Reinforcements arrive just in time
For vastly different reasons, two of the Steelers veteran starters were prevented from practicing fully or playing in games during December.
That changes this week — and Marcus Gilbert and Joe Haden couldn’t be happier.
“I’m super, super excited,” said Haden, the cornerback whose broken fibula last month interrupted his first season with the Steelers.
“It’s great to be back here,” Gilbert said Wednesday after the offensive tackle’s four-game suspension ended. “A lot of laughs, a lot of guys excited to have me back — and I’m just excited to be back my (dang) self.”
The Steelers on Sunday lost an All-Pro for the foreseeable future when receiver Antonio Brown sustained a contusion of his lower left leg. But they will welcome back Haden and Gilbert for Monday’s game at the Houston Texans.
The pair of former Florida Gators teammates spent most of the past month in different locales, with Haden in Pittsburgh rehabbing his leg and Gilbert in Florida training while he served his time for violating the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancers.
Gilbert called his daily regimen working with his personal trainer “like a 9-to-5,” doing everything from weight training to running, swimming, yoga and Pilates.
While he was gone, the Steelers won three of four, their eight-game winning streak snapped Sunday in a final-minute loss to New England.
“It was tough at first, knowing you have to sit at home and watch your boys play without you,” Gilbert said. “But I’m still proud of them and proud of the way guys like Chris Hubbard stepped up and has been playing tremendously in my spot.”
Gilbert declined to discuss what caused his suspension, and said he would have appealed the discipline if enough time remained during the regular season.
“I didn’t want to stretch it into the playoffs [so] I kind of was in a hard spot,” Gilbert said.
It especially hurt, Gilbert said, to have to sit out the showdown with the Patriots, a matchup of the AFC’s top two teams.
Haden, likewise, was disappointed he couldn’t play last week after returning to practice in the days leading up to that game.
Haden was attempting to return at the earliest portion of the window he was expected to miss after going down during the first half at Indianapolis on Nov. 12.
He’d been ubiquitous around the Steelers’ practice facility in the month-plus since, getting cleared to practice the day after his team on Dec. 10 clinched the AFC North, a division he’d finished at the bottom of each of the prior six seasons while playing for the Browns.
Haden said he did as much cardio as his injury allowed while he was out, but in regards to playing against the Patriots “just couldn’t make it happen.”
“When you start covering guys and have to make moves and adjustments that aren’t really under your control, that’s when I felt my knee wasn’t ready,” Haden said.
Three days of workouts this week, though, have convinced Haden he’s at “85 percent” and ready to go.
“I’m glad I was able to work back and get back for the final two games of the season, knowing we have the postseason,” Haden said. “I can get in football shape. It’s good to get back out there and make some plays.”
While the Steelers offense chugged along with Hubbard in place of Gilbert at right tackle, the defense missed Haden more. Coty Sensabaugh started the first four games before being replaced by rookie Cameron Sutton against New England.
Five of the six biggest opponent passing yards games against the Steelers this season have come with Haden out, as did 10 of the 14 longest passing plays the Steelers have allowed.
“Joe can really help us,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “Guys have done an admirable job stepping in, but no one can replace that experience he has and the way he covers.
“Hopefully he can shake off the cobwebs and get back to playing good football again. We’ll look for him on Monday.”