Mike Prisuta's Fourth & Goal

Loss to Raiders proves Steelers' worst fears about losing Troy Polamaly have become reality.

The word around the league last season was that the Steelers' secondary was the Achilles' heel of the defense, that minus Troy Polamalu this was a bad secondary.

The word is officially confirmed a year later.

With Polamalu a mere memory and heard from only in shampoo commercials these days, the Steelers' secondary has degenerated into a unit that can't cover or even get coverages communicated properly when it really matters.

After further review, Polamalu is the team's MVP.

He's played three games from start to finish this season, against Cleveland and Minnesota and at Denver. The defense permitted two offensive touchdowns in those three games.

That same defense permitted three offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Sunday's absolutely inconceivable 27-24 loss to woeful Oakland.

In doing so, the DBs were sizzled by the likes of Louis Murphy, Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens.

Add another page to Raiders' lore.

Call it the Gradkowski Chronicles.

And credit The Cable Guy, not just for recognizing what many have suspected but for exploiting it.

"(Sunday) morning it felt like we had a real match-up issue for them and our receivers," Oakland head coach Tom Cable said.

Perceived favorable matchups against anyone with Murphy, Higgins and Schilens? Can there be a more glaring indictment of the Steelers' secondary?

The communication issues, such as the one that occurred on the game-winning touchdown, added insult to injury. The Steelers' operation is supposed to be more on-point than that. But even when they knew what they were supposed to be doing, too often it just didn't get done.

"We didn't make a play," Coach Mike Tomlin said. "We didn't make a play to win that football game defensively.

"We had opportunities to make plays on the ball, we didn't. They caught the ball, we didn't."

When the rush can get there, or when Polamalu's intuition or athleticism makes a play, no one else in the secondary has to make one. But when Troy's not to there and Ike Taylor, the Steelers' version of a shutdown corner, is asked to handle Murphy, well, that can be too much to ask.

It was on Sunday.

"It's tough having a receiver have a two-way go (an inside-outside option) on a corner with that much field to defend," Taylor said.

It was likewise too much to ask for blitzes to consistently bail the defense out against a Raiders' offense in "max-protection mode," according to Tomlin, on the winning drive.

"They had quite a few guys in there from a protection standpoint," Tomlin said. "And when they do that they're going to get time to deliver the football. That also means they have a limited number of options down the field. Those limited number of options were still capable of and able to make plays."

That's been the case too often this season, but at least the disappointment has been revealing.

If 2009 has taught us anything it's what life would be like for the Steelers' defense without Polamalu on a permanent basis.

Looks like it's time to load up on corners and safeties in the draft and free agency.

That'll be the case no matter what happens the rest of the way, whether the Steelers can somehow sneak into the postseason or continue having matchup problems against reasonable facsimiles of the Murphy-Higgins-Schilens trio.

Troy may be as big of a difference-maker as the Steelers have, but he isn't indestructible and he won't last forever.

And as we're finding out. seasons can become lost without him.


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