It's only two weeks into the 2021 NFL regular season, and it has come to this: Coach Mike Tomlin expressed a level of optimism that the coaching staff will have a full week to adjust to the laundry list of injuries and prepare for Sunday's opponent – the Cincinnati Bengals in a 1 p.m. kickoff at Heinz Field.
"We have a week to prepare with known issues," said Tomlin during his weekly news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "In-game injuries cause more problems than known issues like we're faced with here at the top of the week, so we'll build a plan to highlight the men who we know will be available to us. We'll leave the light on for some who are in question, and we'll go into that stadium and be prepared to play."
During the team's preparation for its Week 2 game against the Las Vegas Raiders, injuries to cornerback Joe Hayden and inside linebacker Devin Bush surfaced late in the week, after the game plan had been devised and most of the practices were concluded. Then once that game was underway, the Steelers lost nose tackle Tyson Alualu to a broken ankle and outside linebacker T.J. Watt to a groin injury. And on the final play of the game, Diontae Johnson injured a knee after a reception in front of the Raiders' bench.
"There were some injuries in-game that affected us in-game and (will) affect us from a preparation standpoint (this week)," said Tomlin. "Tyson Alualu, as you guys know, has been placed on IR. He had ankle surgery on Monday, and so he'll begin the rehab process. We have some new injuries to contend with: Alex Highsmith with a groin; T.J. Watt with a groin; and so we're dealing with something there at that positional group."
Highsmith and Watt are the starters at outside linebacker, and the other players on the active roster at that spot are veteran Melvin Ingram III and first-year pro Jamir Jones. The Steelers responded to the potential lack of healthy bodies at outside linebacker on Tuesday afternoon when they announced the signing of Taco Charlton to the practice squad.
Charlton entered the NFL as a No. 1 pick by the Dallas Cowboys in 2017, and in his four NFL seasons he already has played for three teams: Dallas in 2017-18, Miami in 2019, and Kansas City in 2020. A 6-foot-6, 270-pound edge rusher who played his college football at Michigan, Charlton has 11 sacks, 20 hits on the quarterback, and four forced fumbles in 44 career games. His best season came with Miami in 2019, when he played in 10 games and finished with five sacks and two forced fumbles. The 28th overall pick in the 2017 draft by the Cowboys, Charlton was selected two slots before the Steelers took T.J. Watt 30th overall.
Tomlin also ran down the rest of the Steelers' injured players.
"Ben Roethlisberger has a pectoral injury of some kind, his left pectoral, that could affect him from a preparation standpoint," said Tomlin. "I don't have an idea of how much (it will affect his preparation) as I sit here right now, but we better be ready to adjust and deal with that. And also we've got Devin Bush and Joe Haden, who both missed last week and who are working their way back. Their participation will be our guide, or non-participation will be our guide, in terms of analyzing their availability (for the Bengals). Diontae Johnson got hurt late in the game (knee). He's looking better, but (that's) not to be confused with looking great, so we'll follow him and his health as we get through the week."
To summarize: The Steelers' injury report contains five defensive starters: nose tackle Alualu; outside linebackers Watt and Highsmith; cornerback Haden; and inside linebacker Bush; plus the starting quarterback (Roethlisberger) and the guy who has been targeted the most through the first two games of the season (Johnson).
Of the seven players injured, Watt, Highsmith, and Bush have groin injuries, which can be tricky in that it can be difficult to determine when the player is ready to return.
"That's why I'm not making any drastic statements about the availability of any of these guys," said Tomlin, "because the degree of the injury changes the prognosis, and the man himself changes the prognosis. We'll give guys an opportunity to practice during the course of the week, and if they practice we'll look at the quality of that practice or how much they practice and let that be a guide for us in terms of their potential participation (in the game). I'll also say this: Some of the more established players can play on less prep than others, and we've had that discussion in the past. There are a lot of variables at play, but not overly concerned about it because this is the tightrope that we walk, week in and week out.
"So we got a lot of irons in the fire, if you will, from a health standpoint. Thankfully in today's NFL with the flexibility of practice squads, we have all the answers in-house."