Tomlin says Steelers' reserves looking 'salty'
LaMarr Woodley heard it everywhere he turned after the Pittsburgh Steelers were mauled by Houston nine days ago. On TV. On the radio. In the paper. On the Internet.
The consensus was the same: The defending AFC champions were through.
No James Harrison. No Casey Hampton. No Rashard Mendenhall. No Bryant McFadden - again. They couldn't possibly resurrect their season with a group of nobodies, right?
''People were saying the Pittsburgh Steelers was banged up, and they didn't have any guys to fill the roles,'' Woodley said. ''But we had guys that was ready to come in and play.''
And play well.
Buoyed by familiar - and not-so-familiar - faces in familiar - and not-so-familiar - places, the Steelers rolled by Tennessee 38-17 on Sunday and spent 60 minutes reminding the rest of the AFC why they went to the Super Bowl last year.
The Steelers did it with backup running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Issac Redman gashing Tennessee's defense for 156 yards. They did it with reserve cornerbacks William Gay and Keenan Lewis continuing their solid play in McFadden's absence. They did it with Lawrence Timmons disrupting things at outside linebacker while Harrison watched from the sideline with his right eye patched up after undergoing surgery last week.
They even did it with a left tackle - Max Starks- who hadn't played in nearly a year.
''We had a lot of guys filling in so we just got back to the basics, I think, on both sides of the ball,'' Woodley said. ''And that really helped us out.''
Lewis and Gay have played so well while McFadden nurses a lingering hamstring problem that coach Mike Tomlin is in no hurry to get McFadden back on the field.
''When those guys step up and are given an opportunity and play at a high level, than you are not going to fix it if it's not broken,'' Tomlin said.
Tomlin called McFadden ''pretty close to healthy'' but has been impressed with the way Lewis and Gay have helped Pittsburgh shore up its pass defense. The Steelers ranked fourth in the league in passing yards allowed (174 yards per game) and are first in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.6).
''We have some guys who have answered the call ... and have showed us that they are capable of playing salty football,'' Tomlin said. ''So those are good issues.''
Not all the reserves will keep their jobs on Sunday when the Steelers (3-2) face reeling Jacksonville (1-4).
Mendenhall is expected to return against the Jaguars, though Tomlin stressed Mendenhall's workload won't be determined until he sees how the hamstring responds.
If he has to split carries, it's likely Redman would get the first crack. He ran for 49 yards against the Titans and was a valuable blocker, helping quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throw for five touchdowns.
Tomlin was ''pleased but not surprised'' by Redman's contributions. Dwyer's play was a little more intriguing. He ran for 107 yards and did some of the little things that Tomlin loves. He had two tackles on special teams and looked comfortable picking up blitzes when staying in to block.
''He is growing in all areas, and that is what is going to be required for him to continue to move forward and retain his helmet as some of those guys who are injured get healthy,'' Tomlin said.
While the starting backfield should be in place, the offensive line remains in flux. Chris Kemoeatu, who sat out last week with a knee injury, is questionable. If he can't go, then Doug Legursky and Ramon Foster likely will start at the guard positions. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is iffy with a left shoulder injury, meaning Jonathan Scott would get the nod if the rookie can't go.
Center Maurkice Pouncey is fine after sustaining a contusion on his right knee and Starks will be thrown right back out there. He appeared to not miss a beat against the Titans, getting the start five days after re-signing with his old club. Starks hadn't played in a game in 11 months when his 2010 season was cut short by a neck injury and he was cut before training camp in a salary cap purge.
''It's really amazing what Max did this week, to basically come off his couch, work three days in practice and then start an NFL game, you have to take your cap off to him,'' Foster said.
It was like that all over the field against the Titans. Timmons looked at home at outside linebacker while filling in for Harrison, who likely will be out a month while recovering from surgery to repair a fractured right orbital bone.
Timmons collected a handful of tackles and had little trouble moving around at the end of the game to let reserve Chris Carter get some playing time.
''We value position flexibility,'' Tomlin said. ''Lawrence has done it before. We expect him to do it, and do it well. It was a good start. He is going to have a few more weeks there, and we expect him to continue to improve.''
Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on Twitter at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP