Harrison, Polamalu, Mendenhall not on Steelers' injury list
The Steelers' problems are many, and they are evident: No pass rush, no running game, no turnovers created, no way to stop teams in the fourth quarter.
Maybe it's not a coincidence there has been no James Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall, and not much Troy Polamalu.
That's apparently about to change, and perhaps just in time as the Steelers (1-2) reach a potentially critical stretch only one-quarter of the way through their schedule.
Coach Mike Tomlin generally offers few specifics when discussing injuries so far in advance, but he displayed uncharacteristic optimism Tuesday by speculating his two former NFL Defensive Players of the Year and two-time 1,000-yard rusher will play Sunday against the Eagles.
Harrison, slowed for months by a left knee injury that required surgery in August, has played in only 11 of the last 19 games and still hasn't practiced on consecutive days this season. Polamalu missed the last two games with a calf injury. Mendenhall has been on the shelf since tearing the ACL in his right knee Jan. 1 in Cleveland.
With an important game against the Eagles (3-1) up next, followed by Tennessee four days later and AFC North rival Cincinnati to follow, Tomlin apparently believes it's time to whip the windbreakers off his three idled regulars and see what he's got.
“Based on what I'm looking at in terms of how they worked and how we worked (Monday), I think that's a safe assessment (that they will play),” Tomlin said Tuesday. “All three guys have performed well and have been able to get through practice.”
After failing to generate consistent pressure on the mostly immobile Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, the Steelers badly need to put some heat on the Eagles' Michael Vick, who has thrown for 1,146 yards, but also has six interceptions, three lost fumbles and has been sacked 11 times.
Harrison could provide it if his knee holds up; he had nine sacks in 11 games last season. The entire Steelers defense has only five sacks this season.
“If he plays well and plays like James is capable of playing, obviously he's an asset to us,” said Tomlin, who offered that Harrison went through “intense workouts” while the Steelers were idle last weekend.
The Steelers' inability to turn the ball over — they have a single interception — is one reason why they will welcome back Polamalu, who has 19 interceptions the last four seasons.
Polamalu's ability to cause quarterback confusion at the line of scrimmage — Is he blitzing? Will he drop into coverage against the receiver I'm targeting? — has been visibly missed by a defense that has played well below expectations.
“Getting off the field on third down is a big issue for us, as well as red-zone defense,” Polamalu said. “We have to make better adjustments on the field in what we see and anticipate what we are going to get from their offense.”
Steelers opponents are 16 of 33 on third downs, helping them extend drives and wear down the defense. The Steelers have been outscored, 30-13, in the fourth quarter.
Mendenhall averaged 4.1 yards per carry last season, far more than the Steelers' current 2.6 yard average. No back has gained more than 43 yards, as the Steelers are off to their worst start running the ball in 62 years, with only 195 yards — an average of 65 per game.
“He's a multiple thousand-yard guy. He's our lead dog,” Tomlin said of Mendenhall. “Obviously, he's capable of helping.”
The Steelers are in need of help, too. A loss could drop them 2 1⁄2 games out of the AFC North lead only a month into the season and force them to play catch-up for weeks to come, if not the rest of the way.
“Nobody pays any attention to losing teams,” Polamalu said. “We've got to get ourselves on the winning side.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.