PITTSBURGH -- Here is the harsh truth about the Steelers: Their 2010 season rests on the Achilles of Troy Polamalu.
Pittsburgh played without its star safety Sunday and suffered a 22-17 loss to the New York Jets. It was further proof the Steelers (10-4), who clinched a playoff berth despite the loss, won't go very far unless their do-it-all safety gets healthy. Polamalu is expected to rest his Achilles in the final two regular season games and return for the postseason.
Usually in the NFL, the quarterback is the team's most important player, but the Steelers are one of the few exceptions. Pittsburgh went 3-1 without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger earlier this season. Yet, the Steelers are 5-7 without Polamalu dating to last season when he missed 11 games with a knee injury.
Pittsburgh looks ordinary without Polamalu -- and very beatable.
The Steelers didn't play nearly as aggressively on defense against the Jets, who entered the game having not scored an offensive touchdown in nine quarters. That drought ended in this game as Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez completed 65.5 percent of his passes and played efficient and mistake-free football.
The Jets also ran for 106 yards against the Steelers, who entered the game with the top-ranked rushing defense in the league, allowing an average of 60 yards a game.
Entering the game, Pittsburgh had forced 30 turnovers this season, but it didn't get any against the Jets. The Steelers' defense also had only one sack, which is a very important ingredient to their success.
"[The game] is not really called differently," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "It's just sometimes it looks real different when [Polamalu] is not on the field. That's probably the biggest difference."
Every time Pittsburgh needed a big play this season, Polamalu was there. But when Polamalu wasn't in the lineup against the Jets, the Steelers seemed a step behind. Pittsburgh will have to adjust for the final two games against the Carolina Panthers (2-12) and Cleveland Browns (5-9).
"Is he the best defensive player in the league, according to me? Without a doubt," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said of Polamalu. "Have I ever played with anybody like him? Not even close. But you can't put that all on him. Guys that are on the field have to be accountable."
Pittsburgh probably will beat up on bad teams these next two weeks without Polamalu. But the difference between a quick playoff exit or another deep postseason run starts and ends with No. 43.
Here are some other notes from Pittsburgh's loss to New York:
Big Ben nearly leads comeback: Roethlisberger nearly saved the Steelers with a frantic finish. With 2:08 remaining in the game, Roethlisberger drove the Steelers 82 yards before the offense stalled at New York's 10-yard line as time expired. Roethlisberger completed three passes of 16 yards or more on the drive. He has a history of game-winning drives, including Super Bowl XLIII, but couldn't finish this one.
"I told the guys let's be great," Roethlisberger said of the final drive. "Let's let them talk about the offense. Let's go down the field and score. We got close but not close enough."
Sanders says he was held: Steelers rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders said he was held by Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery on a potential touchdown pass on the final drive. Roethlisberger threw deep to Sanders in the end zone, and it appeared Lowery slowed Sanders by grabbing his jersey. No flag was thrown.
"Yeah, I think it would have put the ball at the 1-yard line," Sanders said of the play. "It [happened] in the end zone."
Clark reacts to big hit: Clark had the biggest hit of the game on Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, but the play drew a personal foul penalty that cost the Steelers 15 yards. New York went on to score a touchdown on the drive. The call was for a helmet-to-helmet contact, but Clark hit Edwards in the chest. Still, Clark launching himself into Edwards probably will be reviewed by the NFL this week.
"The bad part about it is it hurts the team. I hurt my team with that play," Clark said. "I need to find a better way to go about doing my job to help the team."
Short turnaround: The good news for the Steelers is they can get back in the win column quickly when they play Thursday against Carolina. Despite sharing a the same record as the Baltimore Ravens (10-4), Pittsburgh controls its destiny in terms of winning the AFC North and securing a first-round bye.