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Gruden understands Steeler woes, but can't empathize

It could be turnovers or just the hangover, but the Bucs and Steelers are similar in this aspect: Both struggled the year after winning the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay is four years removed from its title. But it's clear the Bucs (3-8) and defending NFL champion Steelers (4-7) do not resemble the teams that hoisted the Lombardi Trophy.

"I just try not to think about it other than these two teams meet on Sunday," coach Jon Gruden said. "It's the last AFC team to win a Super Bowl and I think it's the last NFC team to win a Super Bowl and neither one of them is doing very well.

"I can't empathize with anybody right now. I really can't. I've got a lot of respect for Pittsburgh and Bill Cowher and that whole organization. I lived in Pittsburgh for a year. I had a chance to see that program at close range. They've got a lot of great players, they've got a lot of great tradition and they've got a great coach. We've got to be ready to play, that's all I know."

Both teams have been ravaged by injuries. The Steelers will be missing receiver Hines Ward and safety Troy Polamalu. The Bucs are without quarterback Chris Simms, tackle Kenyatta Walker, guard Dan Buenning, defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive back Brian Kelly, to name a few.

Expectations, of course, can eat away at the defending Super Bowl champions.

"It used to be that it's hard to win a Super Bowl. Now you're criticized for having this Super Bowl hangover," Gruden said. "They were a wild-card team that rampaged through the playoffs and won a world title. Now, all of a sudden people think they got the big head. I think they lost a guy named (Jerome) Bettis. They lost (Antwaan) Randle El. They've had some key injuries. They've played a tough schedule. The quarterback has had a rough offseason. I can't speak for the Steelers, but I put the tape on and they're playing hard. Our team's playing hard, we're just not playing very good at times."

ALLEN AILING: Safety Will Allen, who sprained his ankle at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, did not practice again and is questionable for Sunday's game at Pittsburgh.

Gruden wouldn't speculate on who would replace Allen if he were unable to play. The most likely candidate is Kalvin Pearson. The Bucs also re-signed safety Donte Nicholson.

"It depends. We'll address that tomorrow," Gruden said. "We'll try not to get into all that right now. We expect Will to come back and play, but we'll do it by committee if need be."

Gruden said Allen was injured while making a tackle for a loss. On the next play, he slipped in coverage, yielding a touchdown pass.

The injury did not contribute to Allen losing his footing on the play, according to Gruden.

"I don't think so. He just backpedaled and slipped on the turf," Gruden said. "We had a couple of guys do that in the game, but I can't say that's because he was gimpy a little bit. When it rains, it pours."

Tight end Alex Smith (ankle) didn't practice and is questionable. Running back Michael Pittman (hamstring/shoulder) returned to practice but is questionable. Cornerback Juran Bolden (shin), defensive tackle Ellis Wyms (ankle) and linebacker Shelton Quarles (ankle/knee) also are questionable.

Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud@sptimes.com.

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