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Steelers notebook: Defense tasked with stopping Graham

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Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin speaks to the media during his weekly news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2014, on the South Side.

Most, if not all, NFL teams worry about how to cover Saints tight end Jimmy Graham.

For Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, his concerns go beyond what Graham can do. They also are focused on what his defense can’t do — cover tight ends.

“We respect this guy, but we also respect what we’ve put on tape this year,” Tomlin said. “We realize that we have to be better in this game and work to minimize his impact on it if we want it to be a successful outing for us.”

The Steelers are one of the worst teams defending tight ends, allowing 46 catches for 564 yards and 8 touchdowns, and now they have to slow down one of the league’s best.

The Steelers have allowed a touchdown reception to a tight end in four consecutive games — the last three coming to the not-so-household names of Crockett Gilmore, Jace Amaro and Chase Coffman. The better tight ends they’ve faced in Jordan Cameron (102 yards, TD) and Greg Olsen (5-69-1) have had big games.

Graham leads the NFL 65 catches and nine touchdowns, two of which came Monday night against the Ravens.

“He is one of those guys that is a matchup problem for just about everybody that defends him,” Tomlin said. It’s no secret that we have had issues at times with tight ends of similar skill sets this year.”

Tiebreaker favors Ravens

The Steelers have two AFC North games remaining, and if they didn’t realize how paramount those games might be, they got an eye-opener following Baltimore’s win Monday night.

The Steelers dropped from fifth place in the AFC standings (and the first wild-card berth) to eighth despite having split their head-to-head meetings with the Ravens and have better division and conference records.

It’s all because the Ravens currently own the tiebreaker over the Steelers and Browns within the division.

The NFL breaks ties within the division first when it comes to three or more teams tied for a wild card. The Ravens currently win the tiebreaker over the Browns and Steelers — both have 7-4 records — because Baltimore has a better head-to-head winning percentage.

The Ravens are 2-1 against the Steelers and Browns; the Steelers are 2-2 against the Browns and Ravens; and the Browns are 1-2 against the Steelers and Ravens.

The AFC playoff race has New England first, followed by Denver, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City and San Diego.

Timetable for Jones

Linebacker Jarvis Jones can play as early as Sunday, but his record also could be Dec. 14 against the Falcons.

Jones, who injured his wrist Week 3 against the Panthers, can be removed from short-term injured reserve and added to the 53-man roster within 21 days of Monday — or be lost for the season.

“Really, more than anything, it’s about him getting acclimated to the cast that he is playing in and us getting to a level of comfort with his overall execution with it and his level of comfort with it,” Tomlin said.

Allen hurting

Cornerback Cortez Allen’s year continues to get worse.

After losing his job due to ineffectiveness only weeks after signing a $25 million deal, Allen broke his thumb in practice before last week’s game against the Titans.

Allen played seven special teams snaps against the Titans before undergoing corrective surgery the next day. Tomlin did not rule him out against the Saints.

Injury update

Nose tackle Steve McLendon is listed as doubtful with a shoulder injury. However, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Shazier and Shamarko Thomas will return after missing time.

1974 reunion

The Steelers will honor the 40-year anniversary of their first Super Bowl team during the game Sunday. The Steelers beat the Vikings, 16-6, in Super Bowl IX.

“That always creates a big game atmosphere,” Tomlin said. “I know our guys are excited to see those guys.”

Familiar face

Tomlin is anticipating the matchup of former teammates Antonio Brown and Keenan Lewis, now a starting cornerback for the Saints.

“It seems like I have seen a lot of those battles over the years on the practice field,” Tomlin said. “It will be interesting to kind of see it in the stadium.”

Troy gets nod

Polamalu was named the Steelers’ nominee for the Salute to Service award, presented by USAA, the Official Military Appreciation Sponsor of the NFL. Polamalu was nominated by the Steelers for his military appreciation efforts.

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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