The Pittsburgh Steelers have spent all season juggling running backs based on who’s healthy and who’s hot.
Now it’s the wide receivers’ turn.
The Steelers will likely be without receiver Antonio Brown when they host reeling Kansas City next Monday night. Brown sprained his right ankle early in a 24-20 victory over the New York Giants last Sunday and coach Mike Tomlin doesn’t anticipate Brown being available.
“We’ll see where the week takes us, we’ll leave the door ajar but usually (sprained ankles) aren’t positive things, particularly for someone who earns a living the way he earns a living,” Tomlin said.
Brown leads the Steelers (5-3) with 42 receptions and is second on the team with 499 yards receiving. If he can’t go, third-year wideout Emmanuel Sanders will likely take Brown’s place in the starting lineup.
Sanders caught two passes against the Giants, including a 4-yard touchdown, and added a 63-yard punt return in place of normal return specialists Brown and Chris Rainey, who left the game with a rib injury. Veteran Jerricho Cotchery will move into Sanders’ spot as the third receiver.
Cotchery has taken on a smaller role in his second year in Pittsburgh as the trio of Sanders, Brown and Mike Wallace matured, but Cotchery tied for a team-high four receptions against New York, doubling his season total.
“He’s not a luxury (but) a necessity,” Tomlin said of Cotchery. “We need quality guys that are capable of upholding the standard ... he’s been consistently professional and prepared. When one of three guys at the wide out position go down, we don’t bat an eye.”
Safety Troy Polamalu and right tackle Marcus Gilbert have already been ruled out against Kansas City, though Tomlin believes both can practice this week in a limited capacity. Polamalu played in just two games this season due to a right calf injury while Gilbert has missed a month.
The typically tight-lipped Tomlin is pleased with his team’s progress during its current three-game winning streak. The Steelers have gotten consistent performance out of the running game regardless of who is in the backfield.
Isaac Redman rushed for a career-high 147 yards against the Giants in place of Jonathan Dwyer, who sat out with a strained right quad. Dwyer had topped 100 yards in the previous two games while filling in for both Redman and Rashard Mendenhall.
There’s a possibility all three backs could be ready against Kansas City, leaving Tomlin with a difficult choice, one he’s not willing to make just yet.
“Whoever’s being productive when healthy is going to get the totes,” Tomlin said. “I really think it’s that simple. I’m not going to make it any more complex than it has to be. At times this season we’ve had a running-back-by-committee approach because none of them had been overly effective at that time.
“When someone’s effective, they’ll get the ball.”