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Steelers' defensive stars play small on NFL's biggest stage

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Troy Polamalu whiffed on a tackle. James Harrison was nearly invisible.

Not the way the Pittsburgh Steelers drew up this Super Bowl.

Their big-play, hard-hitting defensive leaders were nowhere to be found when the Steelers needed them most as Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay's offense led the Packers to a 31-25 victory Sunday night.

"It's incredibly humbling," Polamalu said. "Toughest loss I've ever had in my life."

Harrison stood in front of his locker, his head down and his voice barely above a whisper.

"I don't feel anything but pain," he said.

And that from a guy who's accustomed to dishing it out.

"I just feel frustration, anger," Harrison said. "We just lost a Super Bowl. How the hell do you think I feel?"

He let the fans know, going on Twitter shortly after the game and typing out one simple word: "Sorry."

That pretty much summed things up for the Steelers' defense, which isn't accustomed to explaining how they couldn't do the job.

"They were hitting the big plays downfield," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "We let them out of third-down situations. When you let a team like that out of third-down situations, you lose the game like we did tonight."

The Packers were 6 of 13 on third-down conversions, including a 29-yard touchdown catch by Jordy Nelson that put Green Bay ahead 7-0.

"We weren't able to get any turnovers on defense," said Polamalu. "That was the difference."

Polamalu was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, but he was anything but the impact player who helped the Steelers reach this point. He had a chance to make a big play early, but he delivered only a glancing blow on Packers running back James Starks.

Polamalu delivered his biggest hit on the next play -- as Greg Jennings caught a 21-yard touchdown pass.

On NFL Replay
NFL Replay will re-air the Green Bay Packers' 31-25 win over the Pittsburgh  Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Wednesday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. ET.

"I had some opportunities to make some plays," Polamalu said. "I was just off a step here or there."

Harrison had a sack, but he made most of his noise with his mouth during the week while criticizing the NFL. He didn't have much to say after this performance, though.

"I mean, everybody is probably going through a little bit of, 'If I had done this, or what if I had done that?'" Harrison said. "I guess everything happens for a reason. I don't know what that one is right now."

Coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense was one of the strengths all season for the Steelers, who have a long legacy of punishers -- The Steel Curtain among them -- that helped bring six previous titles to Pittsburgh. This team expected to do the same, with Polamalu and Harrison leading the way, as they so often have during the last few seasons.

But Polamalu finished with three not-so-memorable tackles, while Harrison had only the sack of Rodgers in the third quarter and a few quarterback hits.

"We had the opportunity to go out there and make the right plays," Polamalu said, "but we didn't."

It wasn't just Polamalu and Harrison to blame, of course. The Steelers' suspect secondary gave up several big plays as the Packers, even without the injured wide receiver Donald Driver for most of the game, took aim at Bryant McFadden, William Gay and the rest of Pittsburgh's defensive backs.

The defensive line, led by the big-bearded Brett Keisel, put some pressure on Rodgers, but it wasn't consistent enough, especially in the first half, to get the Packers off track.

"We don't grade on a curve," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We're not interested in moral victories and things of that nature. We didn't play well enough to win, and Green Bay does, and we tip our hat to them because of that."

When the Steelers look back at this Super Bowl, though, they will wish Polamalu and Harrison had done what made them two of the NFL's elite defensive players.

"We wanted to keep an eye on where Polamalu was," Nelson said. "Aaron made great decisions all day."

The first quarter provided an ominous peek at how this night would unfold as Starks rumbled for 12 yards, and Polamalu had a shot at him -- and missed. Jennings caught a 21-yard pass from Rodgers on the next play, and Polamalu unloaded on the receiver, his hair flying behind him, but there was one problem: The Packer already was across the goal line.

Harrison was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year two years ago, and capped off that season with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in a Super Bowl victory.

This time, Harrison was coming off another impressive season in which he had 10½ sacks. He's a problem for receivers and tight ends coming across the middle, and for offensive linemen trying to protect their quarterbacks.

Not so much in this one. The Packers did a terrific job of keeping Harrison out of Rodgers' face.

"He's probably one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL," Packers guard Daryn Colledge said, "so we feel in the huddle that all we've got to do is protect and he'll make things happen."

Harrison was one of the centers of attention during the week leading to the Super Bowl, taking some hard shots at the league by calling the NFL's talk about wanting to protect players "a show." He sarcastically suggested a pillow could be used to soften blows he delivers to opposing players, and he ripped the owners' push for an 18-game regular season.

Harrison was fined $100,000 by the NFL for illegal hits this season, but he won't have to worry about his wallet after this game.

"Bottom line is, we played subpar ball," Harrison said. "And you see what the turnout is."

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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