Mike Tomlin is a bottom-line guy, and as one he would rate the Steelers' first outing without Aaron Smith as a failure simply because the team lost the game to the New Orleans Saints, 20-10.
But there are some nuanced layers to the issue as well, and Tomlin talked about some of those at his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex.
Smith's injury was revealed to be a partially torn triceps muscle, and it was repaired with surgery on Monday, Oct. 25. After that procedure, Tomlin made the decision to keep Smith on the active roster based on the reports he got, and in his mind there is nothing to update this early in the process.
"Again it is an extended period of time, a number of weeks with Aaron," said Tomlin. "We know the quality of player and person that he is. We're going to be hopeful when there's hope, and there is. Aaron is of the same mentality. So that's going well. Once we get down this road a number of weeks we'll be able to evaluate recovery and progress to be able to nail down a range. At this point, it's safe to say he'll be out an extended period of time."
That means a lot of playing time for second-year pro Ziggy Hood, who started at Smith's left end spot last Sunday. With young players, Tomlin has been known to take a week-by-week approach to the amount of their playing time, and it seems as though Hood can expect to see more action against the Bengals on Monday night.
"I thought Ziggy played well in the game, as did Nick Eason," said Tomlin. "They did a nice job. He was in his gap. He made the necessary plays when they were presented to him. I've been pleased with his performance. And really, it needs to continue and move upward as we proceed."
Hood had two tackles against the Saints, and Eason – starting for the second straight week because of Brett Keisel's hamstring injury – had four tackles as part of a run defense that allowed the Saints 30 yards on 21 attempts. Hood also had two tackles on Sept. 26 against Tampa Bay, but four tackles in seven games isn't likely to be what he had in mind for his second NFL season.
"This is not a patient man's business," said Tomlin. "He's not a patient young man, and I like that about him. But his progress is going to be measured in snaps and snap opportunities. And for him and for me, it can't come quick enough."
Of Keisel's prognosis, Tomlin said, "We anticipate him getting some work (in practice) and go from there, but we're extremely hopeful of him being back in the mix."
If Keisel is able to play against the Bengals – and the fact the game is on a Monday night probably enhances those chances by giving the hamstring an extra day – then he would return to his starting spot at right end and maybe put Eason in a competition with Hood for the starting spot at left end.
But whatever the starting configuration, the Steelers believe in utilizing a rotation for players along the defensive line, which means first-year player Steve McLendon now is a part of the mix. Previously, McLendon was brought up from the practice squad for the games at Tennessee and vs. Baltimore before being returned to the practice squad immediately after each one, but his addition to the roster in the wake of Smith's injury sounds like it's going to be for a while.
"I think he has an upside of course, and that's why we're working with him and call on him when given the opportunity," said Tomlin about McLendon. "A lot of teams, when injuries hit, go outside the organization for potential solutions. We like the men we work with, and we believe that if they prepare themselves, and if they are ready, we like to start there in terms of giving them opportunities to answer the bell. (McLendon) has provided a nice platform for the other young men in how to prepare and put yourself into position to answer to bell. I think the work that he has done and is doing is creating opportunity for others."
Some might believe the cost of adding McLendon was too high, because the Steelers waived No. 4 pick Thaddeus Gibson to open a roster spot. Gibson, who flashed some abilities as a pass rushing outside linebacker during training camp, was claimed off waivers by the San Francisco 49ers.
"(McLendon) is a young man who was called upon for a third time and has played good football," said Tomlin. "It's not necessarily about the pure number of snaps that he played. It's more about his availability. You don't want to go in short, particularly in a defensive line. It was a definitive, necessary maneuver. If I had to, I'd do it again."