Steamrolled Steelers defense looks for answers

Fred Taylor outruns Larry Foote for the winning TD, a 12-yard run in the fourth quarter. Jason Bridge-US PRESSWIRE

PITTSBURGH -- The first two-game losing streak of the Mike Tomlin era has seen the Pittsburgh Steelers' top-ranked defense dented for 63 points, 46 first downs and 842 yards in losses to New England and Jacksonville. And not surprisingly, the sudden and stunning slippage has left the collective confidence of the unit dented as well.

"It's bad," inside linebacker James Farrior said of the defensive meltdown following Sunday's 29-22 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. "We can't win games like that. You've got to be able to stop the run. We didn't to our job today on defense. … We've got to get it corrected. We've got two games left, and we've got to get better."

The Steelers rarely have been worse than they were Sunday, especially against the run.

A Jaguars offensive line that was dominant throughout opened huge holes for the tailback tag-team tandem of Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew. Jacksonville finished with 224 rushing yards, the most by any team against the Steelers since Nov. 26, 2000. Of the Jaguars' 25 first downs, 13 came on the ground.

Even after the Steelers tied the score at 22 in the fourth quarter, the defense allowed the Jaguars to answer with an eight-play, 73-yard march that culminated in Taylor's game-winning, 12-yard touchdown run.

As had been the case much of the day, the Steelers' front seven was gashed, players were out of their gaps and the linebackers didn't fill holes. Pittsburgh linebackers, along with strong safety Troy Polamalu, are the strength of the defense. But the linebackers missed too many tackles, and Polamalu -- who played well in the first half in his first action since missing two games with a knee injury -- was blown up twice in the second half by big blocks at the line of scrimmage.

"What's really disappointing is that we thought we had (seized) the momentum back, with our offense scoring twice to get us back in it," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "If we go out and get a stop, get the ball back for the offense, we maybe win the game. But we couldn't get ourselves off the field. … We just kept giving up plays in the running game."

Jacksonville interior linemen in particular doled out a fierce beating. Pittsburgh allowed the Jaguars four offensive possessions of eight plays or more, and Jacksonville opened the second half with an incredible 74-yard scoring march that consumed 20 snaps and nearly 10 minutes.

"To me," Jones-Drew said, "that [drive] kind of epitomized the day. But, hey, you guys are talking to the wrong people. Go talk to our linemen; they did most of the work."

Coming on the heels of a Week 14 defeat at the New England Patriots, the loss dropped Pittsburgh to 9-5 and left the Steelers tied with the Cleveland Browns for first in the AFC North. By virtue of their two victories over Cleveland, the Steelers own the tiebreaker.

Pittsburgh now must go on the road against the St. Louis Rams and the Baltimore Ravens to finish the regular season. The matchup against the Rams is Thursday night, meaning a short work week.

Obviously angered by his team's poor play, the normally unflappable Tomlin left little doubt that the Steelers have a lot to get done in a short time.

"We are not playing well enough to win right now," Tomlin conceded without prodding. "That is the reality of it."

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.