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Steelers' D-line proves depth with versatility

Joe Rutter
| Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016, 6:33 p.m.

The Steelers defensive line already knows about playing short-handed, having lost captain Cameron Heyward to a season-ending pectoral injury against the Dallas Cowboys.

The good news for the group Tuesday was it might not be further depleted and without its other star defensive end when the Steelers play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday with a chance to clinch the AFC North title.

Stephon Tuitt, who logged three snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals before leaving with a right knee injury, will have an “opportunity” to suit up for the Christmas day matchup at Heinz Field, coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday.

Tuitt had an MRI taken Monday, and Tomlin said the third-year lineman's injury was diagnosed as a sprain. Tuitt began a rehab program on his knee Tuesday.

“We'll watch him participate over the course of the week and see what he looks like,” Tomlin said. “The position he plays gives him an opportunity that would be less likely if it was a wide receiver or corner.

“We'll give him an opportunity for him to show his overall readiness.”

Tuitt is second on the team with four sacks and leads the Steelers with 13 quarterback pressures. He has stepped up in Heyward's absence, helping the defense hold five straight opponents under 100 rushing yards.

When Tuitt was injured on the Bengals' opening drive, the Steelers were down to four healthy defensive linemen with about 58 minutes left in the game.

“We try to tell ourselves that it's not that big of a void because if we do, you accept defeat,” Ricardo Mathews said. “Not saying we'd be defeated, but you just don't want to let that salt, so to speak, enter your brain. So you don't even think about it like that.

“We just think about it like ‘Next man up' and get your job done.”

Trouble was, the defensive line was down to three healthy members when Mathews injured his right ankle later in the first half. He returned in the second half and finished the game.

Tomlin said Mathews' injury might limit his practice participation early in the week but expects the seven-year veteran to be available for the Ravens game.

Mathews' absence against the Bengals temporarily left the line in the hands of a rookie third-round draft pick (Javon Hargrave) and two former sixth-round picks (L.T. Walton and Daniel McCullers).

“We knew we had to step up and make big plays,” McCullers said. “I'm proud of the guys.”

Hargrave, in his first game back since sustaining a concussion, logged 49 of 58 defensive snaps. Walton was on the field for 36 plays, four more than Mathews. McCullers played 12 snaps.

The Bengals had eight rushing yards on seven attempts and totaled 38 yards in the second half.

Versatility on the line helped. Hargrave, who beat McCullers for the starting nose tackle job in training camp, can play defensive end in nickel formations.

“Our work ethic during the week, we get after it all week long, so everybody is prepared for any type of situation that happens,” Walton said. “You have to be at this point in the season. If you don't understand the caliber of these games, you're not prepared.”

Tomlin was impressed with how his patchwork defensive line played without Tuitt and, to a lesser extent, Mathews.

“To their credit, they adjusted to the midstream change of roles,” Tomlin said. “They adjusted nicely and delivered quality play for us, particularly as the game unfolded.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

The Steelers' Stephon Tuitt celebrates his sack of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 at New Era Field.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
The Steelers' Stephon Tuitt celebrates his sack of Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor in the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 at New Era Field.
The Steelers Stephon Tuitt plays against the Bills Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 at New Era Field.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers Stephon Tuitt plays against the Bills Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 at New Era Field.
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