With their power trio of veterans at inside linebacker whittled down to one following injuries to Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander in the past two weeks, the Steelers will rely more on veteran Elandon Roberts moving forward.
But what they won't do – at least at this point – is look outside for additional help. They'll look within to provide possible replacements.
"We're not looking outside the organization to be quite honest with you in terms of solutions regarding those issues," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
That means Roberts will likely become more of a full-time player, while second-year pro Mark Robinson will see more playing time, as well.
"We're going to lean on Elandon Roberts, but that's why we brought him here," Tomlin said of the eight-year veteran. "He's a defensive quarterback in mentality and a really good communicator, a really good above-the-neck player. He does a really good job in those areas. We hadn't been playing him, in some situations or possession-down moments, but we might expand his role in some of those areas for benefit of communication and fluidity in that area. But those are things that we get an opportunity to ponder over the course of a preparation week."
Roberts, acquired as a free agent in the offseason along with Holcomb and Alexander, now leads the Steelers with 56 tackles while also recording 1.5 sacks. He had eight tackles in last Sunday's 23-19 win over the Packers.
The Steelers (6-3) get back into AFC North competition this week when they travel to Cleveland to face the Browns (6-3). They will then travel to Cincinnati the following week, so having some upheaval at inside linebacker isn't ideal in these important games.
That could also be why the Steelers aren't looking outside the organization for additional help. They'd rather line up with the players who have been with them to this point rather than trying to get a player from the outside ready to play in an important stretch of games.
Tomlin also stressed that the Steelers have two veteran off-ball linebackers in Tariq Carpenter and Mykal Walker on their practice squad, as well.
The Steelers elevated Carpenter against the Packers, while Walker has yet to be elevated this season. That's likely to change this week.
"We've got guys that we're comfortable with," Tomlin said. "We've kind of been forward thinking with you in the acquisition of some of our practice squad guys. They're not there because they are developmental players, they're there because they're capable players.
"Myk Walker is a guy that played in Atlanta and had 100-plus tackles a year ago. He's not on our practice squad for development. He's on our practice squad to learn what to do and to position and ready himself for a moment such as what's going to probably transpire this weekend. Tariq has been a guy that's been on our practice squad for developmental defensive reasons, yes, but also because he was a known special teams commodity. I think he had nine special teams tackles for the Green Bay Packers a year ago. And so when we put him in a helmet last week and asked him to absorb a core special teams roll, we were not surprised he was able to be productive and make a tackle on kickoff."
One thing is certain, the Steelers can't afford to have some of the miscommunication issues they had against the Packers.
The Steelers allowed seven pass plays of 20 or more yards against the Packers, but stopped Green Bay when it mattered most, limiting them to one touchdown in five trips inside their 20, including getting interceptions on the Packers' final two possessions.
Already playing without safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who missed his second game in a row with a hamstring injury, the Steelers also were without Holcomb, who had been their defensive play caller. Then, Alexander, who had taken over play-calling duties, left early in the first half, leaving Roberts as the primary play caller.
"Attrition is a component in this game. One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity, we will never run away from that component of it," Tomlin said. "I'm talking about the challenge of communication. … It was challenging from a communication and experience standpoint in that regard, as that game unfolded, and that's what made it really sweet to be able to make the plays in the waning moments to win.
"But probably the reason why they get down there, to be quite honest with you, is the lack of some of those guys, as well. And so, we have to prepare what it is we've got to be smart with what it is that we do, how we divide the labor up and what these opportunities mean for those who get an opportunity for expanded roles."
Freiermuth trending up: Tight end Pat Freiermuth has been on injured reserve since suffering a hamstring injury in a Week 5 win over the Ravens.
But Tomlin said Freiermuth is progressing well and could have his 21-day window to return to play opened this week with the potential to play against the Browns on Sunday.
"(I) feel good about Pat Freiermuth," Tomlin said. "We'll watch him go through the week and look at the quality of his work and in the amount and let that be a determining factor – but I feel good about his potential availability."
Tomlin was not quite as optimistic about a potential return for Fitzpatrick. The All-Pro safety has missed the past two games with a hamstring injury. The same goes for nose tackle Montravius Adams, who missed the game against the Packers with an ankle injury.
"Mon Adams has has an ankle injury he's working through. We'll see what that does to his availability," Tomlin said. "Minkah and his hamstring are the same thing. How much they're available during the course of the week as a determining factor and obviously the quality of their work."
Safety Keanu Neal suffered a rib injury at the end of an interception return late in the game against Green Bay and could be slowed early in the week by that.
Tomlin said the Steelers will make a decision on what to do with Alexander, who reportedly suffered an Achilles' tendon injury, later this week.
Easing them into it: There were a lot of questions early in the season as to why the team's top rookies weren't playing as much as some thought they warranted.
But now, Broderick Jones has started the past two games at right tackle, Joey Porter Jr. has worked his way into the lineup as a starting cornerback and Keeanu Benton made his first career start last week in place of Adams at nose tackle.
That trio, all taken in the first 49 picks in this year's draft, are all getting plenty of playing time now.
Tomlin said that was part of the plan to minimize overuse.
"I think they're just beginning to write that story," Tomlin said. "We've really been intentional about integrating them into play. Oftentimes, this journey that is an NFL season is a long haul for a rookie. You think the preseason games are not significant, but for rookie every time they step into a preseason stadium, it's the biggest game of their life. And so they play really three tough, significant games before the season even starts. And so we understand that and we want them to be guys on the rise in the significant moments at the end of the season. We want them to be arrow-pointed-up-type people. And so we've been thoughtful and intentional about their growth and development."