For a few weeks there, it seemed as though "next man up" had met its match. As injuries and Covid disqualifications mounted, the Steelers found themselves going into games not only without some starters but also without some backups to those starters.
Being without Ben Roethlisberger, T.J. Watt, Anthony McFarland Jr., Kevin Dotson, Joe Haden, Joe Haeg, J.C. Hassenauer, and Eric Ebron further thinned the already thin ranks considerably, and the Steelers went from 5-3 after a four-game winning streak to 5-5-1 after an 0-2-1 stretch leading up to the Dec. 5 game vs. the Ravens.
As they took the field at Heinz Field last Sunday, the Steelers still were without Haden, their No. 1 cornerback, without Haeg and Hassenauer, they were starting B.J. Finney at left guard, but he was forced from the game with a back injury before the end of the first quarter, and Montravius Adams had been signed just days earlier in an effort to fortify a defensive line that was leaking oil.
Ahkello Witherspoon started in place of Haden; Adams started on the defensive line between Chris Wormley and Cam Heyward; and John Leglue went from the practice squad to the inactive list to significant playing time in very short order.
When it comes to the Steelers, Leglue, 25, is the veteran of the group, having been signed to the team's practice squad late in 2020. Entering the NFL as an undrafted rookie from Tulane, Leglue, 6-foot-7, 310 pounds, has played guard, tackle, and now with Finney possibly joining Hassenauer on the sideline with an injury, might be the backup center to Kendrick Green.
"If you remember we had some dog days in team development, when we were running really, really low on offensive linemen in August," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference on Monday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "And that's what I mean when I routinely say one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, because there was a block of days where we were really low on offensive linemen. And Leglue had an opportunity to learn and display position flexibility, and so that was a calling card, that was a place for him to hang his hat. He's been able to build from there and get better and take another opportunity due to somebody else's misfortune and prove that he belongs."
When Finney had to leave the game vs. the Ravens with a back injury, Leglue came on and played 57 of the Steelers 60 offensive snaps at left guard and did it anonymously in a 20-19 victory in which Roethlisberger was sacked only once.
"And that's what this game and this business is about," said Tomlin. "That's one of the things I really enjoy about being a part of it at this level. A lot of people got to know Robert Spillane a year ago in a different way than they thought maybe they knew him, because he had an opportunity to step up and play and play a lot because of injury at his (inside linebacker) position. That's what these journeys are about. That's why we don't discount any man, particularly a professional man who's working and working hard while he waits for his opportunity. This is not a patient man's business, but they better learn to work while they wait."
That's something Tomlin said Witherspoon did rather well. Acquired in an early September trade for a fifth-round pick in the 2023 draft, Witherspoon, 26, came to Pittsburgh with 51 games of NFL experience as an outside cornerback, including 34 as a starter. At 6-2, 195, he brought a resume to Pittsburgh that included 125 tackles, four interceptions, and 26 passes defensed. Against the Ravens he played all but two defensive snaps and contributed five tackles and a pass defensed on a ball deep down the field.
"It was one of the chief reasons we acquired him when we acquired him," said Tomlin. "He's a veteran guy who has assumed that role in the past, who has played starting football and played a lot of football. But he got on a moving train here, so he had to learn what to do and bide his time and wait for his opportunity. The opportunity presented itself, and he displayed readiness, which is not surprising to us. He's been engaged in the preparation process, whether he's had a significant role by plan or not. He's been highly professional in preparation, and so we're appreciative of his efforts and probably not overly surprised by him."
Because defensive linemen are not in abundant supply on the open market more than three months into a season, the Steelers' find of Adams, 26, might be their biggest coup. Tomlin said the team had scouted Adams, 6-3, 340, when he was a college player at Auburn, and Tomlin even had additional familiarity with him by attending his Pro Day and taking him out to dinner. Adams, who entered the NFL as a No. 3 pick by the Packers in the 2017 NFL Draft, finished the game vs. the Ravens with two tackles and a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage in his 34 defensive snaps.
Adams was signed days before the Ravens game and then was in the starting lineup last Sunday.
"Some jobs are easier to do on the fly than others," said Tomlin. "Generally with a defensive lineman, you tell them what gap to play in and you encourage them to stay in that gap, and it's good business. It'd be more challenging at some other positions, and so I'm appreciative of his efforts. I don't discount it, but it's probably one of the easier positions to kind of get on a moving train with when you really look at it from that perspective. And not to mention he was surrounded by some veteran guys who were very helpful from an assignment standpoint in Chris Wormley and Cam Heyward."
And what all players in the situation that Leglue, Adams, and Witherspoon were in earlier in the year is what Adams experienced in the immediate aftermath of the win over the Ravens.
"You know, it was good experience," said Tomlin about the team's initial dealings with Adams. "We had an opportunity to walk up the tunnel together, he and I, after the game and I expressed appreciation for his efforts, and he expressed appreciation for the opportunity. And that's what this game is about and particularly at this level. Guys getting opportunities and taking advantage of them, so I'm looking forward to getting to know him more, getting to know his game more, and hopefully elevate his game in an effort to help elevate us."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"It's pretty soon after the Ravens game, so I don't have a lot of clarity regarding some of the health issues. B.J. Finney is getting his back evaluated as we speak. He's at the doctor's office. I just saw Joe Haden (foot) in the training room getting some treatment as we speak, and so I don't have a lot of updates there. It's always challenging on a short week to have an inclusive mentality about those who are less than (physically) ready. You don't have a full practice participation to evaluate their physical readiness, and so that's a component of it. Then because of the quickness with which the week moves, there's not a lot of opportunity for people to get on a moving train. That being said, we'll focus on the healthy ones and get those guys ready to play."
An hour or so following Tomlin's news conference, the Steelers announced they had activated Robert Spillane from the Reserve/COVID 19 list, which means he will be eligible to play on Thursday night vs. the Vikings.