December disaster

The Steelers gave up three fourth-quarter leads to the Raiders Sunday, dropping their fourth consecutive game.

PITTSBURGH – If the Pittsburgh Steelers' playoff run of 2009 began Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, it also may have ended there.

Oakland scored 21 points in the fourth quarter, including a game-winning 11-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski to rookie Louis Murphy with nine seconds remaining, handing the Steelers a crushing, 27-24, defeat here before a crowd of 61,820.

The loss, Pittsburgh's fourth consecutive, drops the Steelers to 6-6 and puts the defending Super Bowl champions in jeopardy of missing the AFC playoffs. And notably, it marked the fifth time this season Pittsburgh's defense has allowed an opponent to score late in a game or in overtime to give up a lead.

"I'm not going to make any excuses for it," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "We didn't make a play to win that football game defensively."

Not that they didn't have opportunities against a team that entered the game with 10 touchdowns.

Leading 10-6, Tomlin had placekicker Jeff Reed attempt a 53-yard field goal on the opening play of the fourth quarter. Reed's attempt sailed wide left and gave Oakland (4-8) the ball at its own 43.

"We felt good about Jeff being able to hit that based on his pregame performance and his history," said Tomlin. "We wanted to give him an opportunity to do that."

It backfired as the Raiders took advantage of the short field to take the lead on a 17-yard TD pass from Gradkowski to Chad Schilens.

But the Steelers took just two plays to reclaim the lead, as Ben Roethlisberger connected on a 57-yard catch-and-run to Santonio Holmes to set up a three-yard Rashard Mendenhall touchdown run to put the Steelers ahead, 17-13.

Gradkowski answered, however, as he threw a 75-yard touchdown to Murphy on third-and-one to put Oakland back on top, 20-17, moments later.

Cornerback Ike Taylor was beaten on the play – though the rest of the defense went for Gradkowski's play-action fake – taking an outside position on Murphy, who ran a post to the middle of the field.

"He's supposed to stay inside of him, inside of that man and potentially could pick up some inside help," said Tomlin. "Of course, neither happened."

The Steelers regained the advantage at 24-20 on the first play after the two-minute warning with Roethlisberger, who threw for 278 yards and two touchdowns with one interception after sitting out last week's loss at Baltimore with a concussion, throwing an 11-yard TD pass to Hines Ward.

But Gradkowski, who threw for 308 yards, led the game-winning drive despite starting from the Oakland 12 with just one timeout remaining. Gradkowski just missed having several passes picked off, but Oakland's receivers came down with every catch.

While being hit by linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Gradkowski got off a floating pass that Murphy came down with at the Pittsburgh 40 with 41 seconds remaining. Cornerback William Gay was injured on the play when he suffered a helmet-to-helmet blow from teammate Ryan Mundy, forcing the Steelers to use a timeout and stopping the clock.

On the next play, rookie Joe Burnett, in the game in place of Gay, dropped an interception on a pass intended for Murphy.

Gradkowski then lofted a pass toward the sideline and the 6-2 Murphy, who did not have a reception in the first three quarters, outleaped Taylor to come down with it at the Pittsburgh 17.

Then, on second down, Gradkowski avoided a blitz from linebacker Lawrence Timmons and stepped up in the pocket before finding Murphy all by himself in the back corner of the end zone for an 11-yard TD pass.

The Steelers had one last chance at pulling out a victory, as Roethlisberger threw a pass to Ward to the 50, but his Hail Mary pass to Limas Sweed in the end zone as time expired fell incomplete to end the game.


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