Thursday practice during Cincinnati Bengals week brings some clarity while also highlighting some unknowns to the Pittsburgh Steelers' injury situation heading into a critical game in the AFC North race.
WRs Hines Ward (head) and Jerricho Cotchery (knee) practiced fully and appear ready to go for the game Sunday in Cincinnati against the NFL's fourth-ranked defense. Also, offensive lineman Doug Legursky is back from his toe injury and will provide key backup depth at a minimum. LG Chris Kemoeatu has been playing nicked up all year, though, and it's possible Legursky could work his way in for some LG reps with the starting unit as well.
Defensively, S Troy Polamalu sat out of both Wednesday and Thursday practices this week with a rib injury and his status for the weekend is unknown. Polamalu spoke to reporters afterward but would give no hint about his probability of playing. LaMarr Woodley also did not practice, and the OLB would appear to be a very long shot of taking the field. Finally, fellow OLB James Harrison was limited in practice with a toe issue, meaning there is a chance Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds will both be on the field at outside 'backer during the game, promoting Stevenson Sylvester to reps at inside linebacker alongside Larry Foote. My hunch is Harrison plays, but he may not be at 100%.
Foote put it best when he said, "mentally you want to call it a must-win game because you don't want to have four losses and be down. It's a big game, we've got to win it." The Steelers could lose and overcome it, with none of their six post-bye week opponents having even a top twenty-ranked passing offense. However, it would put the team's remaining margin for error at basically zero for a schedule that does present two prime-time western road trips to Kansas City and San Francisco.
As always on Thursday, the Steelers' coodinators speak to the press. Here is the transcript from today's chat with offensive playcaller Bruce Arians:
Why are the Bengals so good on defense?
"'Zim' is a great coach. He's got them playing hard, they're very sound in everything they do. Had a couple nice acquisitions in the offseason. Good four deep rotation in the defensive line. Excellent young pass rushers. They're playing hard. We've always felt they're very solid on defense."
Are Jerricho and Hines ready to go?
"We hope. They're getting better. They practiced today and it looks like they're going to make it."
Are you getting healthy on the offensive line?
"Yeah, it's nice to see Doug out there and it'll be a decision here the next couple days to see who is ready to go. Big change from the first six or seven weeks but it's nice to have them all here. The starting lineup should be the same. And depending on backups now, I don't have to worry about Pouncey getting hurt quite as bad. Knock on wood."
(Arians also confirmed Ramon Foster will stay as starter at RG "for sure")
On his late-game offensive philosophy last week
"We had to make two first downs, three first downs, last week. We got one, and then the two runs got stuffed. And then we didn't make that last one, that last one was huge on third and five. To me, that's not a running down. When they stack it up and go into their goal line or nine-man fronts, it's easier to throw it than to run it for one and punt it. We're trying to keep our defense off the field. We took a shot in that drive and thought we had it, we ended up getting about eight or nine but we went for the throat on that play when we split the field with Mike [Wallace] and Antonio [Brown]. We're trying to do everything we can to never put the defense back out on the field."
Would you have liked to have gone for it on 4th-down?
"No, I thought coach made a great call. Everybody was concerned about the length of that field goal to the open end of the stadium. We've got to feel good about punting it down there to the eight-yard line if we didn't make a first down, and 28 more yards, make them go."
On Ben's interception to Terrell Suggs:
"They brought a blitz off the other side and 'Suggsie' dropped into it, and he made a great play. There's not too many defensive ends who can jump up and catch a pass, and he made a great play."
On the Bengals' secondary:
"Really solid. Especially if they get Pacman back in there. They have a nice corps. [Morgan] Trent was playing a lot earlier in the year and he's sitting down now, and they have good depth. Picking up Nate Clements was a good get for them when they lost [Jonathan] Joseph. They're extremely solid."
On the Bengals' D-Line:
"That first group is a run stout defensive line. That second group can flat rush the passer. Those young kids can really get after it, Dunlap and the big guy from Georgia Tech [Michael Johnson]. They're outstanding pass rushers, they present some good problems. Very similar to New England, and most teams have a group of 'nickel' pass rushers. Normally you're going to get the big run stoppers out of there at that time, and sometimes it's easier to run on those guys and throw on the big run stoppers. It all comes down to third down and ball and redzone. I thought we played really well last week on third down and failed in the redzone."
On battles with Bengals D-Coordinator Mike Zimmer through the years:
"'Zim' has always had a lot of Jim Johnson, the old [Philadelphia] Eagles coach, in his stuff and when [Zimmer] was back in Dallas and we were here with [Ken Whisenhunt] and Russ [Grimm] we had a great game with them down there. We've got to do a great job protecting the quarterback and they do a good job of disguising and coming out and playing man [coverage], so you've got to be a little bit ready for everything. He's as sound a coach as there is."