Pittsburgh defense not good anymore

PITTSBURGH – For the second consecutive game, sideline navigation was an issue for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last time, it was coach Mike Tomlin’s inability to stay on the sideline. This time is was Antonio Brown’s inability to stay on the field that was the problem.

Brown inexplicably stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone, thwarting a possible miracle finish for the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday afternoon.

Instead, it was just another disappointment in a season that’s had too many of them for the Steelers.

The 34-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins dropped the Steelers to 5-8, and just about killed their faint hopes to reach the postseason.

They can do no better than match last year’s 8-8 record, although no logical Steelers fan should root for that.

The team’s long-term interest would be best served by a 5-11 final record, which would improve their drafting position and start the much-needed rebuilding.

Is there any doubt that should be focused on the defense?

The Steelers aren’t what they used to be, and that’s most glaring on the defensive side.

Maybe it all started with that drive Joe Flacco led on Nov. 6, 2011 to give the Baltimore Ravens a last-second victory at Heinz Field. Whatever the case, the Steelers aren’t as fearsome at the end of games as they once were. That’s mostly because they don’t stop people the way they used to.

It looked as though the Steelers had taken control of Sunday’s game when Troy Polamalu picked off a pass, and precisely lifted the ball over the pylon to score a touchdown.

Instead, the Dolphins came right back with an 80-yard scoring drive.

On what proved to be the winning touchdown, Miami’s Charles Clay shook off two tackle attempts by Cortez Allen and one by Polamalu to score.

For all the screaming that has been done this season about offensive coordinator Todd Haley, the Steelers are actually in sad shape on defense.

It isn’t a question of the game zooming past 75-year-old defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. It’s a matter of having enough talented players to make schemes work.

Long plays used to be a rarity against the Steelers. On Sunday, Daniel Thomas ran 55 yards to set up the winning touchdown. Miami center Mike Pouncey flattened Polamalu with a block to help open the path for Thomas.

The Steelers’ secondary has gotten torched this season. The defensive line, with the exception of the emerging Cameron Heyward, is ordinary on its best day. The linebackers aren’t much better.

There’s simply too big a talent gap.

For all the problems on offense, you can still make the case that Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller and Brown are among the best at their respective positions.

Can you say that about anybody on defense?

The Steelers weren’t mathematically eliminated from postseason contention with Sunday’s loss. The NFL sells hope, and that plays in some markets where success is uncommon.

But Steelers fans know what championship-caliber teams look like, and they know the 2013 edition is far from that standard.

If that circus play at the end would have worked, it would have been a spectacular finish that would have been replayed for years. Instead, it was just another tease.

The Steelers sent the crowd into the cold night with more reason to be frustrated. This isn’t a playoff team, no matter what the math might say at the moment.

Let this season end on Dec. 29 with the home game against Cleveland, and get to work on next season starting early on Dec. 30.

There’s a lot to fix, and it starts on defense.

(Mehno can be reached at: johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com)