By Christina Rivers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are looking at their week 13 home game against the New Orleans Saints as an opportunity to give a strong performance in the final quarter of the 2014 NFL regular season. On Tuesday, Head Coach Mike Tomlin outlined several areas of focus he feels are key to Pittsburgh’s success. Buzz at the Steelers’ practice facility has been high as players returned to practice and the team pulls together to be successful.
Monday saw several key players return to practice after missing games due to injury. Safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, and linebackers Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones all returned, but Tomlin was clear that not all of them will progress in their status at the same pace. After Polamalu sprained a knee in the second quarter of the week nine game against the Baltimore Ravens, the veteran benefitted from nearly a month to heal.
“(Polamalu) practiced yesterday,” said Tomlin. “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.” Polamalu is likely to play and will replace Will Allen who had filled in during his abscence. Taylor has missed a significant amount of time after fracturing his forearm. With plates surgically inserted, Taylor has been limiting his practice time to non-contact drills. Tomlin was hopeful, saying, “With no negative reactions to participation (in practice) we anticipate having (Taylor) in some form or fashion (against New Orleans).”
As for Shazier and Jones, they will be monitored closely this week in preparations for the game. Both are young players and Tomlin pointed out that due to the significant time both players have missed, there will be a focus on getting both men not only in playing shape, but also mentally prepared to re-enter the Steelers defense. Tomlin indicated that they will give Jones three weeks before the team decides to officially activate him from the IR-designated to return list. With a dislocated wrist that remaining in a cast, Tomlin and the Steelers don’t want to see Jones struggle like Jason Worilds did a couple seasons ago from a similar injury. Arthur Moats and James Harrison have been starting at the outside linebacker position and it is likely that Jones will not return as a starter at that position in 2014.
Cortez Allen has a cast on a surgically-repaired thumb and Steve McLendon continues to experience pain in his shoulder, but Tomlin believes that Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone (both safeties) to be available to the team.
The AFC has become a dominant force in the league this season and nine teams in the conference all have at least seven wins. With the playoff picture still fluid, Tomlin is focused on his team’s performance, not on how teams are seeded from day to day. “If we do what we need to do an a week-in and week-out basis in terms of our business…then it’s not going to be required that we look around,” Tomlin said of comparing other teams who may end up in the hunt for the post-season. “We play some significant people moving forward (with) New Orleans being the most significant because that’s who we play this week.”
Rookie running backs Dri Archer and Josh Harris will be one area that Tomlin feels will be significant against New Orleans. “Just because (Archer) has a limited number of carries in his career and (Harris) has none doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors to our efforts not only this week but moving forward,” Tomlin insisted. “To be quite honest with you, I don’t think that the group that works with them is lacking confidence in the abilities of either guy. I think that everyone is probably excited to watch them and see what they can do in terms of helping us win.” Le’Veon Bell posted a photo on his Facebook page showing himself working with Harris and offering encouragement – a good sign that the running backs have respect for each other. “(Harris is) a big time competitor,” admitted Tomlin. “He’s a finisher.”
Tomlin said that the Steelers are preparing for any assault Drew Brees may be planning on Sunday. Brees has a core group that Pittsburgh will also focus on, including tight end Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston, Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Travaris Cadet. Tomlin called Graham a “matchup problem” for most linebackers in the league due to the way he uses his size and agility. As for how Pittsburgh will cover Graham, Tomlin indicated, “It’s probably going to be a combination of people in terms of having coverage responsibility…trying to minimize his impact on the game.” Pittsburgh has struggled during the 2014 season against teams with big tight ends (Jordan Cameron in Cleveland and Greg Olsen in Carolina). Tomlin said that due to the effectiveness of the Saint offense, the Steelers will require their defense to play strong, positional football and maintain their assignments to be effective.
With a hybrid-type defense, Tomlin expects that Junior Galette could pose pash-rush issues for the Steelers offensive line, saying, “Guards have to be prepared to block this guy.” Cameron Jordan has combined with Galette to disrupt opposing offenses and Mike Munchak has his hands full getting the offensive front that struggled against the Tennessee Titans in Week 11 ready to face more than a three-man rush. Tomlin expects that Keenan Lewis, if he is ready despite a sore foot, will be battling with Steelers receiver Antonio Brown the entire game.
“We have to be singularly focused on what is in front of us,” said Tomlin. “This task and this opportunity has a lot in it. I look forward to pushing through the week with the men and ultimately meeting it.”
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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