ARLINGTON, Texas — James Harrison sat on a stool and stared blankly into the Steelers' quiet locker room.
Pittsburgh's playmaking linebacker knew he wasn't good enough in the Super Bowl. He even went on Twitter after the Steelers' 31-25 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night and typed out one simple word for every fan to see:
That pretty much summed things up for the Steelers defense, which isn't used to having to explain why it couldn't get the job done.
"Bottom line is, we played subpar ball," Harrison said. "And, you see what the turnout is."
It was an unexpected letdown for Pittsburgh, which relies on its aggressive defense that allowed a league-low 14.5 points per game, had the Defensive Player of the Year in Troy Polamalu and figured to give Aaron Rodgers all kinds of fits.
Turns out, it was the other way around.
"He's the reason they won," big-bearded defensive end Brett Keisel said of the Super Bowl MVP. "He's a phenomenal guy."
Rodgers proved that with a terrific performance, but Pittsburgh's big-play, hard-hitting defensive leaders were nowhere to be found when the Steelers needed them most. Sure, Harrison had a sack and some quarterback hits, but that was pretty much all. As for Polamalu, the game-changing plays never came.
"I had some opportunities to make some plays," Polamalu said. "I was just off a step here or there."
Such as the early chance he whiffed on, when he delivered only a glancing blow on running back James Starks. Polamalu had his biggest hit the very next play — as Greg Jennings caught a 21-yard touchdown pass.
"It's incredibly humbling," Polamalu said. "Toughest loss I've ever had in my life."
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 — who 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.
"We had the opportunity to go out there and make the right plays," Polamalu said, "but we didn't."
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.
"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."
Harrison made most of his noise with his mouth during the week while criticizing the NFL, but didn't have much to say after this performance. He answered a handful of questions in front of his locker, his head down and his voice barely above a whisper.
"I don't feel anything but pain," he said. "I just feel frustration, anger. We just lost a Super Bowl. How the hell do you think I feel?"
Harrison and Polamalu were hardly the only ones at fault. The Steelers' suspect secondary gave up several big plays as the Packers, even without the injured Donald Driver for most of the game, took aim at Bryant McFadden, William Gay and the rest of Pittsburgh's defensive backs.
"We collectively, as the Steelers defense, know we didn't get the job done," Gay said. "They made the plays and we didn't. That's what it comes down to."
The defensive line got some pressure on Rodgers but it wasn't consistent enough, especially in the first half, to get the Packers off track.
"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."
The Packers were also efficient on third down, going 6 for 13, including a 29-yard touchdown catch by Jordy Nelson that put Green Bay up 7-0.
"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 first quarter provided an ominous peek at how this night would unfold as Starks ran for 12 yards — and Polamalu had a shot at him, and missed. Jennings caught his first of two touchdowns on the next play and Polamalu unloaded on him, his hair flying behind him. One problem: The Packers receiver was already across the goal line.
When he was asked if he thought Polamalu made an impact in the game, coach Mike Tomlin said only: "I'll let you be the judge."
When the Steelers look back at this one, they'll wish Polamalu and Harrison had done what has made them two of the elite defensive players in the NFL.
Harrison was the 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. He was one of the centers of attention during the last several days, 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 ripped the owners' push for an 18-game regular season.
Harrison was fined $100,000 by the NFL for illegal hits this season, but won't have to worry about his wallet after this game.
"I lost an AFC championship game one time, and the pain was there for about four or six weeks," Harrison said. "I don't know how long this is going to last, but I hope it's over with fast."
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