Levi Brown’s tenure at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers is over before it even began.
The Steelers placed Brown on injured reserve on Tuesday, two days after Brown tore a triceps while warming up before a 19-6 victory over the Jets. Brown, acquired from the Arizona Cardinals last week, will need surgery and is done for the year.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin called the injury "freakish" in its timing.
"I’ve been in this league a number of years and this is probably only the second time I’ve ever been around that," Tomlin said.
The Steelers (1-4) also lost tight end David Johnson for the year with a wrist injury. This is the second straight season Johnson is headed to the injured reserve. Johnson didn’t even play in 2012 due to a torn ACL in his right knee.
Pittsburgh filled out its roster by signing free agent tight end Richard Gordon and promoted cornerback Isaiah Green to the practice squad and Tomlin didn’t rule out the prospect of both players seeing time on Sunday when the Steelers face rival Baltimore (3-3) looking to win consecutive games for the first time in 11 months.
While Johnson and Brown are gone, linebacker Sean Spence is back. More than a year after suffering a catastrophic left knee injury in the final game of the 2012 preseason, Spence has been activated off the physically unable to perform list and will work in a limited capacity, a stunning comeback for the former third-round pick whose career was in jeopardy after tearing two ligaments and dislocating his kneecap.
Tomlin allowed it is possible Spence could play at some point this season.
"We’ll see how he performs in practice and kind of let that be our guide in terms of how we progress," Tomlin said.
Injuries to Larry Foote and Kion Wilson forced rookie Vince Williams to play alongside Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker and Spence was considered the eventual heir apparent to Foote when Pittsburgh grabbed Spence with the 86th overall pick of the 2012 draft.
Spence has spent the last four months either watching practice or working out on an adjoining field with other injured players. His presence in a helmet and a jersey should send a jolt through a defense that started to look like its old self against the Jets. The Steelers put together three sacks and forced two turnovers and despite a substandard September ranks sixth in yards allowed.
"I think everybody played better," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "We executed a lot better, but I don’t think we schematically changed what we needed to do. We had different guys in there almost every week, and we did a good job attacking their run and not just stopping it, getting guys back and all the guys flying to the ball."
Pittsburgh will try to do the same against the erratic Ravens (3-3), who are still searching for the form that led them to their second Super Bowl title eight months ago. Tomlin downplayed any talk that one of the NFL’s biggest rivalries has lost its luster now that both teams find themselves trailing front-running Cincinnati (4-2) in the AFC North.
"Obviously, they’re a talented capable team led by superstars in all three phases and they’re defending world champs," Tomlin said. "They don’t need an endorsement from me."
Neither does tackle Kelvin Beachum, pressed into service after Brown went down less than an hour before kickoff against the Jets. Beachum struggled early but recovered in the second half to help Pittsburgh put New York away. The fact the Steelers didn’t go searching for another lineman following Brown’s injury is a testament to Tomlin’s belief in the adaptable Beachum, who has already played at center, right tackle and tight end in his brief career.
It appears Beachum is entrenched — at least for now — heading into a stretch that should determine Pittsburgh’s season. A win over Baltimore and another one next week in Oakland and the Steelers are in the mix. Two losses and the rebuilding process can begin in earnest.
Tomlin isn’t quite that far down the road. He likes what he saw against New York. Now he’d like to find a way to repeat it against the Ravens, who haven’t lost in Pittsburgh since 2010.
"Obviously, our focus is and will continue to be us and how we perform and prepare to give ourselves the very best chance to play A-ball," he said. "We believe that A-ball is enough to win under any circumstance, so that’s what is guiding us as we prepare for this one."