Next Opponent: Struggling Steelers

The defending champions have lost five in a row headed into Sunday's game against the surging Packers. The Steelers are 6-7, and their skid includes losses to Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.

The end of the decade and another successful era for the Pittsburgh Steelers is near as they enter their final three games of the season searching for a new beginning.

The 2009 season, the one in which they vowed to prove their previous Super Bowl hangover would not affect them, has turned disastrous. They have lost five straight games, including three to some of the worst NFL teams, the Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and now Cleveland Browns.

"It's a wrap," nose tackle Casey Hampton said after they bottomed out in Cleveland by losing 13-6 to the Browns, who won their second game. It ended a 12-game winning streak against Cleveland and virtually any chance they had of squeaking into the playoffs.

They had talked gamely of winning their final four and going the route they did in 2005, when they made it as a sixth seed and won a Super Bowl. Now they are looking at an aged defense that no longer has the wherewithal to even stop the Cleveland Browns running game, which gouged them for 171 yards Thursday night.

"To lose five straight coming off a Super Bowl from last year, it's embarrassing for me," said Hines Ward. "It just hurts, it hurts a lot. There's nothing fun about losing games, especially five in a row. We're better than that, we should play better than that."

Pittsburgh won two Super Bowls in four years but each one was followed by bitter disappointment. They went 8-8 in 2006 and coach Bill Cowher quit after that season. They are 6-7 today with no end to the losing in sight and promises of changes both in the personnel and coaching staff of Mike Tomlin before the next season.

The stunning collapse has been inexplicable. Neither players nor coaches seem to understand how this team that once talked about reaching "Seventh Heaven" and a seventh Lombardi Trophy as repeat champs could fall so hard so quickly.

With games left against Green Bay, Baltimore and Miami, the chance of ending their season with an eight-game losing streak is real. Their last eight-game skid came in 1969 when Chuck Noll's first team won its opener and lost 13 straight to finish 1-13.

Tomlin has experienced nothing like this in his short tenure with the Steelers. He won a division title in his first season as coach and a Super Bowl in his second. This will test a different part of his coaching abilities.

"I like the fight in the group," Tomlin said. "I trust that they'll continue to do that. It's a close-knit group; I trust that they'll continue to stick together. But fighting and sticking together is not going to win football games. Performance is and preparation is, and we have an extended week here in preparation for our next performance so we better make moves to get that done."

Tomlin promised "changes" before the Steelers lost in Cleveland last week. He did not back up those threats, however, making no changes in his starting lineup or in his schemes. Tomlin again hinted at more changes this week as the Packers head to Heinz Field for a Sunday game where the fans could show their displeasure for the home team's collapse.

"None of those things of course were effective in determining the outcome of the game," Tomlin said of those small personnel changes he made in Cleveland. "We'll continue to take that approach moving forward."

Ward believes these final three games will tell something about this team as it moves forward with all the offseason decisions facing it.

"A lot of gut check," he said. "With three games left, you're going to see who really wants to go out here and play for the pride for this organization, for our city, and who doesn't want to be around here."

Extra points

— The five-game losing streak is the longest by the Steelers since they lost five in a row and finished 6-10 in 2003.

— QB Ben Roethlisberger has 38 sacks in 12 games played and is well within reach of his personal high of 47, set in 2007. Roethlisberger needs 654 yards passing in his final three games to become the franchise's first quarterback with 4,000 yards in a season.

— QB Charlie Batch returned as the No. 3 quarterback Thursday night for the first time since he broke his left wrist in Kansas City Nov. 22. The Steelers released QB Tyler Palko after two games. Dennis Dixon served as the No. 2 QB and could continue in that role the rest of the season.

— Rookie CB Joe Burnett played four series, working at left cornerback and right for William Gay and Ike Taylor on Thursday in Cleveland.

— LB LaMarr Woodley had his seventh sack in the past five games and, after a slow start, has nine, one off James Harrison's team lead.

— RB Rashard Mendenhall dipped under a 5.0 yards rushing average for the first time since he became their starter. He has 940 yards and a 4.8-yard average.

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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