Steelers not same team without Polamalu
Their record over the last two seasons says so, and so does the way they played in a 22-17 loss to the Jets on Sunday that at least temporarily delayed them from winning the AFC North.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, so skittish while throwing four interceptions and fumbling five times in two games, didn't commit a turnover against Pittsburgh. He also was sacked only once by a defense that typically torments young quarterbacks who haven't previously seen their myriad of blitzes and coverages.
No doubt the Steelers are asking themselves whether Polamalu's presence would have made Sanchez reluctant to be as patient in the pocket as he was, or to throw some of the floater-type passes that fell incomplete but weren't intercepted.
Polamalu, kept out of the Jets' game by a strained right Achilles' tendon, probably won't be ready for Thursday night's game against Carolina (2-12) since the Steelers (10-4) will have had only three full days off before playing. His status for the Steelers' regular season-ending game at Cleveland (5-9) on Jan. 2 also is in doubt because of a painful injury he aggravated Dec. 5 against Cincinnati.
While the Steelers already are in the playoffs, they'd certainly like Polamalu to be there once the postseason begins - one reason why they likely won't rush him back.
''Whether or not he plays or anyone else plays will be based solely on health,'' coach Mike Tomlin said Monday. ''Troy's experiencing some discomfort in his lower leg but, as soon as the discomfort subsides, he'll be back in action. I think we're moving closer to that. We'll see where this week takes us.''
During the last two seasons, the Steelers are 14-4 when Polamalu plays but 5-7 when he doesn't. He missed 11 games last season with a pair of left knee injuries.
The Steelers players wouldn't blame their third home-field loss this season on Polamalu's absence, but it came immediately after he played several of his best games all season. Polamalu was the AFC defensive player of the week the previous two weeks, and had made four interceptions in four games.
''Is he is the best defensive player in the league, according to me? Without a doubt,'' safety Ryan Clark said. ''Have I ever played with anyone like him? Not even close. But you can't put all that on him. Guys that are on the field have to be accountable for what we put out there. All we needed was one play in the second half - we just needed somebody just to make one play.''
For about a month, it was Polamalu making them. He had two interceptions against the Bengals, and he made a possible season-changing play against Baltimore on Dec. 5 by forcing a Joe Flacco fumble that led to the Steelers' winning touchdown.
The loss to New York dropped Pittsburgh into a tie with Baltimore (10-4) for the AFC North lead, but the Steelers effectively lead by a game because they own the tiebreaker for better division record.
If the Steelers beat Carolina and Cleveland, they'll win the division regardless of what the Ravens do against Cleveland on Sunday or Cincinnati on Jan. 2. They also will be seeded No. 2 in the AFC playoffs.
''All of the goals we set for ourselves are still attainable,'' Tomlin said. ''I still think a division title is in our sights if we handle our business.''
The Steelers may start yet another left tackle against Carolina. Jonathan Scott, filling in for the injured Max Starks, was replaced by Trai Essex after Jets linebacker Jason Taylor blitzed through the left side of the line to tackle Mewelde Moore for a safety with less than three minutes remaining.
''He (Scott) was less than 100 percent from a physical standpoint and we felt like Trai gave us the best opportunity to navigate the ball downfield,'' Tomlin said.
Tomlin also defended the decision to run Rashard Mendenhall only 17 times against the Jets. Mendenhall averaged nearly 6 yards a carry while gaining 100 yards against the NFL's No. 3 defense.
''We were behind in this game,'' Tomlin said. ''We finished our last possession of the first half in the two-minute drill. The latter part of the game, we were throwing it virtually every down. Sometimes the numbers get skewed due to game circumstances. We're committed to running it and running it well.''