Even though the NFL may have evolved into a passing league, even though the Steelers align themselves in their base 3-4 defense less than one-third of the time, there still are times when it's going to be necessary to stop the run. Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens looks like one of those games.
"Every game that we prepare for, we do so with the mentality that we have to minimize and respect the potential of their run game, whether it's being revealed to us in terms of potential or in reality," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I just think it's good coaching and good football to work from there out. So that's always our approach."
In doing so this particular week, the Steelers will be looking at an opponent that has seen a recent resurgence in the running attack. The Ravens had some instability along their offensive line early in the season that was created by some injuries, but those have healed. As a result, Baltimore rushed for a season-best 151 yards last week in a win over the Eagles, and four of their six 100-yard rushing games this season have come since the Nov. 6 game against the Steelers.
Conversely, the Steelers defense has improved as a unit when it comes to stopping the run, and with two games remaining that unit is ranked fifth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game. But the same issue that has solidified the Baltimore running game is a potential threat to the Steelers run defense this week.
With Cam Heyward already on the injured reserve list, the Steelers have been carrying five defensive linemen on their 53-man roster, along with two more on the practice squad to share the workload during practices each week. But in the game against the Bengals, Stephon Tuitt sprained a knee and Ricardo Matthews injured an ankle.
That left the Steelers with Dan McCullers, L.T. Walton, and Javon Hargrave, plus Mathews who returned to play in spots despite his injury, to get the team through the game. And this group helped hold the Bengals to 76 yards rushing and a 2.7 average in a game the Steelers would win, 24-20.
"The guys who had to stepped up and adjusted," said Tomlin, "and more than anything else, I sensed that when Tuitt went down and then Ricardo (Mathews) went down soon thereafter. We had some younger guys, some backup guys, some role guys—guys like L.T. Walton, Javon (Hargrave) and Vince Williams step up. To their credit, they adjusted to the midstream change of roles. And adjusted nicely and delivered quality play for us, particularly as the game unfolded."
Tomlin said the status of Tuitt and Mathews for the game against the Ravens will be determined by the way they progress through the week leading up to kickoff on Sunday, and there always is the chance the team could opt to bring up one of the two defensive linemen currently on the practice squad as reinforcements – rookie Johnny Maxey or first-year player Caushaud Lyons.
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Le'Veon Bell wasn't played in the game, because he had some swelling on his knee. Maybe it was an accumulation of a week's work. Maybe it was a result of the plane flight, but it was my decision. I decided to exercise caution and not play him in the game. He had fluid on his knee when we got to the stadium, and I also took into consideration the surface we'd be playing on and decided to go with the guys with the clean bill of health. I thought that gave us the best chance to win. I fully expect him to be a complete participant this week and participate for us in the game now that all of those things are behind him.
"We're excited about Darrius Heyward-Bey (foot) taking another step forward in participation this week and seeing where that participation might take us. He was running full speed in a straight line last week, and we're going to do some unanticipated directional changes this week and check his football readiness. Hopefully, we have him. Robert Golden could be put in that category as well as he works back from his knee injury.
"Some in-game injuries to talk about: Stephon Tuitt has a knee sprain. That has been evaluated. He actually is downstairs rehabilitating right now. He'll have an opportunity this week. We'll watch him participate over the course of the week and see what that participation looks like. Obviously the position that he plays gives him an opportunity, and it would probably be less likely if he were a wide receiver or a cornerback but such is life in football. We'll give him an opportunity to show his overall readiness.
"Same thing with Ricardo Mathews. He sustained an ankle injury in the game, and he was able to come back in the game in different spurts and finish for us. And we appreciate his willingness to contribute and what he provided for us. We'll watch him this week. He'll probably be limited in the early stages.
"Anthony Chickillo had an ankle injury. You can ditto the same things I said about Ricardo for Chickillo. He was able to finish the game and be a core special teams contributor, but he was limited. We'll watch him this week. The last one is Ladarius Green. He's in the concussion protocol. He's at the UPMC Concussion Clinic right now being evaluated, so I don't have an update on him. We'll follow the protocol to the letter, as we always do, and keep you guys informed as to his status. And as often is the case, his participation or level of participation is an indication of where it's going or where it's maybe not going. We'll be prepared to make necessary adjustments that include him or exclude him, depending on where those winds take us."