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Junker: Steelers don't need panic

| Monday, Dec. 14, 2009

Panic, it's what most fans and many media members have done. It's what the Steeler's organization rarely does and they are rewarded for their patience with one of the most consistently stable and strong franchises in the NFL.

While changes need to be made for next year, knee-jerk reaction brings with it only instant satisfaction and rarely long term improvement. The e-mails have poured in. Fire offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. Fire special teams coach Bob Ligashesky. Fire head coach Mike Tomlin. I assure you the last one won't happen. The first two might be considered at the end of the season.

For now the Steelers are a team that fell from the penthouse to the outhouse in such a short period of time that it has many in the organization scratching their heads; but not losing them. There are three games left and the re-evaluating and perhaps elimination of playing and coaching personal can wait until the offseason.

The very first thing to consider is how much better would this team be if Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu were healthy. In the press box last Thursday night, a Cleveland TV reporter asked me what was wrong with the Steelers, considering they have basically the same players that won the Super Bowl. That is far from the truth on defense where four of the 11 starters have changed. Polamalu and Smith have been hurt much of the year and cornerback Bryant McFadden and linebacker Larry Foote are gone.

No one can replace Polamalu or Smith. Polamalu is not only a pro bowler but as unique a talent as the league has ever seen. Smith was just named to the all-decade team in Sports Illustrated.

William Gay and Lawrence Timmons have replaced McFadden and Foote after doing a good job as their situational replacements last year. Playing nearly every down has exposed both. It doesn't mean they can't get better. Nor is there a guarantee they will. But it's a big part of why this team isn't as good as it was last year. It's certainly a big reason why this team hasn't been able to close games out defensively in the fourth quarters.

The Steelers have lost seven games by a total of 28 points. They never trailed by more than a touchdown until the first half against Cleveland last week. Five games have been lost by three points. Two have been lost in overtime.

I believe that losing a lot of close games just means a team is just no good. Most NFL games swing by a field goal or touchdown. But you know this team is better than this and even going 3-4 in those close losses would have them sitting pretty ready for another playoff run.

Instead, the Steelers are only the second defending Super Bowl champion to lose five straight games. And the other time it happened, the 1987 New York Giants used replacement players during a strike.

The Steelers should be so lucky. There is no doubt they have underperformed and heads may roll. There are suddenly cracks in Mike Tomlin's slick presence. James Farrior looks his age. Some others don't act theirs and there is locker room unrest. It looks like they made mistakes on players they allowed to leave. Some like Anthony Madison they got back to help their awful special teams. The real key is not to make those evaluation mistakes again.

Changes are necessary and perhaps the whole thing needs to be blown up and reworked. But luckily all that will be dealt with in a timely manner which does not appease angry fans right now.

Making the playoffs 12 of the last 16 years and winning more Super Bowls than anyone in NFL history does not happen if the Steelers fired people and cut players every time the team is in a funk. As Rudyard Kipling wrote so well in his poem "IF" in the late 19th century: "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you ..." It is the mantra of the Steeler organization. And right now it is being held to the test.

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