Defense, special teams not so special in Steelers' 22-17 loss
The Steelers did not cede control of the AFC North to their most bitter rivals following a gut-wrenching 22-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.
But they certainly reduced their margin for error.
The Steelers (10-4) clinched a playoff berth despite the loss. Whether they win their third division title under coach Mike Tomlin and secure a first-round playoff bye will be determined the next two weeks.
The manner in which they clinched their place in the postseason -- failing to make timely stops on defense and coming up on offense on what would have been the most improbable touchdown drive of the season -- had Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney shaking his head as he made his way around a quiet locker room last night.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has built a career on engineering fourth-quarter comebacks, but he misfired on two throws from the Jets' 10-yard line at the end of the game.
There was some finger-pointing in the Steelers locker room, but it was the defensive players blaming themselves after allowing the Jets (10-4) to convert 50 percent of the time on third and fourth down.
"We stunk on defense," free safety Ryan Clark said.
"We couldn't get off the field on third down, and that's something we've been doing well at the whole year," linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior said.
The Steelers did not force any turnovers for the first time since a Nov. 14 loss to the Patriots at Heinz Field.
They also failed to impose their will on the Jets after Rashard Mendenhall gave the Steelers a 17-10 lead -- their first of the game -- early in the third quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run.
The Jets, who won in Pittsburgh for the first time in seven games, answered with an eight-play, 66-yard drive that quarterback Mark Sanchez capped with a 7-yard touchdown run on fourth down.
The Jets fooled the Steelers, who collapsed on running back Shonn Greene, and Sanchez practically walked into the end zone.
"The boot(leg) where Sanchez scored, that was me," said outside linebacker James Harrison, who was not 100 percent after battling the flu last week. "I'm trying to do more than I'm supposed to do. I should have taken care of my responsibility and helped out my partner later. If I take care of my responsibility, they don't score seven points there."
The Jets did not get a big game from Sanchez, but they didn't need one. They were ran the ball well enough (106 yards on 27 carries) to keep Sanchez in manageable situations.
Their maligned quarterback came through when the Jets needed him on a third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter.
After eluding a blitzing Ryan Mundy, Sanchez completed a 16-yard pass to Braylon Edwards, who made a shoestring grab. That helped set up Nick Folks' 34-yard field goal that gave the Jets the lead for good.
"In games like that you can go back to a number of plays, but the reality is that they made the significant plays, particularly in the second half, third-down conversions, and we didn't," Tomlin said.
The afternoon did not start well for the Steelers.
At roughly the same time as the Ravens were walking off the field at M&T Bank Stadium following a 30-24 win over the New Orleans Saints, Smith was bursting through a gaping hole in the Steelers kickoff coverage unit on the way to a 97-yard touchdown.
The Steelers tied the score in the second quarter when they converted four times on third down before Roethlisberger drilled a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Matt Spaeth.
The teams then traded field goals, setting a wintry stage for a back-and-forth second half.
In the end, a defense that had carried the Steelers in recent weeks could not come through again.
"I know when we watch this film there's going to be a lot that we aren't happy with," Clark said. "There's going to be a lot of un-Steelers-like defense, letting guys get 6 yards on runs, letting guts convert third downs into first downs on passes."
Steelers vs. Jets 12/1 9⁄10
The Jets defeat the Steelers, 22-17, Sunday December 19, 2010 at Heinz Field.
Steelers clinch playoff berth
The Steelers have earned at least a wild card berth based on a strength of schedule tiebreaker, the team confirmed.
It is the third time in the four years under coach Mike Tomlin that the Steelers have advanced to the playoffs.
The Steelers are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for first place in the AFC North but hold the tiebreaker based on their division record.
If the Steelers win their remaining two games, against the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and Cleveland Browns (5-9), they would win the division title. That would give them the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye.
The Ravens play the Browns next week and finish with the Cincinnati Bengals (3-11).Additional Information:
Around the Steelers
• Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu did not play Sunday as expected because of an ankle injury. Neither Polamalu nor coach Mike Tomlin had much to say about when the five-time Pro Bowler will return to action following the Steelers' 22-17 loss to the New York Jets at Heinz Field. The best-case scenario for the Steelers had them beating the Jets -- coupled with a Ravens' loss to the New Orleans Saints -- so they could rest Polamalu for their final two games. Neither happened, and the Steelers and Ravens are tied atop the AFC North with 10-4 records though the Steelers win the division if it wins its final two games.
• Tight end Heath Miller did not play for a second consecutive game because of post-concussion symptoms. Miller, who sustained a concussion in a Dec. 5 game, practiced last Wednesday and Friday but experienced exercise-induced headaches.
• Might Tomlin consider making a change along the offensive line• Trai Essex played left tackle on the final drive after starter Jonathan Scott was beaten on a play that resulted in a safety. It came with just under three minutes to play when Jets defensive end Jason Taylor smothered running back Mewelde Moore on a draw play.
• In addition to Polamalu and Miller, defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) and defensive tackle Steve McLendon (stinger) did not play yesterday because of injuries.