Insert a cliche here about the Steelers' backs being against the wall, or a reminder of how teams that get hot around this time often make deep runs through the post-season.
The Steelers are down to the less-than-desirable position of seeing two veteran starting defensive linemen out for a critical divisional game, forcing a backup and a rookie onto the field for extensive snaps.
If nose tackle Steve McLendon cannot play Sunday vs. the Bengals (he missed the last two games with a shoulder injury), Cam Thomas would likely get the nod at nose tackle. That in itself would boost the snaps of rookie Stephon Tuitt at defensive end, but factoring in the loss of DE Brett Keisel for the rest of the year, it would appear Tuitt, with or without McLendon, will get extensive playing time on Sunday against the run-dominant Bengals.
That's an issue. Tuitt's run-defense has been what kept him off of the field to this point in the season, minus a few snaps as well as a spot-starter at defensive end in Week 7.
Suddenly, DE Cameron Heyward has become the veteran leader on the team, and he has confidence in Tuitt.
Why Stephon Tuitt earned a starting role on the Steelers' defense.
"I’m not expecting him to play like a young guy," Heyward said, according to ESPN's Scott Brown. "We’ve talked about it a little bit and this is a moment where you can excel and take a hold of it or regress. I look for him to play sound and know he's not going to understand [the defense] all right now, but don’t be overwhelmed by it."
Heyward didn't quite have the same kind of lesson in his rookie season. He played far less often than Tuitt did, and didn't develop into the kind of player he is now until his third season. But with the size and level of explosion possible with both Heyward and Tuitt on the field, the Steelers may have two dominant, 5-technique players in the making.
The question is whether Tuitt is ready to take that step forward. Taking Keisel's right defensive end spot means he'll do battle with, among others, Cincinnati's Andrew Whitworth, one of the best left tackles in the game, all in an effort to control the line of scrimmage and free-up gaps on either side of him for a Steelers' pass rush that needs more consistency.
It's a tough task for the rookie, but the Steelers really could use a player to step-up and have a big game. A loss all but eliminates them from the division-title race, and puts them behind the 8-ball in terms of the hotly competitive AFC wild card battle.