Yesterday was the day for excitement. Today turned into a day for perspective.
There was considerable excitement at the Steelers' facility yesterday, because it marked the occasion when four previously-injured defensive players – all of them starters back on opening day – returned to practice. With every team in the AFC North owning seven wins and with five weekends left in this regular season, the notion that the Steelers defense seemed on the cusp of getting several key players back had created a positive buzz.
Those players – Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ryan Shazier, and Jarvis Jones – might already be back on the practice field, but when, if, and how much they will be able to contribute on the ensuing five Sundays that will determine whether the Steelers make the playoffs is still a big TBD.
During his news conference today, Coach Mike Tomlin offered an explanation of each player's status:
On Polamalu: "Troy practiced yesterday. He's coming off a knee sprain. We're going to let his practice participation and the result of that be our guide in terms of his availability, but we're not anticipating any major issues."
After starting the first nine games, Polamalu sprained a knee in the second quarter of that ninth game – vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field. He missed the games against the Jets and Titans and also benefitted from the bye week. With almost a month to heal, Polamalu can be expected to play on Sunday, and his pedigree and experience figures to have him right back in the starting lineup, where Will Allen had been filling in at strong safety.
On Taylor**: "Ike Taylor practiced, but Ike Taylor has been practicing (for a while) coming off his forearm fracture. He's excited about being back out there in the midst of things. Again, with no negative reactions to participation (in practice) we anticipate having Ike in some form or fashion (against New Orleans). Ike has missed a significant amount of time. Not only does Ike have to prove his health, but Ike also has to prove his overall readiness. Ike and I have had a running joke for a number of years, but it's true, particularly at this level: 'Every day, you have to prove your love for this game, and your capability.' He embraces that, and he has been doing that for a long time. He doesn't run away from it, and it's something he's going to have to prove this week."
In the fourth game of this season, Taylor sustained a severe broken forearm, and he had plates surgically inserted to facilitate the bone's healing. It has been more than two months since Taylor has played, and there figures to be some period of adjustment in terms of getting back into the contact aspects of the sport. Taylor also should play against the Saints, but he's probably not as sure a thing to be right back in the starting lineup as Polamalu.
On Shazier: "Ryan Shazier is coming off an ankle injury. He practiced yesterday. We'll watch him closely throughout the course of the week and let that participation be our guide for him. He's not in a similar circumstance as Troy and Ike. Troy and Ike have got a decade of experience of playing in our system of defense, and sometimes it's just a matter of them getting healthy and being able to get back out there and play. We'll watch not only (Shazier's) level of participation but the quality of his execution. He's missed some time. He's a young guy. He's got to prove to us that he can execute in great detail."
A rookie, Shazier's first NFL season has seen him miss more than half the time – practice plus games – since training camp opened. Since the start of the regular season, Shazier has missed six full games with injuries (right knee, and right ankle) and parts of two others. That, plus the pl
ay of Sean Spence and Vince Williams in his stead, could dictate a much slower path back into the lineup for Shazier.
On Jones: "With Jarvis Jones, we started the clock in terms of his practice participation. He'll have three weeks before we have to make a decision on whether or not to activate him. It could come soon. It could come at the end of the three weeks. More than anything, it's about him getting acclimated to the cast (on his wrist) and us getting a level of comfort with his overall execution."
Jones dislocated his wrist on Sept. 21 against Carolina, and he was placed on injured reserve/designated to return, where he spent nine weeks. Jason Worilds struggled to come back from the wrist injury he sustained a couple of years ago, and that particular part of the body is very important to an outside linebacker who finds himself engaged in a lot of hand-to-hand combat with offensive linemen and tight ends. How much strength has Jones lost? How quickly can he regain it? How effective can he be in the meantime?
Based on the way James Harrison and Arthur Moats have been playing, expecting Jones to return to the starting lineup this season seems an unrealistic expectation, but he could contribute in spots and on special teams.
THE REST OF TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Steve McLendon (shoulder) could be listed as questionable. We'll see what he looks like, and the padded participation day – if there is one this week – will be a big component of his participation.
"Cortez Allen broke his thumb at practice prior to the Tennessee game. We cast it, and he played with it on that Monday night. After the Monday night game he had it fixed surgically, had a pin or two inserted into it, and has been fitted with a cast to accommodate that pin. We need to watch his effectiveness, and his utilization of that hand. Can he punch? Can he get his hands on people? Can he re-route? Can he disrupt in a manner that allows him to be effective in the ways he needs to be? We'll be watching him this week.
"We've had some guys who have had minor bumps and bruises and so forth, soft tissue injuries, who appear to be ready to go, whether it's Shamarko Thomas or Ross Ventrone or others. We anticipate those guys being fully available to us."