Polamalu's status up in the air
If a short week didn't give coach Mike Tomlin enough reason to sit Troy Polamalu on Thursday night, here is another one: The Steelers should be able to handle the visiting Carolina Panthers without their Pro Bowl strong safety.
The Panthers are 2-12 and, more significant when it comes to the gimpy Polamalu, start a rookie quarterback in Jimmy Clausen and rank last in the NFL in passing offense.
The Panthers average just 149.3 passing yards per game and have thrown just eight touchdown passes to 19 interceptions this season.
While all signs point to Polamalu missing a second consecutive game because of what Tomlin called a "lower leg injury," the fourth-year coach did anything but tip his hand Monday.
The Steelers listed Polamalu as a limited participant in practice on the injury report that they as well as the Panthers were required to disclose yesterday. Because neither team practiced, the reports were based on estimations by each club.
The one noteworthy thing that Tomlin did indicate at the weekly news conference at which he grudgingly provided news is that Polamalu will return at some point this season.
"As soon as the discomfort subsides, he's going to be back in action," Tomlin said. "I think we're moving close to that. We'll see where this week takes us."
The Steelers will practice today and have a walkthrough tomorrow. Per NFL rules, they are not required to list Polamalu's status for Thursday's game until tomorrow afternoon.
Polamalu was listed as doubtful for last Sunday's game against the New York Jets and did not play in the Steelers' 22-17 loss at Heinz Field.
The best-case scenario for the Steelers is them clinching the AFC North title and No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs before their regular-season finale Jan. 2 in Cleveland.
That would allow them to rest Polamalu until the playoffs, and he would get an extra week to recover, because the Steelers would receive a first-round bye.
Polamalu, who is tied for second in the NFL with six interceptions, has been bothered by what the Steelers have alternately said is an Achilles and ankle injury.
Polamalu arrived at the Steelers practice yesterday at around 11 a.m. and did not walk with a noticeable limp.
A day earlier, Polamalu said that his return to the playing field will be dictated by Tomlin.
"It's his decision," Polamalu said. "It's always his decision."
Assuming Tomlin errs on the side of caution with Polamalu, Ryan Mundy is line to make his second career start.
Mundy, a Woodland Hills graduate, played in place of Polamalu against the Jets and was credited with four tackles. The 6-foot-1, 209-pounder also had a key pass breakup late in the game, allowing the Steelers to get the ball back and mount a late drive that came up just short in the end.
"I thought he played above-the-line football," Tomlin said of Mundy.
Mundy realized a dream by making his first career start for his hometown team. More significant to the Steelers is that Mundy did not seem overwhelmed by the magnitude of filling in for perhaps the best safety in the game.
"I'm not worried about being Troy Polamalu, just going out and being comfortable," Mundy said, "and knowing that I don't have to be Troy, that I've got other guys that have my back."
On the Steelers qualifying for the playoffs last Sunday despite a 22-17 loss to the New York Jets:
"We're excited about being assured of an opportunity to advance into the playoffs. I don't like how it unfolded. You feel like you're crawling in on your belly, but we've got two weeks to do something about that. I still think a division title is within our sights, but it all starts with playing good, winning football Thursday night."
On having a short week to prepare for a game against the visiting Carolina Panthers:
"Thursday night football is a quick turnaround, particularly for a veteran team. We've got to prepare as smart as we can, try to preserve our guys in as many ways as we can. Working on this week, you've got to acknowledge that it's advantage Carolina Panthers. They're a younger team than we are and physically they're capable of bouncing back faster, no question."
On the loss to Jets:
"That one got away from us. I'm cautious of how I use that phrase, because I don't want to devalue accountability in terms of what we could have done to change the outcome of that game. We've been in (close) games quite a bit this year, and usually we've found a way to make a play or two."
On the Jets having relative success running the ball against the Steelers:
"I didn't think that they were gutting us by any stretch, but they exhibited the patience that others hadn't. So they were able to find some rhythm and get a play or two. Didn't think it was a bad game in terms of us stopping the run but didn't think it was our best effort."
Steelers vs. Jets 12/19/10
The Jets defeat the Steelers, 22-17, Sunday December 19, 2010 at Heinz Field.
Road to the division title
The Steelers, who have already qualified for the playoffs, can win the AFC North if:
» They beat the Carolina Panthers on Thursday and the Browns on Jan. 2 in Cleveland
» They beat the Panthers on Thursday and the Ravens lose to the Browns Sunday
» They lose to the Panthers but beat the Browns, and the Ravens lose to the Browns