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Steelers' problems hard to pinpoint

Throughout the 2009 season, SI.com's Adam Duerson will work with Jerome Bettis to get the six-time Pro Bowl running back's observations about the previous week's games. Bettis retired from the NFL in 2006 after a 13-year career.

• I flew to Pittsburgh this morning for a charity event, and what a day it was to be in this town. The word I would use to describe the atmosphere is "despair." Nobody could have expected the way this season has unfolded. Nobody knows where to go from here. These very Steelers won a Super Bowl last February, and yet now they're 6-6 with just about the same roster. That's a hard thing to deal with. It's even harder when you try to think about how to fix it.

From my viewpoint, it's nearly impossible to put a finger on what's wrong. It's something new every week. This week it was the secondary putting forth their worst effort. That unit hasn't been the problem every week, but it was the issue this week. Every week there's someone letting this team down.

Several people asked me, "What's wrong with the Steelers, Bus. And how do they fix it?" It's not that simple, folks. Is it Mike Tomlin's fault? I don't think so. He's doing everything he can in terms of motivation; there's only so much a coach can do. Is it the absence of Troy Polamalu? Can a Super Bowl-winning team be that dependent on one guy? I don't think so. This is a team that should beat Oakland without Troy Polamalu. I can't quite get to the heart of the problem. I could have told you any other week of the year that the line was struggling or the backs were weak, but right now it's not as simple as any one of those things. I wish I knew the answers, Steelers fans. What's next? They have to go undefeated and get some serious help to make the playoffs. I'd have a hard time telling Steelers fans that things will be okay.

• In the same game, I thought Bruce Gradkowski was pretty solid; he sure didn't disappoint while playing in front of his hometown fans. The kid has insured himself of playing in the NFL for years to come. Will he be the starter in Oakland? Maybe not. They may need or want something more dramatic than Bruce Gradkowski to try to turn its franchise around. But that kid earned some dollars yesterday. His is a name that Steelers fans surely won't soon forget.

• What is it they always say about great football teams? They find a way to win. The Steelers didn't; but the Saints did, in a remarkable comeback at Washington. Go down the rosters of great teams and you'll find those guys who don't give up, guys who finish off every single play. These guys ooze effort. And there you have New Orleans' Robert Meachem, who chased down a defender, stripped a ball and returned it for a touchdown. People ask me who I like this year. Well, I can tell you this: These Saints are special.

• Here's what I'll say about being 12-0 and thinking about whether to rest your starters down the line (as is the case in New Orleans and Indianapolis): As a player I always wanted the rest; but as a teammate I always knew that you have to stay active. I always favored the idea, late in the season, of having guys play part of a game, but not the whole thing. Get your guys on the field, keep their rhythm going, and then get 'em out of there. Minimize injury risk. I also happen to think that the Colts and the Saints are two totally different teams when it comes to this conversation. The Colts have been here before, and they have more veteran players who've been down this road; guys know how to keep their concentration. They can probably afford to sit some players in the last few games without suffering the mental effects. The Saints are new to this whole winning thing; they have a younger, less experienced roster, and they should probably be more concerned about home field throughout the playoffs than any other team. So I think they have to keep plowing ahead. Don't slow down.

LaDainian Tomlinson passed Jim Brown yesterday, moving to No. 8 on the all-time rushing list. And I think he'll keep climbing. He's got a few years left. Here's what I have to say about the guy who's two places behind me on that list: he's from a different mold than these other guys. He typifies his generation, not only running out of the backfield, but also posing such a threat as a receiving back. Now, does he go down as one of the true greats? A Top 3 guy? Not without that Super Bowl. And not with his injury history. The guy's got a few years left, and his legacy could come down to this. I think he knows it. Let's say San Diego wins a Super Bowl. Would LT retire? I honestly don't think so. I think he's playing for something bigger than just that ring. I think he wants to cement his place at the top. He has some climbing to do.

Mike Vick got a pretty warm reception in Atlanta yesterday, which I think says a lot about how people perceived his punishment. For fans to be that forgiving tells me that, as a whole, people feel Mike's punishment more than fit the crime. He paid his dues and we're ready to move on. ... And to think Brett Favre got a worse reception going back to Green Bay. Apparently there's nothing worse than hopping over to play for the enemy.

• As much as I like the league's new approach to concussions, we're already seeing a few flaws with the system. We saw it with Ben Roethlisberger when the Steelers used language like "concussion-related symptoms". What does that mean, concussion-related? And we might have seen it with the Eagles' left tackle, Jason Peters, who appeared to go down with a concussion but then denied it afterward. I think we have to be concerned about teams trying to hide these things. How can the league keep a player out with a concussion if the league never knows it happened? What happens when teams are slow to use that "C" word so quickly? These are all things the league will have to work around to really fix this problem.

• I'm sold on the Cardinals -- when they play tough competition. They're a better team defensively than they were last year, but you still don't know who you're going to get on a given day: the devastatingly good Cardinals that beat Minnesota, or the just-above-average Cardinals that, for example, lost to Carolina and Tennessee. No team plays to their opponent's level more than Arizona. So what happens come the playoffs, when Arizona's not the underdog?

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