Mike Tomlin expects stars on D back
The Pittsburgh Steelers look like they'll come out of their bye with their two biggest playmakers on defense returning to action.
Hensley: Steelers Need Stars Back
If James Harrison and Troy Polamalu return as expected Sunday, their impact will be felt in two key areas currently lacking for the Steelers D -- sacks and turnovers, ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley writes. Blog
Polamalu has missed two straight games with a strained right calf, while Harrison hasn't played this season after undergoing knee surgery in August. Both players returned to practice Monday.
"Based on what I am looking at on how we worked yesterday, I think that is a safe assessment (that they will play)," Tomlin said Tuesday, according to the team's website. "We will watch these guys as we proceed throughout the week. All guys have performed well and were able to get through practice and we're optimistic that they're going to be full participants."
Running back Rashard Mendenhall also is expected to make his season debut Sunday. The Steelers' starting running back has been out since tearing his ACL in the final game last season.
"Coming off the bye, I think it's been a productive bye for us," Tomlin said, according to the website. "We've had the opportunity to work on some elements that we feel like need to be addressed in all three phases. At the same time, we were able to get some of our injured men back."
The Steelers have struggled to generate much of a pass rush, and the secondary had trouble in a 34-31 loss in Oakland on Sept. 23. Having a pair of healthy former defensive player of the year winners would certainly help.
"We'll see what happens, but it's been a while since we've all been on the field together," Polamalu said Monday. "There are some other new faces out there who have been permanent starters, so it's all about how well 11 guys mesh on our defense."
Harrison hasn't played since a wild-card loss to Denver in January. He struggled staying healthy during the offseason and underwent a minor procedure on Aug. 15. He returned to full practice last Tuesday but was not there on Wednesday, though he declined to label it a setback.
There's no guarantee Polamalu's and Harrison's presence will be a cure-all for a team in danger of losing serious ground to AFC North frontrunners Baltimore and Cincinnati, both 3-1. Yet the Steelers have been one of the most resilient teams in the NFL under Tomlin. Pittsburgh is one of only three teams to avoid back-to-back losses since the beginning of the 2010 season.
"There's no panic in here," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "It's still a marathon, but we need to get a win."
A couple of defensive stops might be enough to get the job done. Getting some pressure on the quarterback might help. The Steelers have just five sacks through three games, which would put them on pace for less than 30 over the course of a season. Youngsters Chris Carter and Jason Worilds have done little in that department while filling in for Harrison, allowing teams to focus their attention on stopping LaMarr Woodley coming from the right edge.
The defensive veterans rallied around longtime coordinator Dick LeBeau last week, brushing off criticism that the Steelers had become too predictable. Safety Ryan Clark pointed out opponents' familiarity with Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme didn't matter because the Steelers simply outworked the guys across from them on the line of scrimmage. It's a point Polamalu reiterated on Monday.
"We are not going to change," Polamalu said. "It's about how we execute and win our one-on-one matchups. If we don't, it has nothing to do with the scheme of things. It's just that we are underperforming."
Harrison joked on Monday he's more concerned about a charity fashion show the team is putting on Friday than making a guess on whether he'll be available. Still, the sight of Harrison and Polamalu on the field Monday was enough to pump up cornerback Ike Taylor.
"You're talking about two defensive league MVPs," Taylor said.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.