It’s no secret around the South Side all week that tomorrow’s game with the Eagles may end up being the biggest game of the season (especially if the Steelers don’t win). The rest of the division and conference is building some separation, and the gap for the Steelers may be too wide to close if they fall to 1-3.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, and unfortunately, the Steelers are just about at full strength coming out of the bye week. That means welcome back James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and amazingly, Rashard Mendenhall. The Steelers’ leading rusher will get into the lineup for the first time since suffering that serious knee injury in last year’s regular season finale in Cleveland.
Think about that, a running back that relies on making cuts and being elusive is back only four games into the season after a major knee injury.
It was surprising when the Steelers kept him active coming out of camp, but when Mendenhall makes it on the field tomorrow, it’s going to be against most odds except his own. Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was clear in the offseason he never counts on anything from a running back for a full year after knee surgery because of the rigors of the position. He’s getting a pleasant surprise at Heinz Field if Mendenhall is able to contribute.
With Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers are hoping to revive their rushing attack. He’s also very good catching the ball out of the backfield, which is an element that seems much more prominent in Todd Haley’s offense.
One other interesting element several players brought up with Mendenhall is that he instantly improves their play-action game as well.
That brings us to a couple of Eagles injuries that could slow down their stifling defense especially on the front seven. The only player already ruled out for the Eagles is their starting outside linebacker Akeem Jordan. He’s been out a couple of games with a hamstring injury. Jordan’s loss thins out the depth at linebacker for Philly, but it’s pretty clear they have figured out a way to play without him.
Maybe more interesting in the interior running game for the Steelers will be the status of Eagles Right Defensive Tackle Derek Landri. He’s listed as questionable with a knee issue but did practice yesterday.
If he plays, Landri will be lined up over Willie Colon and Maurkice Pouncey. That is easily the strongest side of the Steelers interior line. At a position so much about power and leverage, it will be interesting to see if Colon and Pouncey can exploit a hobbled Landri. That match-up may be a key to getting the Steelers running game on track.
The defensive side of the ball is where the Steelers gain the most this week. Troy Polamalu is back, but in my opinion, the most important player returning for the Steelers is James Harrison. The defense has struggled to generate a pass rush and LaMarr Woodley has seen a ton of double teams as the Raiders, Jets and Broncos were content to take their chances with Chris Carter and Jason Worilds on the other side.
If Harrison is close to full strength in his season debut from a knee injury, he could open things up significantly for a Steelers pass rush that has struggled to pressure Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer. Say what you want about the defensive backs, but the Steelers defense is predicated around getting pressure and forcing sacks and game-changing plays. Without that pressure, it’s hard to ask the defensive backs to hold up in coverage for lengthy periods of time. The proof of Harrison’s value is in last year’s results. The Steelers were a completely different defense in the few weeks both Woodley and Harrison were healthy and playing together.
A healthy Harrison will likely be lined up most against Eagles left tackle king, Dunlap, who is trying to play through a hamstring problem. Dunlap is questionable, but practiced in Philly’s final workout of the week. But a hamstring injury could be a tough deal to overcome at left tackle where Dunlap will need that first step and leverage to deal with the burst and low center of gravity James Harrison uses to his advantage. If Dunlap can’t go and Harrison is truly fully recovered, you’ll take your chances any day against a back-up tackle.