When the Steelers rush the passer's blind-side during Sunday night's game in Detroit, they'll be encountering a familiar face.
With starting left tackle Greg Robinson out because of a hamstring injury, Brian Mihalik is in line to get his first NFL start for the Lions. The 6-foot-9 Mihalik was Steelers' property for the majority of the past 22 months.
“It's going to be his first start,” outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo said. “So we feel like we can get after him.”
A defensive lineman at Boston College, Mihalik was drafted by Philadelphia in 2015 but didn’t make the 53-man roster and was waived from the Eagles practice squad early that season.
Buoyed and intrigued by the fact they had recently completed a transformation of another 6-9 former defensive lineman into a starting offensive tackle in Alejandro Villanueva, the Steelers signed Mihalik to their off-season roster in 2016.
He was injured during that training camp, but the Steelers brought him back after a spate of injuries along their offensive line, and he spent the final 10 weeks of the regular season on the 53-man roster.
Mihalik didn’t get into a regular-season game, though, with the Steelers. He was cut at the end of this past training camp and the Lions scooped him up.
Mihalik made his NFL regular-season debut during Detroit's most recent game two weeks ago when Robinson was injured.
“He's going to play his hardest,” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said, “but we've got to make sure that we just treat him like he's a backup and make sure we make as many plays as we can.”
Tyson Alualu is an eight-year NFL veteran, a former top-10 draft pick who, at various points, had been an every-down defensive lineman.
But even Alualu couldn't have expected he would be relied upon as much as he has been over his first half-season with the Steelers. The former Jacksonville Jaguar will be the Steelers' primary right defensive end for the fifth time in eight games when he makes another start Sunday in Detroit.
“We trust Tyson really well,” inside linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “We feel like every time he comes in, he does his job really well. Him and L.T. (Walton) know the playbook. ... I trust Tyson when he's in. I don't have any worries about him.”
That's good, because the Steelers have been forced to turn to Alualu more often than they would have liked. And that's not a knock on Alualu, whom the Steelers in March signed to a $6 million contract that, at the time, was the third highest they gave any outside free-agent since 2010.
It's just that the Steelers would rather be leaning on their $60 million man, Stephon Tuitt. This was supposed to be the year Tuitt became a star. But other than inking that six-year contract on the eve of the season opener, it hasn't been a pleasant 2017 season for Tuitt.
Tuitt injured his triceps on the on the first series of the season, missing the rest of that game in Cleveland and the two games after that.
Then, a back injury suffered at the Steelers' facility last week forced him out of this past Sunday's victory against Cincinnati and will also prevent him from playing this Sunday against the Lions.
That has meant plenty of work for Alualu.
“You always try to go out and have no drop-off,” Alualu said. “Tuitt, obviously, is a great player. ... With (Javon) Hargrave and L.T. coming in, we just have to keep that going. I know if we can trust the depth and continue to get after it, it can only help in the long run.”
Count Antonio Brown among the Steelers who believe Martavis Bryant is integral to the team’s championship aspirations.
Bryant won’t play this week because he doubled down on a trade request via social media. Bryant spent the week on the scout team and mimicked the Lions receivers for the Steelers defense.
“I think guys trust him,” Brown said Friday. “He just has to earn his way back. Obviously, we need him. We know what he’s capable of. We’re going to need him down the stretch. He made a mistake, and he’ll learn from it.”
Why do the Steelers need him?
“He can be a reason we win,” Brown said. “If we’re going to do what we desire to do, we need every guy in this locker room to be at his best and to be all in.”
Almost nothing Martavis Bryant said this week made sense.
“Nobody thought I was coming back,” Bryant said.
Actually, everybody thought he was coming back. Well, maybe not everybody, because Bryant had to stay clean. But the Steelers didn’t exactly make him earn his starting job. They gift-wrapped it for him with the release of the second depth chart of training camp — on Aug. 16.
“Nobody helped me get back,” Bryant said.
That’s odd. Because when I asked Bryant early in the season who on this team supported him during his self-imposed, weed-induced, one-year exile, he looked around the room and said, “Everybody has. Everybody’s been supportive of me.”
“I don’t care about people outside this locker room, what they say,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Except that when an Instagram commenter who calls himself “team.Votto” — I’ll take a wild guess and say he’s a Bengals fan — tagged Bryant with, “JuJu’s better,” Bryant cared a lot and seemed quite bothered.
He replied in the now infamous words, “juju is no where near better than me fool.”
And you know what? That was the one thing Bryant said all week that rang true (it’s a shame he deleted the post).
JuJu Smith-Schuster is not better than Martavis Bryant. He is merely better-adjusted and contributing more at the moment.
Few receivers on the planet are more physically gifted than Bryant. You don’t give up on talent like that for a fifth-round pick or some such thing just because a guy makes a little noise and calls in sick. So if you’re one of those calling for the Steelers to cut Bryant or deal him before Tuesday’s trade deadline, pipe down (pun intended).