A healthy team is likely one of the items Steelers fans have put on their holiday wish list. And while Christmas is still 10 days away, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin gave Steelers fans an early gift in the form of his injury update during Tuesday's press conference.
Tomlin said that he is "excited about the possible incursion" of several previously injured players for Sunday's home game against the Titans. Tomlin specifically mentioned outside linebackers T.J. Watt (going) and Alex Highsmith (knee), cornerback Joe Haden (foot), inside linebacker Robert Spillane (knee), guard/center J.C. Hassenauer (pectoral), and defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs (ankle).
"We'll see where their participation and the quality of their participation leads us," Tomlin said, via the team's website. "We got a good practice that we're planning for tomorrow. We'll carry pads tomorrow to give some of those guys an opportunity to display readiness and see where they are, and it can better aid us in terms of some the decision-making that we're going to have to make as the week unfolds in terms of who we go to and who we don't go to."
Injuries have limited Haden to just eight games this season. While Pittsburgh's defense has at times struggled without Haden in the starting lineup, the Steelers have found a reliable replacement in Ahkello Witherspoon, who recorded two interceptions in last week's 36-28 loss to Minnesota. A three-time Pro Bowler, Haden helped Pittsburgh's defense finish third in the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed in each of the previous two seasons.
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Watt and Highsmith sustained their injuries during last Thursday's loss to the Vikings. Despite missing two full games and parts of several others, Watt leads the NFL with 16 sacks. He is one sack away from breaking James Harrison's 13-year-old franchise single season record. A first-year starter, Highsmith has three sacks, 54 tackles and 12 tackles for loss this season.
The possible returns of Spillane, Hassenauer and Buggs would add depth to parts of Pittsburgh's teams that have sorely needed it. Inside linebacker has been an Achilles heel all season, as Tomlin has started giving reserves Marcus Allen and Buddy Johnson more playing time in an attempt to get getter play from that unit. The Steelers' defensive line has been undermanned for most of the season due to the absences of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu. Pittsburgh's offensive line, a unit that was hit hard this offseason by the departures of Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro, has struggled to consistently open up holes for rookie running back Najee Harris. The unit has also contributed to Ben Roethlisbeger being sacked more times than in any season since 2014.
At 6-6-1, the Steelers will likely have to go 3-1 down the stretch just to have a chance at making the playoffs. Pittsburgh has the NFL's toughest remaining schedule, with home games against Tennessee (9-4) and Cleveland (7-6) and road games at Kansas City (9-4) and Baltimore (8-5).