Steelers’ defense stands tall in defeat |
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Steelers safety Troy Polamalu sacks Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 23, 2012, at Heinz Field. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

The Steelers’ defense wasn’t perfect Sunday, yet it crafted a performance that defied a disheartening 13-10 setback to AFC North rival Cincinnati that erased the team from the playoff picture.

The NFL’s top-ranked defense crippled the Bengals’ ground game at Heinz Field. Cincinnati averaged a dismal 0.9 yards on 16 carries.

A defense that struggled all season to create turnovers finally snatched the ball away to give a fading offense chances at redemption. Cornerback Cortez Allen, manning the corner for injured Ike Taylor, intercepted two passes, and safety Ryan Clark recovered a fumble.

The Steelers, with linebacker Lawrence Timmons blitzing and safety Troy Polamalu disrupting blocking schemes, tormented quarterback Andy Dalton. They registered six sacks, hammered Dalton to the ground eight times and flattened running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis behind the line of scrimmage six times.

Still, it was as wasteful a defensive effort as the Steelers have had all season.

Nose tackle Casey Hampton lumbered into the locker room shaking his head. Then he sat at his locker, sighing heavily as he searched somewhat painfully to filter through the debris of a result that simply didn’t add up.

“I can’t find any consolation, anything good about it,” Hampton said. “Not to make the playoffs is tough.

“Losing games early in the season we should have won came back to bite us in the end. Everybody played hard, and they knew what was at stake. But it just wasn’t enough to get it done.”

The Steelers, who face the Cleveland Browns in the season finale Sunday, are likely to finish ahead of San Francisco as the league’s top-ranked defense for the second year in a row. If so, it will mark only the second time since 1990 the Steelers will miss the playoffs with the best defense in the NFL.

“It’s a shame that those guys played that well defensively and we lost,” receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. “They gave the offense so many opportunities to close it out, but the next thing you know, they’re back on the field because we gave it right back.”

Clark, however, didn’t blame the offense.

“We’ve got to get more out of the defense,” he said. “I told the guys on the sideline that the difference in the game was their defense picks the ball off and scores a touchdown, and we didn’t. You have to at least match what another team’s defense does to give your team a chance.”

The Steelers’ defense surrendered only two field goals, including Josh Brown’s game-winning 43-yarder with 4 seconds remaining. The Bengals’ only touchdown was scored by cornerback Leon Hall, who returned a Ben Roethlisberger interception 17 yards to give Cincinnati a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter.

“(The Bengals) did an amazing job,” Clark said. “I have a lot of respect for everything they do over there, and in the end, they made one more play than we did.”

Defensively, the Steelers appeared to make enough plays to prevent the Bengals from beating them for only the third time in 13 games. With the exception of receiver A.J. Green’s 20-yard catch that positioned Brown for the game-winner, the defense tossed a net over Cincinnati.

“This is the most arrogant as I’ll ever be: I’ll take this defense — man to man — with any defense in the league,” said Clark, who later tweeted he had no words to “capture the disappointment.” “When it comes time to play, you give me my 11 against somebody else’s 11, I’ll take mine every time.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected].

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