PITTSBURGH — Next man up. Anytime one of his players goes down with an injury, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is quick to lean on one of his favorite clichés, a reminder to his team that while the personnel may change, the expectations do not.
Considering the rate starters made their way to the sideline during Sunday night’s clinical dissection of Kansas City, Tomlin might want to tweak the mantra just a bit.
This week, it’ll be next men up. Preferably as many as possible.
Right tackle Marcus Gilbert’s balky left ankle mean he is likely out this weekend when the New York Jets visit Heinz Field. Gilbert’s most likely replacement, veteran Ryan Harris, is dealing with a leg issue of his own. Versatile backup Cody Wallace remains out with a bad knee and left guard Ramon Foster’s bruised sternum is still pretty sore.
And that’s just the offensive line. Linebackers Jarvis Jones and Anthony Chickillo were also dinged up against the Chiefs and Tomlin didn’t exactly sound optimistic Tuesday that Ryan Shazier’s right knee — which forced him to the inactive list last week — is good enough to return to practice.
Tomlin praised his team’s resiliency for bouncing back from an embarrassing stumble in Philadelphia by pushing around Kansas City in a 43-14 romp. The Steelers (3-1) will need it again as they try get to 4-1 for the first time since 2010, which also happened to be the last time they reached the Super Bowl.
“It’s a good thing we responded well to (injuries) a week ago,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to be thoughtful as coaches and put these guys in position to perform.”
Tomlin praised guard B.J. Finney, a former practice squad player who filled in capably for Foster against the Chiefs. It may be Chris Hubbard’s turn if Gilbert and Harris both can’t go. Like Finney, Hubbard is a former practice squad player who has yet to make his first career start. Unlike Finney, Hubbard — an interior lineman — may have to make his debut somewhere other than his natural position.
Whoever lines up in front of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have to take on one of the league’s most productive defensive lines. Eight of New York’s 11 sacks have come from the defensive front four, including two by former Steeler Steve McLendon.
Getting to the ninth lineman on the roster is less than ideal, though the Steelers have proven adept at dealing with adversity. They finished third in the league in total offense in 2015 even with perennial Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey missing the entire season with an ankle injury.
Finding a way to get five men working together in concert can be difficult, particularly when the faces can change on a week-to-week basis. Then again, offensive line coach Mike Munchak figures that’s why he gets paid. Munchak coaches to the group as a whole, not just one specific player at a time. That way everyone knows what everyone else’s responsibility is on a given play.
“He makes sure the whole group is accountable,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said.
And Tomlin’s job is to find the 53 healthiest and most prepared field are the one in uniforms every Sunday. He needn’t look far for proof of the importance of patience. Finney signed as an undrafted free agent in 2015 and held his own against Kansas City’s dynamic front seven. Safety Jordan Dangerfield, bounced around on the fringe for three years with Buffalo and the Steelers before making his first NFL start last week. He responded with five tackles while avoiding major mistakes.
“It’s good to see a guy that’s walked the journey that he walked … a guy who was a practice squad player for 2-3 years then a special teamer who now gets an opportunity to show a few things on defense,” Tomlin said.
Dangerfield could be out there again on Sunday as Robert Golden continues to rehab a hamstring problem. So could linebacker Vince Williams, who put together a game-high 15 tackles in place of Shazier.
“He was highly productive and very active,” Tomlin said. “I can’t underscore the importance of communication and his role in it.”
NOTES: WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, who left Sunday night’s game with a shoulder problem, should practice this week and is expected to be available on Sunday. … FB Roosevelt Nix (back) is nearing a return. … WR Eli Rogers (toe) and CB Senquez Golson (shoulder) have already been ruled out.