Injuries to Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Aaron Smith and Willie Parker crippled the Steelers down the stretch last year. They were 2-3 that December, with wins over Cincinnati and St. Louis. On average they were outscored (25-24) and outgained (348-308), so it came as no surprise when the Steelers lost their playoff game at home to Jacksonville, 31-29.
Those defensive numbers pale in comparison to the 2008 numbers. The Steelers were 3-1 this past December and on average they outscored (20-11) and outgained (257-235) their opponents.
The defensive numbers reflect a squad that's been healthy, but the defense will be at full strength tonight. The defensive squad is healthy and at full force to deal with a Chargers team that's missing star running back LaDainian Tomlinson and has its top receiver, tight end Antonio Gates, questionable with an ankle sprain.
The only question mark for the Steelers this time around is an offense that's fallen off dramatically since last year, and the head of that offense is the biggest worry. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, whose four fumbles (lost two) and two interceptions helped Tennessee in the Steelers' only December loss, enters this game beaten up from the finale.
Roethlisberger has been a fourth-quarter rally machine this year, but his 80.1 quarterback rating is the second-worst of his five-year career and he enters this game off a vicious concussion against Cleveland that left him temporarily without feeling in both of his arms. He's passed a battery of tests since then, but complained of headaches earlier this week.
He's been declared healthy, but shouldn't Coach Mike Tomlin be ready with a quick hook and reliable backup Byron Leftwich standing by?
"I don't know," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "You give a guy that kind of money, you ride him all the way. He's our quarterback. If he's able to play, so be it. Last year he struggled a little bit in the playoffs and he brought us back. Ben's our quarterback regardless."
Roethlisberger had his third-best yardage total of the season in an 11-10 win over the Chargers on Nov. 16, but was sacked four times and couldn't put the Steelers in the end zone. And the Chargers' defense has only gotten better since then.
In last week's playoff game, the Chargers held Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts to one touchdown pass – a 72-yarder while the Chargers were attempting to substitute players – and 17 points in an overtime win.
"Their defense has definitely gotten a little bit more complex since the last time we saw them, when (Ron) Rivera was coaching his first game since taking over as defensive coordinator," said Steelers center Justin Hartwig. "Since then they've added a lot more wrinkles to their defense. It was pretty vanilla the last time we saw it, but they're blitzing more, lining up in different packages. It's definitely a different team than the last one we saw."
Since visiting Pittsburgh last, the Chargers have allowed an average of 19.3 points, 320 yards, 3.8 per carry, and 6.3 per pass attempt – all improvements upon their first 10 games.
In their first 10 games, the Chargers allowed an average of 22.9 points, 372 yards, 4.5 per carry, and 6.7 per pass attempt. No doubt that the Chargers' defense has improved, but the Steelers' defense is No. 1 in the NFL and finally at full strength. Unlike last playoff season, they have no excuses at the ready.
"There never is an excuse," said Starks. "You take your wins as a man; you take your losses as a man. We accept all the responsibility, but for us, in our minds, we expect to go out there and have a great game."