By Daniel Benjamin
The Pittsburgh Steelers are, kind of, in a must-win situation after their rally fell short in the waning seconds last week. The Steelers (11-3) head into Houston’s RNG Stadium on Christmas Day with a one-game win over the Jacksonville Jaguars (10-4) for the second seed in the AFC playoff chase and the all important first round bye.
Steelers will be without star wide receiver Antonio Brown
“We will have multiple guys trying to fill that spot,” Ben Roethlisberger told Steelers.com. “We have guys that are excited, willing to try and fill those shoes. I think Justin (Hunter) is going to be one, Martavis (Bryant) will do some stuff, and JuJu (Smith-Schuster). Everyone really is going to have to step their game up, that includes me. I am going to have to be better.”
Brown, the team’s top playmaker, partially tore his calf muscle early in the second quarter in the Steelers’ 27-24 loss to the New England Patriots on Dec. 17. He will miss the rest of the regular season, though he is expected to be back for the playoffs.
With Brown out, rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and third-year vet Martavis Bryant will likely get more targets. Smith-Schuster has been everything that the Steelers could have hoped for when they nabbed him late in the second round. The USC product produced his second 100-yard receiving game in his last five contests against the Patriots as he totaled six receptions for 114 yards.
Bryant, who has been working in Brown’s spot this week during practice, has come on strong in the recent weeks. Over the last four games, Bryant has come up with 18 catches on 28 targets for 172 yards and two touchdowns. He has pulled in at least four passes in each game during this stretch. Bryant has 41 receptions for 478 yards and three scores on the season.
Eli Rogers and tight ends Jesse James and Vance McDonald could also see more targets with Brown out. When Smith-Schuster’s one-game suspension caused him to miss the game against Baltimore on Dec. 10, those three players combined for 17 catches for 182 yards. James led the way with 10 receptions for 97 yards while McDonald had four catches and Rogers came up with three.
In addition, veteran Justin Hunter could be activated for the game.
Other injury concerns
The Steelers do have other injury concerns. Cornerback Coty Sensabaugh and starting left guard Ramon Foster are also listed as questionable. Foster was in concussion protocol following the New England game. He was limited in practice on Friday and did not participate at all on Saturday. Sensabaugh is currently dealing with a shoulder ailment. He was limited in practice on Friday, though he was able to go full tilt on Saturday.
Joe Haden and Marcus Gilbert slated to return
Haden is expected to be on the field against the Texans after missing the previous five games with an upper leg injury. If Haden is indeed able to go against the Texans, he will likely start opposite Artie Burns at left corner. However, it remains to be seen how much the two-time pro bowl selection will play.
The Steelers, who were ranked No. 2 in pass defense with Haden in the lineup, have struggled since the 28-year-old went out with the injury late in the first quarter in Week 10. Since Haden has been out, the Steelers have given up 230 yards via the air per game including several big plays.
Starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert will also make his return. Gilbert was activated by the Steelers from the inactive/suspended list for using performance enhancing drugs. To make room for the 29-year-old on the 53-man roster, the Steelers parted ways with linebacker James Harrison on Saturday.
Houston Texans Full Injury Report
The Texans officially put injured quarterback Tom Savage (concussion) on injured reserve on Saturday and have ruled out three players for Monday’s game. Starting right guard Jeff Allen (concussion), reserve offensive tackle Kendall Lamm (concussion) and backup outside linebacker LaTroy Lewis (shoulder) are the three players ruled out.
The loss of Allen and Lamm hurts the Texans’ struggling offensive line. It could be really disastrous if Su’a-Filo can’t go, either. The Texans have given up 45 sacks and are ranked 26th in pass blocking and 21st in run blocking in the league.
The good news for Houston is that star wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (toe) has been cleared to play after being limited all week. Starting left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (groin) and outside linebacker/defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (neck/knee) are also expected to play despite being limited in practice.
Steelers Full Injury Report
- WR Antonio Brown, Calf. Out.
- G Ramon Foster, Concussion. Questionable.
- CB Coty Sensabaugh. Shoulder. Questionable.