The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

November 21, 2009

Plenty of pain, but no gains | Injuries haven’t taken much of a toll on run defense

BY JIM WEXELL

PITTSBURGH — Last week, a newspaper ran a web poll asking readers whether Troy Polamalu should play for the Steelers today against the Kansas Chiefs, even if he’s cleared by team doctors.

An overwhelming majority responded in the negative.

Of course, the Chiefs are only 2-7. The thinking must be that it’s more important for Polamalu to be healthy for the following week’s game in Baltimore.

Polamalu, of course, believes that’s a dangerous way for anyone to view today’s game in Kansas City.

“No question it is,” he said. “You can’t take for granted the NFL and the challenges each week brings around. I know there were some times in my rookie year when we weren’t that good that we still felt we could challenge anybody. I’m sure they feel the same way.”

The young Chiefs, though, will be up against one of the great defenses in NFL history, even without Polamalu and defensive end Travis Kirschke.

Both players have been ruled out of today’s game. But even though Polamalu has missed four full games and three-quarters of two others, and Kirschke has missed the past two games after stepping in for an injured Aaron Smith, the Steelers’ run defense has never posted better numbers.

Opponents are averaging an NFL-low 69.3 yards rushing per game against the Steelers, down significantly from last season’s average against the Steelers of 80.3.

In fact, the Steelers are well ahead of their 2001 team-record pace of yielding only

74.7 yards rushing per game, and could even challenge the league record. Only two NFL teams in the past 65 years have been stingier against the run: The 2000 Baltimore Ravens (60.6) and the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (61.6).

Today’s challenge for the Steelers will be Jamaal Charles, who stepped into the Chiefs’ starting lineup two weeks ago after the benching and subsequent release of Larry Johnson.

Charles (5-foot-11, 199 pounds), a scatback type out of the University of Texas, rushed for 103 yards on 18 carries last week in the Chiefs’ 16-10 win over the Oakland Raiders.

If the Steelers stop Charles, they’ll set their sights on Chiefs’ quarterback Matt Cassel, who served up two interceptions and two fumbles to the Steelers last season as New England’s quarterback. It was 51 weeks ago that the Steelers beat the Cassel-led Patriots 33-10.

In that game, Cassel had receivers such as Randy Moss and Wes Welker at his disposal. Today Cassel will throw to Chris Chambers and most likely Bobby Wade after losing leading receiver Dwayne Bowe to a four-game league suspension.

Chambers caught four passes for 39 yards and a touchdown against the Steelers earlier this season while playing for the San Diego Chargers. Chambers was released and the Chiefs picked him up two weeks ago.

The Chiefs also miss longtime tight end Tony Gonzalez. The future Hall of Famer left the Chiefs via free agency and has been replaced by 6-foot-8 Leonard Pope, who was waived by the Arizona Cardinals seven months after his horrendous blocking performance in the Super Bowl.

Defensively, the Chiefs are running a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, but veteran mentor Mike Vrabel, the former Patriot, will miss today’s game with a knee injury.

Vrabel’s replacement at OLB is Andy Studebaker, a 2008 draft pick out of Division III Wheaton College who was picked up from the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad.

Obviously, the Chiefs aren’t the same team that defeated the Steelers in three of their past five visits to Arrowhead Stadium, but there is the post-Bengals/pre-Ravens sandwich syndrome to potentially “trap” the Steelers.

Then again, the Steelers have never lost a game the week before playing the Ravens in Baltimore.

“We’ve got a totally new team with a new staff,” said former Steelers ball boy and first-year Chiefs coach Todd Haley. “We are trying to get better every day, find our way, find our identity, and we have a chance to play one of the best teams in the league, if not the best. It is a great challenge.”