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mesaSteeler
12-07-2009, 09:22 AM
Vulnerable Steelers defense sorely missing Smith, Polamalu
John Dudley
http://www.goerie.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20091207/SPORTS0509/312079942/-1/SPORTS

PITTSBURGH -- The first two players to leave the Steelers' locker room Sunday were Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu.

Smith emerged first, wrapped in a massive black coat, and stopped to talk to former Steelers lineman-turned-commentator Craig Wolfley in a roped off area reserved for television interviews.

He smiled slightly at one point during the brief conversation, but mostly he just shook his head.

Polamalu followed. He moved quickly past a group of reporters, the hood of his jacket pulled tightly over his pinned up hair.

The All-Pro safety, whose play speaks so loudly on the field, said nothing to anyone.

Inside, the rest of the Steelers' defensive players braced themselves for a barrage of questions about how a unit that, one year ago, found a way to close out so many close wins, suddenly has lost the ability to finish.

Some of it could be chalked up to the karma of the NFL, a league in which the line between winning and losing might be thinner than ever.

But mostly, you get the sense that the difference between this year's Steelers and last year's, if you boil it down to its essence, is that Smith and Polamalu are doing their talking -- or not -- far away from the field.

"You can't compare last year to this year, you just can't," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said in the surreal aftermath of yet another fourth-quarter collapse, this time at home to the lowly Oakland Raiders, who somehow managed to score three touchdowns in the final 81/2 minutes behind a journeyman quarterback and in front of a coach who might or might not have punched out his assistant -- not too mention at least one woman -- in his shady past.

This is how far the defending Super Bowl champions have fallen, knocked off their feet -- and perhaps out of the playoffs -- by a team best known for dysfunction and malaise.

Woodley is right. Last year's Steelers seemed fully incapable of a four-game losing streak, much less a season-long string of fourth-quarter defensive meltaways that leave you wondering if two players not named Roethlisberger or Holmes can make this much difference.

Apparently so.

Apparently Smith, the league's quintessential 3-4 defensive end, and Polamalu, perhaps the best safety of his generation, really are indispensable despite coach Mike Tomlin's constant mantra that the standard is the standard, personnel be damned.

A franchise whose hallmark always has been on tackling and getting after the quarterback has done neither of those things well enough or consistently enough this season.

"In Pittsburgh, defense has always been the main thing," said Woodley, offering no explanation as to why that's no longer the case.

The easy thing would be to blame some of the new faces in new places.

Second-year safety Ryan Mundy, who has played more in Polamalu's absence, drew an unnecessary roughness call by hitting Oakland receiver Johnnie Lee Higgins after an incomplete pass. The foul helped set up the Raiders' winning score.

"I don't understand that," Mundy said of the call, which came when he lowered his head and drove the top of his helmet into Higgins' facemask, precisely the sort of play the league has been cracking down on in the wake of an avalanche of concussions.

Earlier on the same drive, on which the Raiders inexplicably drove 88 yards in 1 minute, 47 seconds, rookie cornerback Joe Burnett dropped an interception that would have ended it.

Maybe Polamalu would have swooped in, as he does so often, and knocked the ball loose on one of the 10 passes Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski completed on Oakland's final three drives -- all of them ending in touchdowns.

Maybe Smith would have made a difference.

If either one of them was talking right now, they would undoubtedly say that their replacements are more than capable.

They would insist that no line can be drawn directly from their absences to the Steelers' 6-6 record and dim playoff prospects.

But we know better. We can see the difference. We saw it Sunday. We've seen it nearly every Sunday that Polamalu and Smith aren't on the field.

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised.

For a team like the Steelers, one built around its defense, losing Smith and Polamalu is not all that different from the Colts losing Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne.

They are tone-setters, scene stealers, the best, most irreplaceable players on their side of the ball.

When the topic of defense came up afterward, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger slipped into a delicate, politically correct verbal dance.

"I never talk about the defense, no matter if they had a great game or not," Roethlisberger said. "I don't play on that side of the ball."

Right now, Smith and Polamalu don't either. And the Steelers aren't nearly the same team without them.

JOHN DUDLEY can be reached at 870-1677 or john.dudley@timesnews.com.