As the Steelers prepared for their week 15 matchup at the Dallas Cowboys, one of their starters returned to the fold bolstering optimism surrounding the team's response to their poor showing against the San Diego Chargers.
LaMarr Woodley, who has missed the past two games while nursing an ankle injury, took to the practice field in anticipation of returning to game action this week. Signs are good, considering he took part in the entire practice rather than being limited like many others dealing with injury.
Woodley has still been contributing to his team's effort since injuring the ankle against the Cleveland Browns in week 12, by acting as a mentor to his understudy, Jason Worilds. Woodley spoke to Teresa Varley of Steelers.com about the difference between being able to contribute on the field, as opposed to the sidelines.
"It’s always tough watching from the sideline, but when you’re on the sideline, you can do a lot. It’s almost like I was a player/coach. So when Jason Worilds was out there, I was telling him things that maybe I can see, what the offensive tackle was doing, just being out there helping one and other."
While Woodley's return will surely reinforce Pittsburgh's already proficient defense, the other eight players that were forced to miss Wednesday's practice prevent the team's fanbase from setting their hopes too high.
Left guard Willie Colon sat out after undergoing surgery this week on his troubled knee. While he is still expected to end his season on injured/reserve, the Steelers will monitor his rehabilitation in hopes he may be able to participate in the team's playoff run. Regardless, he will definitely not be available for the next two weeks, adding to the 39 games he has already missed in his career.
Offensive tackle Mike Adams and Ike Taylor, who are both dealing with ankle injuries, also missed practice and are not expected to play in Dallas. With Adams missing another game, Kelvin Beachum is expected to make his third consecutive start at right tackle since starter Marcus Gilbert landed on I/R.
With Taylor out, the pressure falls on the young remainder of the Steelers defensive back group, who are now dealing with injury issues of their own. Keenan Lewis is dealing with a hip flexor he suffered against the Chargers. While Mike Tomlin is optimistic Lewis will be able to go against the Cowboys, he held Lewis out of practice on Wednesday. Cortez Allen, who has been the starter in nickel packages and replacing Taylor in base packages, also missed practice. The Steelers seem less optimistic about Allen's ability to play on Sunday, although he is not ruled out as of yet. The most curious thing about Allen's situation is the fact that he appears on the injury report now with a groin issue, and not the hip flexor he was reported to have suffered against the Chargers.
Whether Lewis and Allen are able to play or not, the secondary will once again be relying on three young men, who are only in their second seasons: Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, and DeMarcus Van Dyke. While Tomlin has spoken highly of those three, there is still fear that their inexperience will be exploited once again, as it was by Philip Rivers.
Troy Polamalu was held out of practice, though not because of a current injury. He was held out for extra rest. Polamalu has played in the Steelers last two contests after missing most of the season with lower leg issues. He is expected to start again in Dallas. James Harrison also sat out practice while dealing with an illness. He also is expected to start in week 15.
After losing receivers Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery for time earlier this year, the only receiver to not practice on Wednesday was Emmanuel Sanders who is dealing with a shoulder sprain. Sanders is also expected to fully participate in the team's next game, as the Steelers try to keep their playoff hopes alive.
While missing eight players while preparing for a very important game, resting players during Wednesday's practice is nothing new to Tomlin's regime. Similar action has been taken in the past with veterans like Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, and Casey Hampton.
With their season hanging in the balance, the Steelers are giving their ailing players every opportunity to find their way back on the field...well, everyone but Rashard Mendenhall.