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Steelers' campaign could hinge on Eagles

| Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, 8:36 p.m.
Steelers strong saftey Troy Polamalu on the sideline at O.co Coliseum Sept. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

The Steelers haven't been the team they expected to be, in part because they haven't been able to field the team they expected to have.

James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall haven't gotten onto the field. Troy Polamalu has played just once. Predictably, the Steelers have badly missed their two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year and a two-time 1,000-yard rusher.

Maybe, just in the nick of time, all three possibly could be on the field together for the first time since the end of last season when the Steelers (1-2) take on the Philadelphia Eagles (3-1) on Sunday in what might well be a must-win game — at least for Pittsburgh — at Heinz Field.

A must-win game only four games into the season and seven days into October?

The Ravens (3-1) and Bengals (3-1) both take on 1-3 teams Sunday. Miami journeys to Cincinnati, and Baltimore treks to Kansas City, so there is a possibility one or both of the Steelers' division rivals will be 4-1 after Week 5.

If the Steelers lose — and they are 2-6 against Philadelphia since 1975 — they could find themselves 2½ games down in the AFC North standings going into road games against Tennessee and Cincinnati.

The last time the Steelers started 1-3, in 2006, even a 6-2 finish couldn't get them back into the playoffs a season after they won the Super Bowl. They recovered from a 1-3 start in 2002 to reach the postseason, but that required a quarterback change from Kordell Stewart to Tommy Maddox.

Right now, quarterback play is one of the few areas where the Steelers don't need to improve; the Mendenhall-absent running game, for example, is 31st in the league.

“Absolutely,” Ben Roethlisberger said Monday when asked if it is especially important to win Sunday. “There's no panic, no panic in here. It's still a marathon, but we need to get a win.”

While the Steelers manhandled the Jets (2-2), 27-10, in their only home game to date, they were roughed up for a combined 65 points during road losses to Denver (31-19) and Oakland (34-31).

Getting Harrison and Polamalu back would help. Both practiced Monday — the third full practice for Harrison since training camp started — but Harrison's surgically repaired knee has balked every time he tried to go hard.

Polamalu, recovering from his second right calf injury since the end of last season, took part in both practices last week and Monday's session.

“The more time off, the better,” Polamalu said. “It was a pretty early bye week for us but, hopefully, we can get some momentum going.”

Playing at Heinz Field should help — the Steelers are 8-1 there the past two seasons — but Polamalu suggested they can't count on home-field advantage to help get them out of their early slump.

“I remember in 2005, we preferred to play away games,” he said. “It was 11 guys fighting against everybody. Our backs were to the whole world. In order for us to have some success wherever we are, we have to have that sort of mindset. Each team has its own personality. We will see how this team turns out.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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