By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers (3-3) will be without defensive tackle Steve McLendon against the Houston Texans (3-3) on Monday night. Houston will likely be without linebacker Jadeveon Clowny despite the rookie being limited in participation on Friday. How practices shape up on Saturday will determine the final rosters, but likely won’t indicate any big surprises.
The Steelers defense will see the most rotation in their roster against Houston. McLendon (shoulder) and cornerback Ike Taylor are the only players ruled out of the game against a Texans team that sits at second place in the AFC South yet shares the same win-loss record as Pittsburgh. Rookie defensive tackle Daniel McCullers is expected to see more playing time this week as is Stephon Tuitt at defensive end due to injuries that may limit Brett Keisel (knee) and Cameron Heyward (ankle). Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau described McCullers as the kind of player who has “got enough strength that he doesn’t always have to be the lowest guy [in a block].” “He’s still very difficult to move even if sometimes they do get under him,” said LeBeau. “I think Coach Garret Giemont has done a good job down there in the strength and conditioning area of things and I think all our players develop under (him).” Tuitt spent quite a bit of time with the first-team defense during training camp and LeBeau indicated on Thursday that the Steelers plan is to get young players as many snaps as possible so that they develop appropriately for NFL-level game experiences. “(Tuitt is) a young player. He’s got great raw material, tremendous size,” LeBeau said, “he’s got really outstandng athletic ability. He’s going to be a good player, you can write that down.”
With rookie Shaquille Richardson having been moved onto the injured-reserved list, cornerbacks Brice McCain and Cortez Allen will be called on to aid in the Pittsburgh defensive backfield. With moving parts in the defensive scheme due to injuries and inconsistencies, the question was put before the team as to how they would step up to the challenge. LeBeau told the media, “It has to be that way in the NFL and the next man up has to step in there and do his job.” LeBeau not only expects his defense to stop the rushing game that Houston puts into action, spearheaded by Arian Foster, but to defend cutbacks and and receivers from being able to put points on the board from Ryan Fitzpatrick passes. As for his front seven, LeBeau said that every player will have to play their gap and remain on their toes, forcing the Texans to the sidelines and out of the center of the field. “If there’s no gap, there’s no play,” LeBeau explained. “You got to have good leverage at the point of attack…it’s not that difficult.”
On offense, the Steelers are healthy despite an illness that fullback Will Johnson suffered from this week in practice, but they are looking to put the right personnel on the field to win. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley specifically addressed the blitz potential that the Texans offer with J.J. Watt and their defensive front. “We always know percentage wise what teams are doing before we play them,” said Haley. “Sometimes blitzes are run-stopping blitzes. Sometimes they are for specific pass situations where they are trying to get to the quarterback. So we have to handle pressure and non-pressure and execute, and be successful whether we are running it or throwing it.” Haley called Watt “the real deal” and offensive line coach Mike Munchak spent time during the week preparing for the onslaught.
Rookie receiver Martavis Bryant spent the week preparing for a possible start on Monday, but Haley didn’t exactly give any indication on Thursday that head coach Mike Tomlin had made a decision, even after Friday’s practice. “We will see,” said Haley. “So far, so good. There have been some ups and downs but it’s a little different when you aren’t on cards (running the scout team), because you have to start thinking more…but (Bryant) has done a good job.” Bryant may be the solution the Steelers are looking for in the red zone if he is ready to go Monday. His preparation may push receivers Lance Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Markus Wheaton to step up their own play.
Haley admitted that after studying red zone performance over the course of the last six weeks, it was easy to say the team wasn’t successful, but that there were eleven plays that stood out due to a penalty, sack or dropped pass. “We dropped balls in the end zone that cost us four points because we had to settle for a field goal,” said Haley of the Cleveland Browns week six contest. “I counted 37 points…we left out on the field by getting no points in most cases.” Haley said that means the team needs to play smarter. “We need guys to make plays in the red zone but like I said, the book is out,” said Haley. “We are going to see eight in the box and man-to-man coverage. We are going to have to have guys make plays…we have to bank those points whenever we can.
On Thursday, safety Mike Mitchell (knee) was unable to participate in practice but returned to limited participation on Friday to join Johnson, Keisel and linebacker Ryan Shazier. Safety Shamarko Thomas saw limited participation on Thursday, but was unable to practice on Friday. Saturday practice will determine whether Johnson, Keisel, Mitchell, Heyward and Ryan Shazier are able to move to “probable” on the roster.
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Christina Rivers has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers and National Football League professionally as a reporter and photographer for over a decade. Rivers studied exercise physiology and sports psychology at Brigham Young University as a student-athlete. Christina is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. Her work can be found on