Labriola On

T.J., Minkah, Haden expected to return

It appears reinforcements are on the way. And just in the nick of time.

Last Sunday night, the Steelers faced the Los Angeles Chargers with a defense weakened by the absence of T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Isaiahh Loudermilk, and that reality made the chore of defending Justin Herbert and his stable of weapons too difficult for the personnel on hand.

Without Haden, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback and a veteran of 154 NFL regular season games, safety Fitzpatrick and outside linebacker Watt, both of whom have been voted first-team All-Pro twice, and defensive lineman Loudermilk, the Steelers ran out of gas and options in what ended up being a 41-37 loss to the Chargers.

Haden (foot) and Watt (hip/knee) were injured in the tie with the Lions on Nov. 14, Loudermilk was added to the injury report after injuring his groin on Thursday before missing practice on Friday, and Fitzpatrick was sidelined after being placed in the COVID protocol. As Coach Mike Tomlin put it during his news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, "With the configuration of people that we had available to us on defense, we probably should have done some things differently. More out of our personality, to be quite honest with you."

The Chargers scored on each of their first five possessions – three touchdowns and two field goals – to take a 27-10 lead into the fourth quarter. For the whole game, the Steelers defense allowed 33 first downs, 533 total net yards, and 7.7 average yards per each of the Chargers 69 offensive plays, while forcing just one punt.

And the absence of Loudermilk put more stress on a defensive line that has Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, and Carlos Davis on injured reserve. As a result, Cam Heyward played 62 of the game's 76 defensive snaps (82 percent), while Chris Wormley played 57, Isaiah Buggs played 28, and Henry Mondeaux played 27. It speaks to the situation along the defensive line that Loudermilk, a fifth-round pick in April who initially was seen to be a developmental player possibly needing a seasoning year on the practice squad, has become an integral part of the game day rotation.

"(Loudermilk was ready to take on a bigger role), and he was in the process of doing so," said Tomlin. "If you look at his participation, I think it was consistently going up until he got hurt at practice the other day. He's growing in all areas. He's growing vs. the run. He's growing vs. the pass. His production is revealing that in all areas as well. You know, he's a guy who's on the upswing. And so hopefully he can continue that when he gets back to us."

Based on what Tomlin said Tuesday, there is legitimate belief that will happen sooner rather than later, and Loudermilk very well could be joined by Watt, Haden, and Fitzpatrick in returning to the fold. Just in time for a significant AFC North game in Cincinnati against the Bengals at 1 p.m. this Sunday.

"From an injury standpoint, we had two guys who went down in the (Chargers) game that required further evaluation," said Tomlin. "They're still in the process of being evaluated, that is Eric Ebron (knee) and J.C. Hassenauer (pectoral). I don't have a detailed update on them as I sit here, but I would characterize their availability (for the Bengals game) as questionable at the least at this point. I'll have more information to be displayed through practice participation as we go through the week.

"Guys who we have a level of anticipation for a return are Minkah and T.J. and Joe Haden and Loudermilk. And so obviously we could utilize the assistance of those guys. We'll let their first (practice) availability happen, and then the quality of their practice and prep and things relative to their return be the consideration to how much you see them."

And if things go well, the Steelers won't have to patch together a defense to face a Bengals offense that will offer quarterback Joe Burrow, running back Joe Mixon, and receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd.

"I didn't do very well last week (of patching together a defense)," said Tomlin, "and hopefully that won't be the challenge of this week as we prepare. As I mentioned, a lot of those guys will be back to us."

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