By Christina RIvers
Preparing for their first AFC North match-up against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-3 overall, 1-3 in division play), head coach Mike Tomlin has been keeping an eye on players and making some changes on the roster. Injuries against the Tennessee Titans has the offensive line looking thin, with only five healthy players to be listed as active.
Jacques McClendon was signed to the practice squad on Tuesday. The 6’3” guard was drafted in 2010 (129th overall) by the Indianapolis Colts, who then traded him to the Detroit Lions. McClendon has little to no playing time, which is why Tomlin has indicated that the team will be “leaning on” players on the active roster.
“Those that are going to help us win the football game this weekend,” Tomlin said, “are in our building and have been in our building.”
Additionally, the Steelers signed defensive end Corbin Bryant to the active roster. Signed as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Northwestern University prior to the beginning of training camp in 2011, Bryant appeared in one game for the Steelers in 2011 before returning to the practice squad.
A total of seven Steelers players were not active in practice on Wednesday. That included T Marcus Gilbert who flew to Charlotte, North Carolina, Monday to see a specialist regarding a tendon injury in his ankle. Though the injury will not require surgery, Tomlin said that Gilbert will not play in Cincinnati and will be listed week-to-week.
LB Chris Carter (hamstring), RB Rashard Mendenhall (Achilles), C Maurkice Pouncey (knee), RB Issac Redman (ankle), S Troy Polamalu (calf) were also unable to participate Wednesday. LB Lawrence Timmons has a foot injury, but is expected to play Sunday. Additionally, LB Brandon Johnson was limited in practice due to a hamstring injury.
When asked about how many offensive lineman he would dress for the Bengals game, coach Tomlin said, “I think eight linemen is a serious discussion that’s going to take place given the circumstance.” He added, “Obviously, with Marcus (Gilbert) being down and let’s say Maurkice Pouncey makes it, obviously you’d want to fortify yourself in that situation.” According to Tomlin, the team will make adjustments in practice as the game approaches. Mike Adams will get the start in place of the injured Gilbert.
There is some light on the horizon for rookie guard David DeCastro (on the IR/designated for return list). DeCastro was able to run during Monday’s practice, increasing his rehabilitation program. The team is not pushing him at this point, allowing him to completely rehab before he sees any playing time in practice.
Following practice on Monday, Mendenhall stated that he plans on being prepared to play Sunday night. “[The ankle] is a little tight. We’re just kind of working through it this week. I’m just taking it day-by-day.” Mendenhall and Redman have both been working hard, but Mendenhall added, “I know we’re both trying to get back. We’ll be day-to-day. Come Sunday night we’ll know for sure.”
Fellow running back Jonathan Dwyer is currently at the top of the roster for the Bengals game, but has been inactive for the last two weeks. On Monday, Dwyer told the press, “I am just preparing for (the game) and am excited to the get the opportunity. I just have to do what I have been doing. I try to make some type of play to get the team going and do whatever I can to help us get the win.” If Mendenhall and Redman can’t return in time for the Bengals game, Baron Batch will most likely be Dwyer’s backup.
The Steelers have watched the Bengals offense grow under Coach Jay Gruden and Andy Dalton. Their biggest concern may be wide receiver A.J. Green, who has wracked up 43 receptions for 628 yards and six touchdowns. Green’s longest catch this season went for 73 yards and resulted in a touchdown. In addition to Green, the Bengals have tight end Jermaine Gresham who has been effective in matchups with linebackers and is considered a vertical threat. Andrew Hawkins has become the “gadget man” in the Bengals offense, playing the slot on the weak side, especially in an empty set, but is limited due to a back injury. According to Gruden, Hawkins (back) is “a little worn down”, so he might see limited playing time Sunday. The Steelers will be pressed up front by the Bengals’ offensive line who are able to dial up blitz packages and use an effective four-man rush.
The Bengals have several players that may not be ready to play on Sunday. Third-down back Brian Leonard (hip) was unable to practice on Wednesday. DT Pat Sims (hamstring) is listed as out against the Steelers, as was defensive end/SAM backer Dontay Moch. Limited on Wednesday was DT Devon Still (shoulder) and right guard Kevin Zeitler (elbow).
“We’re excited about the challenge this week holds for us,” Tomlin admitted. “We had a good bonus day (Monday) with practice and preparation…we are putting together a game plan. We know what we are. We are a 2-3 football team who obviously haven’t won on the road. There is no time like the present to change that.” According to Tomlin, the mentality of the team is to make corrections and prepare for a win. “We have to put ourselves in position to take action, and that will occur on Sunday.”
Before Wednesday’s practice, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger offered his thoughts on Sunday’s game. “It’s our first game in the AFC North. We need to play our best football. Our first goal on the road is to try to get off to a fast start so we can take the crowd out of it.” He gave an analysis on the overall state of the team, saying, “We just want to get down to business. We haven’t gotten into a rhythm yet where we play every Sunday…we just want to get back out there and play football.”
To combat Bengals DT Geno Atkins, the Steelers are relying on their offensive line to use leverage of their own. They aren’t just going to focus on Atkins, however, but on stifling the attack by Geathers, Dunlap, Johnson and Peko as well.
Defensively, the Steelers will have LaMarr Woodley back in the mix to disrupt Cincinnati’s offense. The bookends of Harrison and Woodley have been effective in the past, but have had little playing time together in 2012 due to both players having injuries to overcome.
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Christina Rivers is freelance journalist and photographer with a life-long love of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Credentialed with the organization, Christina provides a unique perspective gained through her knowledge and understanding of Steelers history, the Rooney family and relationships with past and present players. Her work can be found on Examiner.com.