It’s hard to say exactly what the defensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers will look like on Sunday, looking at it today. One thing that we do know for certain is that it will be absent Brett Keisel in the rotation, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this week.
Whether or not his replacement on the roster, free agent Clifton Geathers, will be active for the game against the Cincinnati Bengals remains to be seen, and hinges largely on whether or not starting nose tackle Steve McLendon will dress.
On his Tuesday press conference, head coach Mike Tomlin was less optimistic about his outlook for Sunday, explaining that he has had difficulty regaining the strength in one of his shoulders, an injury that he has dealt with since the second game of the season and has caused him to miss four games already.
He was a full participant in practice yesterday, however, and according to Scott Brown for ESPN, said that he “felt good at practice”, expressing the sense that his shoulder felt stronger than it had been.
McLendon’s return to the lineup could have interesting implications. The Steelers have used both Cam Thomas and rookie Daniel McCullers as his primary replacement, with McCullers seeing the nose tackle snaps in the first half of the Steelers’ victory over the Titans prior to the bye week.
Thomas, however, has seen the bulk of the work filling in for McLendon, which has taken away from his time as the starting left defensive end. It would seem that his defensive end responsibilities would take precedence with the loss of Keisel, but recent reports indicate that the Steelers have already decided to start Stephon Tuitt there on Sunday.
If both McLendon and Tuitt are in the starting lineup, logic would suggest that Thomas is not. He may finally be in the reserve role that we all believed he would fill when he was first signed as a free agent during the offseason as a swing lineman.
The newly signed Geathers, then, would likely find himself in a battle for a helmet with McCullers, who has the advantage of greater familiarity with the defensive system, though Tomlin did say that he was a player they were interested in during free agency.
With the Steelers figuring to be close to full capacity healthwise this week, it’s unlikely they will be able to afford to have all six linemen on the roster active on game day. McCullers has been the low man on the totem pole for most of the season, but Geathers is now the newcomer.
If Cameron Heyward, McLendon, and Tuitt indeed comprise the starting lineup on Sunday, perhaps we will get a glimpse of what is to come for the Steelers in the future, as it’s widely assumed that that configuration will be what the front line will look line in the 2015 opener.