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Tomlin and modern day 'Steel Curtain' defence have Pittsburgh contending in injury-filled season

Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches from the sidelines during the first half of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona.
Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches from the sidelines during the first half of the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium on December 08, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona.

It really is remarkable how the Pittsburgh Steelers have managed to thrive despite all the injuries they’ve had to key offensive personnel this season.

Now comes a prime time chance for them to show everybody how they’ve done it.

The team that lost its Hall of Fame quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, in the second game of the season – then went from 0-3 to 1-4 before a magical turnaround – had some more bad news on Friday. Neither its best receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster, or its best tight end, Vance McDonald, will be available for Sunday night’s massively important showdown with the Buffalo Bills.

Its best running back, James Connor, is questionable but tentatively expected to play, although if he does it’s hard to imagine he’ll be effective. Connor, who has a bad shoulder, has carried the ball just five times since he exploded for 145 yards on 23 carries in an October 28 win over the Miami Dolphins.

Next on the Pittsburgh depth chart is Jaylen Samuels, who missed practice Wednesday with a groin injury but has declared himself good to go on Sunday.

To be honest, McDonald wasn’t likely to make a big difference anyway. In 12 games he has 33 catches for 245 yards and three touchdowns, and only the San Francisco 49ers have allowed fewer receiving yards per game to opposing tight ends than the Bills.

But Smith-Schuster is a very good player (1,427 receiving yards last season) that the Steelers should be missing. He suffered a knee injury Nov. 14 against Cleveland and – led by a whole other crazy story in third string, undrafted rookie quarterback Devlin (Duck) Hodges – the Steelers are 3-0 since.

Meanwhile, Smith-Schuster appeared to be on target to play this week, but he aggravated the injury during Thursday’s practice.

“It wasn’t a setback,” he told reporters Friday, adding he doesn’t have a timetable for his return. “You know, just more solace I pushed myself too hard where I gotta slow myself down. I’m so competitive, just to get out there and be great. I gotta take it slow.”

Most would probably pick the visiting Bills (9-4) to take care of the Steelers (8-5) in a tilt between the two current wild card spot holders – one of which will have to fend off either the Houston Texans or Tennessee Titans for a playoff spot.

But I think I’m thinking like Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, who about the matchup between a third-ranked defence (Buffalo’s) and a fifth rated defence, wrote “Once again, the Steelers aren’t the better team. Once again, the Steelers will play like they are,” while taking Pittsburgh to win 16-13.

The Bills have surprised a lot of people this year but not to the extent of the Steelers, who have revived the “Steel Curtain” defence and whose Mike Tomlin was the youngest head coach in history to win a Super Bowl at the age of 36 a dozen years ago.

Now, in 2019, Tomlin deserves serious consideration as the NFL’s coach of the year.

ON SECOND THOUGHT: It was rather sickening to see members of the 5-9 New York Jets line up for Lamar Jackson’s game-worn jersey after getting thumped 42-21 by the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday. Jackson couldn’t decide which one to give his stinky shirt, so he signed white replicas and handed them out to the adoring Jets. The whole jersey-swap fad is goofy in the first place, but why, Robby Anderson, would you pose for a photo beside Jackson, proudly holding up your new keepsake, right after the 22-year old quarterback just ensured that your lousy team will miss the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season? Instead, the Jets should be hanging their heads in shame … Speaking of which, cornerback Janoris Jenkins was waived by the New York Giants on Friday, two days after he called a fan a “retard” on Twitter. On Thursday, Jenkins said the usage of the word was “slang” and “just part of my culture.” Giants coach Pat Shurmur said Jenkins was cut because he refused to admit what he did was wrong. “This was an organizational decision,” said Shurmur.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Already the first team to 12 victories and with the NFL’s sixth rated defence, the Baltimore Ravens had to take notice when the Arizona Cardinals parted ways with Terrell Suggs on Friday. The 37-year Suggs, who had 37 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles, was released after coach Kliff Kingsbury talked to him about hooking up with another team while the Cardinals take a look at younger guys. “T-Sizzle” spent 16 years with the Ravens before moving to Arizona, where he played college ball, as a free agent this season. Surely, another team will claim him before Baltimore’s turn, if only to keep the already great Ravens from becoming even greater … In three of the last four games, Todd Gurley has rushed for 97 (25 carries), 95 (19 carries) and 79 yards (23 carries), scoring a touchdown in each win. The fourth game, they were beaten 45-6 by Baltimore, and Gurley had six carries for 22 yards. In the Rams first eight games of the season, Gurley averaged 13 carries. Why has Gurley started getting the ball more? “Me not being an idiot,” coach Sean McVay said to reporters. From Gurley: “He said it, I didn’t.”

THIRD AND SHORT: The Dolphins announced they’ve signed receiver DeVante Parker to an extension that reports have at four-years $40 million, which apparently includes $21.5 in guarantees and an $8 million bonus. A first-round pick in 2015, Parker has posted career numbers this season with 55 catches for 882 yards. Yup, $40 million … There was no injury designation for Adam Thielen on Friday, which means the Minnesota Vikings should get their reliable receiver back after he missed the last four games with a hamstring problem. Thielen, who made 113 catches last season for 1,373 yards, has 27 receptions for 391 yards through eight games. The Vikes could definitely use him in what very well may be a shootout Sunday with the Los Angeles Chargers, who are fifth in passing yards and are coming off a 45-10 win over the Jags.

EXTRA POINTS: The audition continues. Eli Manning will start for the second consecutive week, in place of the injured Daniel Jones, when the New York Giants host the Miami Dolphins. Manning, 38, doesn’t sound like a guy who wants to retire or be a back up next year, and in tossing two touchdowns on Monday against the Eagles – including an 11-of-19 for 179 yards first half – he could have peaked the interest of some very needy team … San Fran pass rusher Dee Ford is expected to miss four weeks with a hamstring injury, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network … With the temperature at Lambeau Field expected to be 19 F at kickoff, fans at the Packers-Bears game will get free hot chocolate and hot cider. That’s right, 19 F, which is minus-7 C. What would they do if it was cold out?

dbrennan@postmedia.com

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