Lolley: Steelers not matching intensity

The defending Super Bowl champions are quickly finding out that they are a marked team as they've begun the season 1-3.

When the offense only manages 13 points as it did in the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-13 loss to the San Diego Chargers, many are going to point to it as the culprit.

But in reality, Sunday night's loss was more the defense's fault than anything.

As it turns out, there was nothing wrong with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that a couple of extra weeks of practice couldn't work out.

It's unfortunate for the Steelers that their pass defense couldn't hold up its end of the bargain, spoiling his solid play just as Roethlisberger's sub-par play had helped spoil strong defensive efforts in losses to Jacksonville and Cincinnati.

It's becoming something of a conundrum for the defending Super Bowl champions.

"For whatever reason, we just can't seem to get things going and close out a game," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "That's something we have to get rectified. It's not something where we need to sit and tear down the whole thing. But each guy needs to focus on what he can do to help us get better."

The problem has been a lack of anything close to a total team effort. When the offense plays reasonably well, the defense has a letdown. When the offense struggles, the defense plays well. The special teams? It's been a constant – giving up at least one big play per game while producing very little in terms of returns.

Getting production out of one phase has been enough to keep the Steelers in every game, but it's also equaled just one win in the first four games and leaves Pittsburgh in a hole.

It's a hole they are capable of climbing out of, but a hole nonetheless.

After two sub-par games to open the season, Roethlisberger looked a lot like his old self Sunday night against the San Diego Chargers, moving around in the pocket and making things happen with his feet until a receiver could break open.

Some concerns had started to creep in about Roethlisberger after his opening two performances this season, as he completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw five interceptions in those two games, both Steelers losses.

Was his June motorcycle accident affecting his play? Had the league figured out the third-year starter?

They were legitimate questions to be sure.

But his play against a San Diego defense that entered Sunday night's game ranked first in the league should answer at least some of those questions.

Certainly Roethlisberger made some mistakes. But part of that was because Roethlisberger spent the night running from a San Diego defense that sacked him five times and hurried him on eight other occasions.

As for the defense, which had played strong football in the team's first three games, it couldn't follow suit, especially in the second half Sunday night when the Chargers scored on their first three possessions to turn a 13-7 halftime deficit into a 23-13 advantage.

Though quarterback Philip Rivers was making just his fourth NFL start, he had his way with the Steelers at times thanks to a good game plan that called for plenty of short passes to the running backs mixed in with an occasional longer throw to the wide receivers to keep the Steelers honest.

The Steelers' game plan going in, as it usually is, was to shut down the Chargers' running game and force Rivers to beat them throwing the ball.

Rivers did that and more, completing 24 of 37 passes for 242 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

He did this despite getting a less-than-stellar performance from All-Pro running back LaDanian Tomlinson, who was bottled up by the Steelers, gaining just 36 yards on 13 carries.

This three-game tailspin has been nothing if not a total team effort.

Unless this team can start putting together complete games, it's not going to change.

Sure, there's still a lot of the football season left to be played – 12 games, in fact, for the Steelers. But this team is learning quickly that last year's Super Bowl victory comes with a price.

Outside of the regular season opener against a Miami team we now know is not very good, the Steelers haven't been up to par with the AFC's other top teams, losing to Jacksonville, Cincinnati and San Diego.

Everybody brings their best effort against the defending Super Bowl champions. And this far, the Steelers have been unable to match their opponent's intensity.

© The Steelers suffered three serious injuries in this one, two that were reported during the game and one that didn't show up until well after.

Linebacker James Harrison's left ankle sprain looks to be the most serious. He was in an air cast and on crutches following the game and could be lost for several weeks.

Wide receiver Willie Reid suffered a mid-foot sprain, but was only on crutches and will probably only miss a week or two.

Defensive end Brett Keisel suffered what is believed to be a bruised kidney. He was taken to a San Diego hospital for X-rays after complaining of pain in his side when the team arrived at the airport.

Keisel appeared to be OK, however, upon his return, though the team erred on the side of caution following Tampa Bay's Chris Simms' lacerated spleen during a game two weeks ago.

© That ill-fated fourth-down end around to Bryant McFadden in the first quarter needs to be sent back to the drawing board.

First of all, when you split punter Chris Gardocki out wide, you're tipping your hand that there won't be a punt. Secondly, why have McFadden running with the ball instead of, say, Reid or Santonio Holmes? Find somebody on the team who's used to making guys miss with the ball in his hands.

McFadden told me after the game that play was one the team had been working on for several weeks and that it was used because of the down and distance, not because of something they had seen with the Chargers. That's all the more reason it shouldn't have been used.

The other trick play the team ran, a flea-flicker to Holmes, didn't fool anybody on the San Diego sidelines either, as Holmes was double covered.

That play was one of the few poor decisions Roethlisberger made, throwing the ball despite the double coverage. The Steelers were moving the ball on San Diego to that point, but his interception there by Drayton Florence at the Chargers' 6, and the subsequent 94-yard TD drive that followed, really turned the momentum.

© Jamal Williams pretty much had his way with Steelers center Jeff Hartings much the same way Casey Hampton did with Chargers center Nick Hardwick.

That was a big reason why neither team's running game produced much.

Oh, I know that San Diego finished with 119 yards rushing, but LaDanian Tomlinson managed just 36 of that, with much of the damage coming on a late 23-yard run by Michael Turner and a 15-yard scamper by Philip Rivers late in the game.

© Roethlisberger said he wanted to show the Chargers that they erred in taking Rivers instead of him in the first round of the 2004 draft.

They didn't.

Rivers fits what the Chargers do more than Roethlisberger would have. Then again, the Chargers' coaching staff has done a good job of accentuating the things that Rivers does well. He's very accurate on his short and mid-range passes.

© Najeh Davenport, nice to see you.

© Willie Parker averaged a healthy 4.1 yards per carry against one of the NFL's top run defenses. The problem was that he only got 14 carries, just four of which came in the second half.

In fact, the Steelers ran just 18 plays in the second half as the defense was unable to keep San Diego from scoring on four consecutive drives.

© Cedrick Wilson was relegated to being the fourth receiver on several occasions, slipping behind Nate Washington and Santonio Holmes in some three-receiver sets.

© The surreal moment of the night came not during the game, but after it.

After filing my stories for my newspaper, I went with another reporter to get on the elevator and head down to the locker rooms. A security guard stopped us saying, "We're holding the elevator for Mr. Madden."

I explained in less-than-pleasant terms that we were on deadline and needed to get quotes to call back to our papers, while "Mr. Madden's" work was finished for the evening.

Just then, another security guard came out and said that "Mr. Madden" was running late and they could send the elevator down again.

We got on and went down one floor where the elevator stopped, allowing Dan and Art Rooney and Dean Spanos to get on.

What kind of world do we live in when some TV schlub can hold up an elevator for himself, but the owners of the teams can climb aboard one with us common folk?

The people who voted for Madden for the Pro Football Hall of Fame should be ashamed.

Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.

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