Losing getting old for Steelers _ and so are they

Sep 30, 2009 - 9:47 PM By ALAN ROBINSON AP Sports Writer

PITTSBURGH(AP) -- Losing is quickly getting old for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Maybe this should worry a Super Bowl winner that's off to a 1-2 start: The Steelers are getting a bit old, too.

During their first 40 seasons, they were commonly called the Same Old Steelers because they were never quite good enough to win. They haven't been in their last two games, either, and part of the reason is a getting-old team hasn't been the same as it was last year.

The sacks, the turnovers, the big plays are missing and the Steelers defense also can't seem to get off the field in the fourth quarter. Dating to the Super Bowl against Arizona, when they gave up a 13-point lead but rallied to win, the Steelers have been outscored 43-10 in the fourth quarter of their last four games.

The last two games it's been 24-0, with both the Bears and Bengals putting together long scoring drives to win within the final 15 seconds.

A starting defense with an average age of 30 - six starters are 31 or older - was on the field for 27 snaps in the fourth quarter of the 23-20 loss Sunday in Cincinnati. So many plays so late in a game can wear down any defense, young or old.

"I never called them a veteran defense or an old defense," coach Mike Tomlin said. "Those are not my words. That's our defense."

It certainly hasn't been the defense that was No. 1 overall the last two seasons.

The Steelers are No. 8 overall and No. 15 against the pass after leading the league in both categories last season. A year ago, they had 10 sacks after three games; this season, five. They had forced eight turnovers; they've got two so far this year, both in the opener against Tennessee.

Opposing quarterbacks are quickly getting rid of the ball on short- to moderate-range routes before the pass rush arrives, something the Chargers' Philip Rivers likely will try to do Sunday night.

The strategy is working so far. James Harrison, the NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season, has only one sack after getting 16 last season. LaMarr Woodley, who had 11 1/2 sacks, has none.

"Sometimes a team almost has to do something special for those guys, those guys are excellent rushers and get to the quarterback and get to them fast," linebacker James Farrior said. "You can definitely see a game plan going in to stop those guys. We've got to do things to combat that. Those two guys are going to try to do something else."

What no player can defend against is getting older.

The Steelers gambled in recent seasons by signing players such as Farrior, Harrison, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel to new contracts although they were in their 30s, something they once did only rarely. Former All-Pro guard Alan Faneca, for example, couldn't land a new deal two years ago.

All three defensive linemen - Smith (33), Casey Hampton (32) and Keisel (31) - are in their 30s, as are Farrior (34), Harrison (31) and safety Tyrone Carter (33). Safety Ryan Clark will be 30 on Oct. 12.

While the Steelers hardly look like they've broken down or gotten old in a hurry, age does become a factor when a defense stays on the field play after play after play when games are being decided.

"We have higher expectations for ourselves than what we've shown the last two fourth quarters," Clark said. "One time, it's a coincidence. Now it's becoming a habit and we need to break that habit."

No doubt it will help when star safety Troy Polamalu returns from a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee, possibly as early as next week. What Polamalu doesn't like is players such as Carter getting blamed for not making plays he supposedly would have made.

"I can't say I would play any different than the safeties that are in there. It's sad because losing is the frustrating part of it," Polamalu said. "The truth is anybody on this whole team is replaceable. We've won missing everybody from Ben (Roethlisberger) to Hines (Ward) to myself. Guys even like Joey Porter are replaceable. ... I could tell you truthfully I wouldn't have made any difference in either of those two games."

The Steelers were depleted at running back during practice Wednesday. Willie Parker sat out with a left toe injury, while Carey Davis was re-signed to take over at fullback. He was cut when training camp ended, but rookie Frank Summers (back) is out for the season.

"It's painful, but it's something I can deal with, so we'll take it day by day," Parker said.

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