Polamalu, Taylor among Steelers starters returning for Sunday’s game vs. Saints
The Steelers defense might have its flaws, but timing isn’t one of them. You might say they have impeccable timing — at least when it comes to getting healthy.
As the Steelers (7-4) head into the final month of the season within percentage points of division-leading Cincinnati, with both meetings yet to be played — Dec. 7 at Paul Brown Stadium and three weeks later at Heinz Field — the much-maligned defense is getting stronger.
Safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker Ryan Shazier and cornerback Ike Taylor are expected to return to the starting lineup when the Steelers host the Saints on Sunday. Linebacker Jarvis Jones and defensive lineman Steve McLendon are not far behind.
“The timing couldn’t be any better,” Taylor said Monday after the Steelers’ first practice following their bye week.
Polamalu and Shazier practiced Monday after missing two games each with knee injuries. Taylor’s bone scan on his broken forearm came back clean and he has been cleared to play. Jones practiced for the first time since having surgery on his wrist two months ago.
While Jones is still a long shot to play against the Saints, the other three are ready to provide much-needed help to a defense that has given up nearly four touchdowns per game over their past six contests.
“It is perfect timing. It’s about to be December,” Jones said. “This is the time we need everybody. It was wonderful to see Troy, Ryan, (Ike) and myself out there. It is a blessing to get everybody back and make a run at this.”
Taylor, Jones, Shazier, McLendon and Polamalu have combined to miss 27 games. The Steelers’ opening-day starting defense has played only 10 quarters together.
That likely will stay that way for at least another week while the Steelers take their time with Jones. They have 21 days to activate him from the injured reserve/designated to return list or he must go on season-ending injured reserve.
“I was so nervous today,” Jones said. “I felt like my whole body was tensing up. It was a great day. I stayed up all last night. I was ready to get back and play some football. It isn’t fun watching from the sidelines knowing you can’t help your teammates.”
The Steelers transitioned from an old defense to one of the younger ones in the NFL during the offseason, with first-round linebackers Shazier and Jones cracking the starting lineup. Injuries quickly ended that.
Veteran James Harrison was added when Jones went down and has played well, but the Steelers’ sack numbers — they’re on pace for 29 — haven’t been good. Harrison leads the team with four.
The secondary hasn’t been much better. It ranks in the middle of the pack against the pass and have continued to give up big plays. The Steelers have allowed 23 pass plays longer than 25 yards, eight of which went for touchdowns.
Polamalu and Taylor should help, especially against pass-happy New Orleans and Atlanta coming up over the next three weeks.
“I can’t wait to play,” Taylor said. “The young guys have been playing good ball, but I can’t wait. I know they will get every bit of me. My team will have every bit of me out there on the field.
“I have missed it. I was talking to the secondary before we broke it down, and I was dang near in tears talking to them before practice. That is how much I care.”
Taylor’s return will force William Gay to switch sides to right cornerback and move Brice McCain back to his familiar slot corner.
“When you have everybody healthy, that really helps out a lot,” Shazier said. “This bye has really helped us a lot. We are getting a lot of guys back, and the guys are out there doing what they can do.”