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Steelers fans mourn the death of a legend, and the end of an era

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On Thursday night, Steeler Nation paid its last respects to a legend, as the final, irrefutable evidence of the end of an era was witnessed.

Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The legend that has passed away is that of the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. The Steel Curtain defense, Blitzburgh, or any other appellation that may have been used over the past 20-plus years to describe the singular most widely recognized characteristic of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is dead.

I'm not talking about the fact that the Steelers' defense gave up 28 points to the New England Patriots in Foxborough before a national audience, or how the Patriots amassed 361 total yards and scored four passing touchdowns. I'm not referring to any of the game stats themselves, for even at the height of whichever era of Steelers defense you most associate with the team, there were games where they gave up such stats to top-tier quarterbacks and opposing offenses.

What I'm talking about is the death of the legend of the Steelers defense. You remember that legend, don't you? The part where teams may defeat the Steelers, but they'd walk off the field at the end of the game bloody, bruised and battered. Where the Steelers defense made opposing offenses pay in blood and sweat for every yard and point. Where quarterbacks had to prove they could scramble and juke to their left and their right because they never knew from where a devastating hit was coming. A defense that may not always have prevented the opponent from scoring, but made them work for it.

Where the talented and high-caliber offensive opponents raised their own game to such a level that, for those in Steeler Nation who loved the pure essence of the game, watching such an offense defeat our defense engendered respect and admiration. We were witnessing potential championship-caliber performances and we relished such conflicts because, after all, iron sharpens iron, right?

Well, that Steelers defense is dead. What Steeler Nation witnessed on Thursday night, what the entire football world witnessed, was a travesty and a mockery of a once-proud Steelers defensive unit.

A travesty because on series after series, we witnessed discombobulation in our secondary as they prepared for the snap of the ball. Play after play, one Steeler player or another was waving his arms or looking around, trying to figure out who was supposed to go where. Play after play, one Patriots' playmaker or another, Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman, was left virtually uncovered and allowed to slip between the seams and gain huge chunks of yardage.

A mockery because what we saw on the field in Foxborough was not a Steelers defense that I, nor anyone in Steeler Nation, could recognize. Against three (yes, three) rookie offensive linemen, one playing center, the once-vaunted Steelers' pass rush was invisible.

Granted, Tom Brady never holds the ball for long, and his "bread and butter" is quick-strike passes, but he was rarely pressured by the Steelers' front three of Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt or even Cameron Heyward. You remember them, right, even though you rarely heard their names mentioned throughout the game?

Granted, the Steelers had two sacks, one of them by our own rookie Bud Dupree (the other by Will Allen), but against a rookie center that's hardly a statistic to celebrate. A rookie linebacker and an aging safety were the highlights of our defense? Yes, Ryan Shazier had some penetration and tackles for losses, along with some nice hits, but where was the vaunted Steelers linebacking corps for most of the night playing against three rookies? They weren't pressuring Brady, nor even collapsing the pocket and making him scramble.

Yes, the legendary Steelers defense is dead. Worse though, given the disarray evident on play after play by the defensive corps, the waving of arms, the blown coverages, and at one key point (with the Patriots around the 30-yard line), only 10 players on the field at the snap. The overall lack of coaching fundamentals and the preparedness that Steelers defenses once were known for was nowhere to be found and can also be presumed dead.

After five preseason games and the entire training camp period, the Steelers defense conducted itself before a national audience and in the home of a hated opponent, from coaching on down to player execution, as though it were a satirical caricature of itself.

The legend is dead. All that's left is a bunch of empty uniforms to remind us of what once was.