Injuries taking toll on sliding Steelers

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, Last Updated: 1:05 PM ET

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is never one to make excuses, and he didn't offer any in the aftermath of his team's worst showing of the season.

Tomlin attributed Sunday night's 39-26 home loss to the always-resilient New England Patriots simply as a product of being outplayed and out-executed. But judging by the Steelers' earlier performances during the first half of this season, one can't help but think the absence of a number of key contributors had at least some impact on the final outcome.

The offense began the game down two starting linemen, left tackle Max Starks and left guard Chris Kemoeatu, then was forced to operate without Hines Ward for the final three quarters after the invaluable wide receiver sustained a concussion near the end of the opening period. The unit failed to establish a rhythm for the majority of the evening and struggled to adequately protect quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was taken to the turf five times by a New England pass rush that was hardly considered threatening coming in.

On the other side of the ball, a Pittsburgh defense that had been a stone wall against the run all year long wasn't its smothering self, with the Patriots compiling 103 rushing yards to complement a clinical display from quarterback Tom Brady. A depleted front line couldn't effectively replace starting ends Aaron Smith (torn triceps) and Brett Keisel (hamstring), both of whom were inactive, and the Steelers were dealt another major blow when standout inside linebacker and leading tackler Lawrence Timmons exited in the third quarter with a hip pointer.

Pittsburgh entered the game having yielded a minuscule 58.3 yards per game on the ground and 2.6 yards per rush attempt.

With its usually potent pass rush also neutralized by New England, Brady was able to surgically take apart a secondary that's been exposed as the Steelers' biggest area of concern in past weeks. The former league MVP completed an on- point 30-of-43 throws for 350 yards and three touchdowns without committing a turnover or being sacked.

"It's plain and simple. We just got our butt whooped," stated Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor. "That's what it all boils down to."

Roethlisberger finished with a season-best 387 yards and three touchdown passes of his own, but just about all the damage came with Pittsburgh in desperation mode in the fourth quarter. The Steelers trailed 23-3 heading into the final period, then put up 23 points in garbage time to make the final score more respectable.

Ward did not record a reception prior to leaving, ending a streak of 186 consecutive games with a catch that had been the longest active stretch in the NFL and third-best in league history.

Losers of two of their last three following a 5-1 start, the Steelers will attempt to get back on track against a rested and resurgent Oakland squad this Sunday at Heinz Field. The Raiders won their last three tests prior to a Week 10 bye and have racked up 115 points over the course of the tear.

RAVENS: The Baltimore Ravens find themselves in an identical position as the Steelers at this stage of the season: sporting a 6-3 record that's good for a first-place tie in the AFC North, but with a few concerns about their pass defense as well.

The Ravens couldn't slow down the dangerous combo of Matt Ryan and Roddy White in this past Thursday's marquee interconference matchup with Atlanta, and that inability turned out to be the deciding factor in a 26-21 Falcons' win during one of the more entertaining games of this season to date.

Baltimore was able to overcome both a 13-point deficit with under six minutes to go and the hostile environs of the Georgia Dome, one of the toughest venues for opposing teams in recent years, to briefly take the lead in the game's waning stages. In his first-ever head-to-head duel with fellow 2008 first- round pick Ryan, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco overcame a shaky start to engineer two late touchdown drives, capping the second with a nine-yard touchdown strike to tight end Todd Heap that gave his club a 21-20 edge with 1:05 left to play.

As it turned out, that was still plenty of time for the plenty-poised Ryan to march the Falcons into scoring range. After moving down to the Baltimore 33- yard-line with 20 seconds remaining, Ryan fired a bullet to a wide-open White, who appeared to have pushed off on Ravens cornerback Josh Wilson before cruising into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"With our defense on the field we were feeling pretty confident," Flacco said. "But like I said, [the Falcons] did a great job."

While the ending was a bit controversial, the Falcons' game-long passing success may be what's troubling Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh the most right now. After permitting a paltry 119 yards per game through the air over the season's first five weeks, the Ravens have allowed an unhealthy average of 294.8 passing yards along with 10 touchdowns over their past five contests.

Ryan, the third overall choice in the 2008 draft, ended Thursday's game with 316 yards and three touchdowns without an interception on 32-of-50 passing. White hauled in 12 of those attempts for 138 yards and scored twice even while commanding added attention from the Baltimore defenders.

Flacco, selected by the Ravens 15 spots after Ryan, was no slouch as well, however. The strong-armed 25-year-old also threw for three touchdowns while hitting on 22-of-34 passes for 215 yards and an interception.

The Ravens' suddenly-shaky secondary may get a reprieve this coming weekend, when Baltimore pays a visit to Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium to take on a one-win Carolina team. The Panthers rank dead last in the NFL in passing yards in addition to averaging a league-worst 11.6 points per game.

BENGALS: While the top two teams in the division have a few issues to work out, the problems of Ravens and Steelers are experiencing still pale on comparison to those of the Cincinnati Bengals.

The defending AFC North champions entered Sunday's challenging assignment with 2009 conference title-holder Indianapolis saddled with a frustrating five-game losing streak that's been wrought by critical mistakes and periods of inconsistent play. The Bengals did remain consistent in those two unwanted aspects against the Colts, as five Cincinnati turnovers spelled the difference in a 23-17 defeat that dropped the expected playoff contenders to 2-7 on the season.

Two of those miscues occurred during a minute-long span in the first quarter and turned a slim Indianapolis lead into a commanding 17-0 advantage. Cornerback Kelvin Hayden intercepted Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and returned the pick 31 yards into the end zone for the first score, and running back Cedric Benson lost a fumble on Cincinnati's next play from scrimmage to put the Colts in position for another touchdown.

Another Palmer interception, this one by linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, led to a field goal that put the Colts up 23-10 early in the fourth quarter, The Bengals would battle back, however, with Palmer and rookie Jermaine Gresham teaming up for a touchdown pass with less than three minutes left and wide receiver Chad Ochocinco recovering the ensuing onside kick to give Cincinnati the ball back.

The Bengals would again squander the golden opportunity, though, when Gresham had the ball jarred loose on a short reception and the Colts regained possession.

"That's been our Achilles heel, finding a way to lose instead of finding a way to win," said wide receiver Terrell Owens.

During Cincinnati's current skid, the club's longest since it lost the first eight games of the 2008 season en route to a 4-11-1 record, all six losses have come by eight points or less.

Sunday's setback continued another troubling trend, with the Bengals digging themselves into a sizeable hole that they weren't quite able to climb out of. Cincinnati trailed Pittsburgh by a 27-7 count after three quarters before scoring a pair of touchdowns in the fourth during last week's loss to the Steelers, and couldn't overcome a 24-3 halftime deficit in a wild 39-32 defeat at Atlanta back on Oct. 24.

"I'm just frustrated at where we are right now," said Palmer, who compiled 292 yards and threw for two touchdowns but was intercepted three times. "It's been a long time since we've won a game. It's been a long time since we've played well for four quarters, played well as a team. That's what's frustrating."

Palmer and his teammates can take comfort in the play of a Cincinnati defense that's also endured its share of struggles this year. The group limited the high-powered Colts to 256 total yards and one offensive touchdown, with Peyton Manning's 185 passing yards the legendary quarterback's smallest single-game total in nearly two full years.

Cincinnati hopes to take advantage of a perceived break from the schedule- makers this Sunday, when 1-8 Buffalo pays a visit to Paul Brown Stadium. The Bills will be coming in on a high note, though, after finally notching their first win of 2010 with a 14-12 decision over Detroit last Sunday.

BROWNS: The Cleveland Browns offered further evidence that they're capable of going toe-to-toe with some of the NFL's heavyweights. However, Sunday's overtime defeat to the New York Jets also provided concrete proof that the improving team still has some work to do before moving into the league's upper echelon.

Despite having a rookie quarterback making his fourth professional start and losing three key players to injury in the first half, the Browns battled the formidable Jets tooth-and-nail for the entire 60 minutes of regulation -- and nearly 15 minutes more during the overtime session. New York scored the winning points with a mere 16 seconds remaining during the extra period on a 37-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mark Sanchez to Santonio Holmes.

Cleveland played much of the day minus two defensive starters in cornerback Sheldon Brown (shoulder) and linebacker Scott Fujita (knee), while the offense had to get by without versatile receiver and return man Josh Cribbs after he dislocated several of his toes on a second-quarter reception.

"I'm proud of our guys, I really am, with the difficult situation that we were in and the way that they responded," said Browns head coach Eric Mangini, who spent three seasons as the Jets' sideline boss before being let go following the 2008 campaign. "Obviously we wish it was a different result, but we fight and deal with adversity well."

McCoy, meanwhile, is quickly showing that no situation is too big for the poised young signal-caller. Facing one of the NFL's premier defenses, the former University of Texas star threw for 205 yards and did not turn the ball over while calmly leading Cleveland on a game-tying 10-play, 59-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation. The 24-year-old capped the series with a three-yard scoring delivery to wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi with just 44 seconds left on the clock.

While the Browns did plenty of positive things in Sunday's hard-fought tilt, there were also a couple of negative plays during the overtime stages that helped seal their fate. Wide receiver Chansi Stuckey lost a costly fumble in Jets territory with the team close to field goal range, while an interception by cornerback Joe Haden on a Sanchez deep pass on third down turned out to backfire on the Browns, as the offense couldn't move the chains on the subsequent possession and was forced to punt out of the end zone to give the Jets good field position.

While the end result was a bit disappointing, the narrow loss helped back up a pair of impressive performances in Cleveland's prior two games. The Browns dealt defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans a 30-17 loss on the road in Week 7, then handed New England only its second defeat of the year with a surprisingly-easy 34-14 rout earlier this month.

"We can play with anybody and we'll fight anybody," Mangini stated.

Cleveland will attempt to bounce back when it heads to Jacksonville this Sunday for a clash between two teams that appear to be on the upswing. The Jaguars have won two in a row and improved to 5-4 on the year with a last- second 31-24 triumph over Houston this past Sunday.


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