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Defense disappoints in Steelers loss to Seahawks

Sure, if the Steelers had beaten the Seahawks Sunday at Seattle, it would have been hailed as a signature win.

The narrative would have gone something like “Watch out Patriots, Broncos and Bengals. Here come the Steelers.”

Instead, the Steelers lost 39-30 and the weaknesses that could keep them out of the playoffs were exposed once again.

The Steelers took part in a memorable duel with the two-time NFC champions in a stadium where no AFC team has won since 2011, but there’s no “nice try” for that. They lost a game they had a chance to win.

No one is going to stop the presses by saying that the Steelers’ secondary isn’t very good. But boy was it horrible on Sunday.

The Steelers were burned by a lot of receivers that shouldn’t scare anyone.

Let’s just say that Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse aren’t often mentioned as fantasy starts.

Yet Baldwin rang up 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns, both career highs.

Kearse, who’s caught one touchdown pass in each of the last two years, caught a career-high two against the Steelers.

Those five touchdown passes, and 345 passing yards, are a regular-season personal best for Russell Wilson. For the second straight game the Steelers allowed a quarterback to surpass his career high in passing yards.

Jimmy Graham accounted for 75 of those yards on four catches before suffering a season-ending knee injury. On a day in which they couldn’t cover middling receivers, the Steelers weren’t going to suddenly figure out how to stop tight ends.

The Steelers’ bend-but-don’t-break defense bent and broke, and for the first time since the Steelers’ Week 7 loss at Kansas City it failed to produce any turnovers.

While the Steelers’ offense hasn’t had to carry the defense as much as most people thought it would, it needed to do that on Sunday. And turning the ball over four times is no way to bail out the defense.

The Steelers led 21-14 late in the third quarter when Ben Roethlisberger apparently was about to throw a pass then tried to pull it back. The ball slipped from his hand and landed in the hands of defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin.

It was the fifth straight game in which Roethlisberger has thrown an interception, the longest streak of his career. The Steelers still led 21-20 early in the fourth quarter when he threw his second one. It’s possible that Richard Sherman got away with a little push that caused Antonio Brown to fall down, but that’s debatable.

So maybe neither of Roethlisberger’s interceptions were bad throws or bad decisions. The Steelers’ first turnover, however, was the result of a bad decision by the coaching staff.

The Steelers had the upper hand in the first quarter and lined up for a 44-yard field goal attempt that would have given them a 6-0 lead at the start of the second quarter.

But for some reason the Steelers’ coaching staff gets harebrained against reigning conference champions. The Steelers faked the field goal and Landry Jones attempted a pass to left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Jeremy Lane intercepted the pass and the Seahawks eventually turned it into a 7-3 lead.

This was reminiscent of the season opener in New England. The Steelers moved the ball 56 yards on five plays on the opening drive, then called a gadget play in which Antonio Brown was going to throw a pass. They lost eight yards on the play, eventually missed a field goal and lost the momentum they gained on that opening drive.

The Steelers recovered from their botched trick play on Sunday better than they did against the Patriots. The game featured seven lead changes, including Roethlisberger’s 69-yard touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton that put the Steelers ahead 27-26 with 11:40 left in the game.

Wheaton caught nine passes for 201 yards, both career highs, but his effort was wasted. The game’s final lead change came when Baldwin caught a 30-yard touchdown, giving the Seahawks a 32-27 edge with 8:12 remaining.

Then Roethlisberger showed flashes of the Roethlisberger who led the Steelers to their dramatic Super Bowl XLIII victory. He strung together a 14-play drive, although it turns out he might have had a concussion for part of the drive. The drive petered out at the Seattle 3-yard line with three minutes left, and Chris Boswell kicked a 22-yard field goal to pull the Steelers to within 32-30.

Should the Steelers have gone for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3? It was a little surprising that they didn’t considering their daring decisions earlier in the game. After the fake field goal failed, they again tore up the two-point conversion numerical chart and successfully went for two to go up 18-14 in the second quarter.

If the Steelers decided not to go for it because they knew Roethlisberger wasn’t right, then why was he in the game and not being checked for a concussion?

What the Steelers really should have done was attempt a running play when they had a first-and-goal at the 10 with 3:55 left. All 14 plays on that drive were passes, but considering how prone Roethlisberger has been to interceptions it seemed he was due to throw one.

A run would have perhaps caught the Seahawks off guard and it would have reduced the time the Seahawks had to come back if the Steelers had taken the lead. It also might have moved the ball a few yards closer to the end zone, and Roethlisberger would have had a better chance to score a go-ahead touchdown when he scrambled on third down after two incompletions.

The Steelers did make the right call when they threw to Heath Miller early and often. Like the Steelers, the Seahawks struggle against tight ends. Miller caught five passes for 45 yards in the first quarter, and the famed 12th Man couldn’t stop the “Heeeeaaeaaaaaath!!!” chants from being heard.

Miller left the game with a rib injury, however. Maybe that’s why the Steelers seemed to throw so many downfield passes later in the game when all they had to do was move the chains. The loss of Miller took away their intermediate passing game.

It might have helped if Martavis Bryant had caught more than five of the 13 passes thrown his way. The Steelers needed Bryant’s hands to be more reliable with Sherman holding Brown to six catches for 51 yards and keeping him out of the end zone.

Bryant and everyone else wearing black and gold will have to be extra sharp if the concussion protocol keeps Roethlisberger on the sidelines next week when the Steelers (6-5) host the Colts (6-5) on Sunday Night Football.

The Steelers no longer occupy one of the AFC wild-card spots, but if there’s any consolation from Sunday’s loss it’s that it won’t hurt them when it comes to tiebreakers. All five of the Steelers’ remaining games are against AFC teams, which gives them a chance to improve their 3-4 conference record, the worst among the five 6-5 teams in the AFC.

Three of those five remaining games are on the road, and only three of the 18 turnovers the Steelers have forced have come on the road. That ratio will have to even out for the Steelers to make the playoffs, because if the Steelers defense isn’t taking the ball away it’s not very good.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets

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