Curtain Up For Rookie Runners

Mike Tomlin talked about his inexperienced backup RBs, among other items, at his Tuesday press conference.

LeGarrette Blount is gone, back in the comfort of his familiar New England Patriots. But his release left the Pittsburgh Steelers extremely thin at running back.

Behind Le'Veon Bell are rookie Dri Archer and just-promoted rookie Josh Harris. Fullback Will Johnson has played some halfback, but has only four carries in nearly three full seasons.

During his televised press conference on Tuesday, Mike Tomlin seemed unconcerned about giving the ball to any of the "young backups."

"No, I’m not reluctant at all," Tomlin said before joking at the fact that "Le’Veon is younger than all of them.

"We have a young position group. But you look around football and young backs impact games in a significant way and in a positive way week-in, week-out all over the National Football League. Just because Dri has a limited number of carries in his career and Josh has none doesn’t mean they can’t be significant contributors to our efforts not only this week but moving forward."

Bell, a second-year player who is 11 months younger than Harris and six months younger than Archer, has taken 64 percent of the team's carries this season and is emerging into one of the top backs in the NFL. With 951 yards on 195 carries (4.9 avg.), Bell is second in rushing behind DeMarco Murray (1,354).

Next on the Steelers' active rushing list is Archer. The third-round pick with the blinding speed has 41 yards on eight carries, or the exact numbers Harris posted this past preseason.

An undrafted free agent who rushed for 2,230 yards (4.6 avg.) at Wake Forest, Harris is a 5-11, 210-pounder who was signed after the draft by the Dallas Cowboys and later released. He signed with the Steelers on July 29 and made the practice squad out of camp. He was promoted to the 53-man roster upon the release of Blount.

"He’s been a guy on a steady incline," Tomlin said. "He’s improved day-to-day. He’s a big-time competitor. He’s a finisher. It’s a tough thing to be a card offensive running back from time to time, particularly going against a defense that’s upset on a Wednesday. We’ve had a few of those type of Wednesdays because of, at times, our inability to stop people. He’s always embracing it, always brings his hard hat, and is a big-time competitor. He’s done some nice things. We look forward to watching him maybe do it in a stadium."

Has Tomlin formulated a plan to use his rookie runners Sunday against the visiting New Orleans Saints?

"We’ll see how the game unfolds," he said. "That has a lot to do with game circumstance and how it is we choose to attack them and how Le’Veon and others are doing. Dri is a hard-working young guy and has done a nice job. Obviously there could be more opportunities there for him. I’m sure he’d be excited about that."

EVERYBODY'S BACK

On Monday, the Steelers celebrated the return to the practice field of five injured defensive starters. On Tuesday, Tomlin tamped down some of the enthusiasm with a dose of reality about each player:

* SS Troy Polamalu -- returned after missing two games with a sprained knee. He's expected to start Sunday.

* CB Ike Taylor -- returned after missing eight games with a broken forearm. Tomlin said, "We anticipate having Ike in some form or fashion." The coach added that Taylor has "got to prove his overall readiness."

* ILB Ryan Shazier -- returned after missing two games with a sprained ankle. "He is not in a similar circumstance like Troy and Ike," Tomlin said. "Troy and Ike have a decade of experience of playing in our defensive system. ... We will watch not only Ryan’s level of participation but the quality of his execution. He has missed some time. He is a young guy. He has to prove to us that he can execute in great detail."

* NT Steve McLendon -- returned after missing four of the past five games with a shoulder injury. Tomlin listed him as questionable and will monitor his practice week.

* OLB Jarvis Jones -- returned to practice but has yet to be activated from IR with his wrist injury. The Steelers have three weeks to activate him. "It's about him getting acclimated to the cast that he's 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.

Tomlin also reported that reserve cornerback Cortez Allen broke his thumb the practice prior to the Tennessee game. Allen played in the game, but underwent surgery after the game. A pin was inserted and he was fitted with a cast. "We need to watch his effectiveness with his utilization of that," Tomlin said. "Can he get his hands on people? Can he punch? Can he re-route and disrupt in the manner that allows him to be in the ways that he needs to be. We will be watching him this week."

Tomlin also expects reserve safeties Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone to be fully recovered from their hamstring injuries.

NEW ORLEANS NOTES

The Saints are struggling with a 4-7 record after losing Monday night to the Baltimore Ravens, 34-27, but Tomlin pointed out some interesting talent beyond "potential Hall of Fame type" quarterback Drew Brees:

* Jimmy Graham is a 6-7 tight end who leads his position with 65 catches. "It’s no secret that we have had issues at times with tight ends of similar skill sets this year, whether it’s Greg Olsen from Carolina or Jordan Cameron in Cleveland," Tomlin said. "(Graham) is one of those guys that is a matchup problem for just about everybody that defends him. He is an athletic matchup for most linebackers. He engulfs most secondary people. It’s probably going to be a combination of people in terms of having coverage responsibility."

* Junior Galette is a 6-2, 258-pound DE/OLB hybrid in his fifth season out of Stillman College. He leads the Saints with seven sacks, a year after registering 12 sacks. "His disruption is even more impressive than that," Tomlin said. "They move him around. Both tackles have to be prepared to block this guy. They invert him. They put him inside some. Guards have to be prepared to block this guy. I have been really impressed with his tape watching him."

* Keenan Lewis, of course, was a cornerback with the Steelers for four seasons before signing with the Saints in free agency last year. He intercepted four passes last season, but has struggled with injuries this season and has intercepted only one pass. "He is doing what he does," Tomlin said. "He is playing bump man-to-man and is really doing a great job of it. His play has been highlighted by his ability to travel with top receivers and play bump and run and combat them in that way. It doesn’t look like much has changed on Keenan’s tape. That’s always kind of been his deal. I am sure he and Antonio Brown look forward to a big-time battle this week. It seems like I have seen a lot of those battles over the years on the practice field. It will be interesting to kind of see it in the stadium."


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