Steelers' Season Not So Super

BUT PACKERS STAYING FOCUSED ON THEMSELVES When the 2009 schedule came out back in April, this week’s game looked like a tremendously daunting yet potentially defining opportunity - playing on the road in mid-December against the reigning Super Bowl champions. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t playing like defending champs of late, dropping five straight games to fall to 6-7 with faint playoff hopes.



When the 2009 schedule came out back in April, this week's game looked like a tremendously daunting yet potentially defining opportunity - playing on the road in mid-December against the reigning Super Bowl champions.

Only the Pittsburgh Steelers aren't playing like defending champs of late, dropping five straight games to fall to 6-7 with faint, though mathematically viable, playoff hopes.

So what does that mean as far as how the Packers view the game? Not much differently, really. On Green Bay's side, it's the kind of game with playoff implications the team hoped to be playing this time of year. And as far as the opponent is concerned, the Packers know they're facing a successful, veteran team with two Super Bowl titles over the last four years that could snap out of its doldrums at any moment.

"You have to look at them as a team that plays with a lot of pride," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "They have some veteran leaders who have won a number of Super Bowls, more than one.

"It's a tough challenge for us. We realize they're coming off a number of losses in a row, and their backs are against the wall. We realize the kind of effort they're going to bring, realizing that they're going to be playing for their playoff lives and we're going to be hopefully trying to play to secure our berth."

The Packers (9-4) could take Heinz Field in Pittsburgh late Sunday afternoon with the opportunity to clinch an NFC playoff spot. Green Bay needs a win and either a loss by Dallas (8-5) or the New York Giants (7-6) this week to lock up a Wild Card, and the Cowboys play on Saturday night. (The Giants don't play until Monday night.)

Meanwhile, the Steelers need to win and get a ton of help with a handful of 7-6 and 8-5 teams ahead of them in the AFC.

Five weeks ago, it looked like Pittsburgh was practically a shoo-in to get a shot to defend its title in the postseason. The Steelers had just come off their bye and beaten the Broncos (then 6-1) in Denver on a Monday night for their fifth straight win, improving to 6-2 at the halfway point.

But it has all gone south since, with three of the five straight losses coming to sub-.500 clubs in Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland. The loss of All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu to injury for most of the year has been a devastating blow, but the thought of Pittsburgh failing to make the postseason after last year's Super Bowl run - and repeating the fate of the 2006 Steelers, who didn't qualify for the playoffs coming off their 2005 title - was unfathomable.

"We're just as stunned," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We feel we have a good group, good leaders, and you know what, sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way, you're not playing your best football. Whatever it is, it just seems to be happening to us."

Whatever it is, Head Coach Mike McCarthy likens it to the 2008 Packers. Coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance in 2007, Green Bay was in the thick of the playoff hunt last year until a late five-game losing streak, with four losses in a row coming by four or fewer points.

Pittsburgh's five consecutive losses have all been by seven or less, a cumulative 22 points, with two of them in overtime.

"They've lost five in a row, but every game has come down to the wire," McCarthy said. "It looks maybe a little bit like what we went through last year. They just haven't come up and made the appropriate plays in the tight games, but they're still a very good football team."

One McCarthy and the Packers know is capable, even without Polamalu, of beating anybody. The Steelers still rank ninth in the league in total offense and fourth in defense, including first against the run.

Two of the key differences, though, are a negative turnover ratio this year at minus-5, and a kickoff coverage unit that ranks second-to-last in the league, having allowed four returns for scores.

"I know that there's a certain level of anger and frustration and disappointment with where we are," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "The big thing is that we use that as fuel and that we mold that into a winning-caliber performance, and that's what we're working toward doing."

That's what the Packers have to prepare for, as well as a team that knows most of the ins and outs of their 3-4 defense. Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers originated his version of the 3-4 in Pittsburgh when he held the same post there from 1992-94, and that system has remained the foundation of Pittsburgh's defense since, including now under coordinator Dick LeBeau.

So Roethlisberger has faced this style of 3-4 in all six of his NFL training camps and throughout his career, having played at least six games every year in the 3-4 heavy AFC North.

"That helps, to go against Coach LeBeau and his defenses every day," Roethlisberger said. "But it's different when you're going against it in practice and when you have 35 seconds (on the play clock) to try and decipher things. It definitely is tough, but I think it will help that we've seen some of the stuff."

{sportsad300}Even that is no guarantee of success, though. Roethlisberger described from Pittsburgh's last game, a Thursday night contest in Cleveland, how the division rival Browns - who also run a 3-4 - threw a lot of surprise packages at the Steelers that they hadn't seen or prepared for.

That's why on Wednesday McCarthy - who has Pittsburgh resources in Capers, safeties coach Darren Perry and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene - called that type of familiarity a bit "overrated," because both sides are going to adjust as the week, and the game, go on.

More important for the Packers is that in their current five-game winning streak they've beaten three other teams (Dallas, San Francisco and Baltimore) that play a version of the 3-4, so they've game-planned against that general scheme extensively over the last month.

"This is the fifth team that plays a similar scheme to what we do on defense as far as alignment," Rodgers said. "It's nice to be able to work against that in practice, get our calls down and figure out our protection schemes against maybe an odd front."

Odd is certainly an apt term to apply to the defending champs' season to this point. But the Packers aren't really buying that the Steelers' record and current losing streak make them any more, or less, dangerous an opponent.

There's enough at stake for themselves to conveniently avoid trying to dissect the psyche of their foe, no matter what they thought when they saw this game on the schedule back in the spring.

"Once the game starts it's going to be us against them, who can execute the best and win the game," Rodgers said. "Sure there's a sense of urgency on that side, but I think we understand what we're playing for as well. We're in the thick of this wild card, and we'll have an opportunity to take a great step forward in this journey this season if we can get a win down there."

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