Despite being 6-3 this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have not been a very healthy team. Throughout the season many key players have either been on injured reserve or missed games, and tomorrow against the Cleveland Browns will be no different.
The Steelers are down two starting safeties this Sunday in FS Minkah Fitzpatrick and SS Keanu Neal and are hurting in the linebacker room with LBs Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander out for the year. Despite missing these key players tomorrow, defensive captain DT Cameron Heyward is not too concerned because of how head coach Mike Tomlin readies the entire team, not just the starters.
“I think coach T [Tomlin] prepares us that you’re a starter-in-waiting, you’re not a bench guy and this is your opportunity to seize it,” said Heyward in a video posted to the Steelers YouTube page. “That comes with a good week of practice, guys talking, communicating, and guys just feeling comfortable in their positions. If they feel they can do that, they’ll be successful on Sunday.”
Pittsburgh is not a babe in the woods when it comes to playing injured. Last season the Steelers faced off against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers with only one starting defensive back and won, holding Brady and the Bucs to 18 points as communication on the backside did not prove to be a big issue.
Last weekend against the Green Bay Packers, communication was an issue as Packers QB Jordan Love consistently hit his wide receivers with acres of Acrisure grass around them. However, context is important as the Steelers lost their defensive signal caller for that game, Alexander, early on. Then LB Elandon Roberts took over, someone the team was not too familiar with his communication style from throughout the week.
This week, though, things should be calmer in the communication department with Roberts likely working on it all week, and in the secondary as with Neal not practicing all week. How the secondary looks come tomorrow will be how it was practiced all week.
Without QB Deshaun Watson, the Browns will likely lean heavily on running backs Jerome Ford and Kareem Hunt. That means the front seven need to be sound when filling their gaps to not allow big runs, and that means effective communication.
For the Steelers’ new starters this weekend, it is their chance to show that they aren’t a bench guy and in fact a starter-in-waiting.