PITTSBURGH -- Remember last year? The Pittsburgh Steelers certainly do.
In 2009, the Steelers were cruising to a 6-2 start in defense of their Super Bowl title before injuries, lack of focus and a second-half implosion led to a final record of 9-7. They watched the playoffs from home.
On Sunday night, the Steelers were back to playing ugly football again to start the second half of the season. This time it was the New England Patriots who went into Heinz Field and took a 39-26 victory. The game wasn't as close as the final score indicated, as Pittsburgh scored three touchdowns while trying to rally in the fourth quarter.
Losing can be contagious, and there are signs the Steelers may be slowing down. After a fast 5-1 start, Pittsburgh is just 1-2 in its past three games.
Last year the Steelers' 6-2 start was followed by a five-game losing streak, which was too much to overcome.
"We got to stop it early," Steelers receiver Mike Wallace said of avoiding a major losing streak. "Last year we just let it come up on us too fast. Things got in over our heads too fast and it was hard to bounce back, especially in the division that we’re in.
"Now we know exactly what's coming, and we will talk about not getting down like last year."
Pittsburgh needs to go back to the drawing board -- and fast. The Steelers were two steps behind the Patriots all game, as New England (7-2) is now tied with the New York Jets (7-2) for the best record in the AFC.
Here are more observations from Pittsburgh's defeat:
The defense needs to be dominant again: The Steelers' defense has lost its edge. Earlier this season, Pittsburgh was forced to win games with defense while franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy. Since Roethlisberger's return, the Steelers' defense hasn't been as stifling. The Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady marched up and down the field, as Pittsburgh allowed a season-worst 39 points and 453 yards of total offense. Brady, who improved to 6-1 against the Steelers, threw for 350 yards and accounted for four touchdowns (three passing, one running). The previous high for points scored against Pittsburgh this season was 22 by the Miami Dolphins.
"We got our butts whupped today, and everybody needs to realize that," Steelers captain and linebacker James Farrior said. "We need to go back to the lab and do whatever we need to do to not let this happen again ... We got to cover better, we got to execute the defense better, we got to get a better pass rush. It's everything."
Roethlisberger needs to start faster: Although the loss to New England was a teamwide failure, credit Roethlisberger for stepping up and taking blame. Roethlisberger had great numbers, throwing for 387 yards and three touchdowns. But it was deceiving because every touchdown and many yards were accumulated during garbage time in the fourth quarter. New England led 23-3 entering the final period and its defense played safe the rest of the way. Roethlisberger was able to gain yards and score while also running out the clock. In the first half when the game was competitive, Roethlisberger was just 7-for-20 for 90 yards. He also threw a pick-six to Patriots safety James Sanders on a deflection in the fourth quarter.
"I'll take this one on me," Roethlisberger said. "I need to play better, and I need to get this offense moving. If it's a duck, it's a duck. We got our butts kicked."
Overcoming injuries: The injuries are starting to add up for Pittsburgh, particularly on offense. Receiver and team captain Hines Ward suffered a concussion and will be monitored closely this week. The offensive line also was a patchwork unit and didn't perform well. The entire left side was replaced, as Ramon Foster played guard for Chris Kemoeatu (ankle, knee) and Jonathan Scott played left tackle for Max Starks (neck), who is out for the season. The Steelers allowed five sacks and tailback Rashard Mendenhall rushed for only 50 yards. Pittsburgh linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who has been playing at a Pro Bowl level, also suffered a hip pointer.
Dangerous opponent: Pittsburgh cannot overlook the Oakland Raiders (5-4), who have won three games in a row and are in first place in the AFC West. Last year Oakland was a sizable underdog and came into Heinz Field to add to Pittsburgh's misery during its five-game losing streak. The Raiders are much better this season and have a chance to do it again if Pittsburgh isn't careful.
"It's the same exact thing as last year; I was just thinking that," Wallace said of Oakland. "It's crazy that it happens like that, but it's a chance for us to prevent it ... This time we have to go out here and stop [any losing streak] early before it gets too much for us."