Maurkice Pouncey is expected to return to the Steelers' lineup on Sunday, and Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman might do the same.
Pouncey, an All-Pro center, will practice Wednesday after missing the game in Cincinnati Sunday due to a right knee sprain. Mendenhall (Achilles) and Redman (ankle), who top the running back depth chart, "have a chance" of playing as well, Sunday, coach Mike Tomlin said.
The news is not all good though, as Pittsburgh (3-3) prepares to host the Washington Redskins (3-4). All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu and starting right tackle Marcus Gilbert have already been ruled out.
The Steelers moved into second place in the AFC North with a 24-17 win over the Bengals on Sunday.
The players most impacted by these returnees might be on special teams. Beleaguered and penalty-ridden, these units have become a chief concern for Tomlin. The coach even threatened benchings in the return game, where five flags were thrown in the Steelers' 10 return opportunities vs. Cincinnati.
"The multiple offenders, the egregious offenders, are going to be watching instead of playing as soon as we get some options," Tomlin said. "Right now, with the injuries, we have minimal options."
Safety Will Allen will be limited early this week after leaving the Bengals game due to a sprained ankle. Allen has started in place of Polamalu the past two weeks, and Tomlin said he anticipates him being able to play against Washington.
If some or all of the injured group — Pouncey, Mendenhall, Redman and reserve linebacker Chris Carter — return, it'll create a domino effect in which Tomlin has the freedom to pick and choose players to sit. Carter missed the Cincinnati game with a hamstring injury.
"We believe we have some dynamic return men, and penalties negate that effort," Tomlin said. "What's going on in the return game from a penalty standpoint is disturbing. The first chance we get, we'll send a strong message in regards that we won't accept that type of performance.
"We feel like we can be explosive in that area provided we don't shoot ourselves in the foot, and I thought we did that in the football game (Sunday)."
Tomlin did not mention names when talking about possible benchings. DeMarcus Van Dyke, a cornerback claimed off waivers from the Oakland Raiders late in training camp, has been one of the players flagged multiple times.
Without Mendenhall and Redman, the Steelers still had their best running performance of the season Sunday. That could create another tough decision for Tomlin down the road. Jonathan Dwyer had 122 rushing yards against Cincinnati after being deactivated for each of the two previous games. Also, rookie Chris Rainey had the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
If all of Pittsburgh's running backs are healthy, who suits up against the Redskins? And how will the carries be split up?
"We're going to base those judgments on what it looks like as these guys prepare and get closer to game action during the week," Tomlin said. "We're not going to hypothesize as to what that might be. We'll simply react to it and come up with the best formula that suits us for being successful this week."
The Steelers improved their league rank in rushing yards from 31st to 26th with the 5.9 yards-per-carry performance in Cincinnati. This despite the fact that Pouncey and Gilbert were replaced by Doug Legursky at center and rookie Mike Adams at tackle, respectively.
"It was a strong run-game performance," Tomlin said. "I thought we did a nice job up front getting hats on hats. I thought all the running backs did a nice job, of course highlighted by Jonathan Dwyer's efforts, but also Chris Rainey and Baron Batch and others I thought did a nice job."
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