit has to overcome its defense
Monday, December 31, 2007
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BALTIMORE -- Go back a little more than two weeks, to the day the Jacksonville Jaguars ran the football down the Steelers' throats at Heinz Field and beat them, 29-22, in a game that wasn't the least bit close. Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was angry. More than that, he was embarrassed. He felt as if his manhood and that of his team had been thoroughly violated.

"They showed us who's tough today," Foote said, fairly spitting out the words. "They whupped our butts all day."

It was a much different Foote yesterday after the Steelers' 27-21 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Not because his defense played better on this wet, miserable Sunday afternoon; it didn't, not by any stretch. Because it was official that the Jaguars were coming back to Heinz Field for a first-round playoff game Saturday night.

"I love it," Foote said. "You hear everybody around the league talking, 'I'm scared of Jacksonville. I don't want to play Jacksonville.' But I'm happy about it. You know we're going to have a chip on our shoulder. People aren't talking about us and we like that. We've got a lot of spirit in this locker room and we're going to show it Saturday night."

Sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

I just have a few questions:

Can that spirit tackle? Can it play the proper gaps and prevent long runs? Can it make a play or two on third down and get the defense off the field? Can it stop giving up touchdown passes and long scoring drives?

I'm thinking that spirit had better be pretty terrific.

"It's a new season. We're 0-0 now," Foote said, sticking to his story. "We're undefeated -- just like New England."

Don't you wish the Steelers were playing as well as the Patriots?

It's difficult to like their chances against Jacksonville even if the home crowd surely will provide an amped-up prime-time atmosphere. There's no kind way to say this: The defense has stunk for the better part of a month.

Maybe the defense had a sliver of an excuse yesterday, knowing that the game had no impact on the team's division championship and almost certainly wouldn't change its No. 4 playoff seeding.

"You never want to say a game is meaningless, but, in the back of your mind, you know it," cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "I don't think we came out with that fire early on to be dominant."

As I said, we'll give the fellas yesterday even if it was hard to watch the Ravens' third- and fourth-string running backs -- Musa Smith and Cory Ross -- slice them for 155 of the Ravens' staggering 180 rushing yards on a day when the Baltimore club played with its third quarterback -- rookie Troy Smith -- and without its All-World tight end -- Todd Heap.

But what about the 41-24 win at St. Louis on Dec. 20 when the Steelers gave up three touchdown passes to quarterback Marc Bulger and would have allowed more rushing yards to back Steven Jackson (12 carries for 85 yards) if the Rams hadn't abandoned the running game? Or that loss to Jacksonville on Dec. 16 when backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew provided the bulk of the Jaguars' silly 224 rushing yards? Or the 34-13 loss at New England on Dec. 9 when quarterback Tom Brady passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns?

Although the run defense is most troubling and hasn't been the same since defensive end Aaron Smith went out with a torn biceps at New England, there is plenty else to dread with the playoffs dead ahead. In the past four games, the Steelers allowed 11 touchdown passes. They allowed the opponents to convert 25 of 55 third downs. They allowed seven scoring drives of at least 10 plays, including a mind-blowing 20-play drive by the Jaguars. They produced just three sacks and four turnovers.

And there also is this: Losing three of four games down the stretch isn't exactly the way you want to go into the playoffs.

Hey, don't shoot the messenger.

"Our losses in December are certainly a concern," defensive end Brett Keisel acknowledged. "But January is really what matters. If we win some games in January, nobody will remember what happened in December."

That and "We're all 0-0 now" were the overwhelming sentiments in the Steelers' locker room, from coach Mike Tomlin on down. "Ready or not, here we come" was how Tomlin put it.

That seems to be about all the Steelers have to grasp at this point.

That and their spirit, of course.

That spirit really had better be good.

There is one positive, though.

The Jaguars could come in overconfident.

That's something, isn't it?

http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07365/845638-87.stm