PITTSBURGH – The Steelers made a couple of changes on their depth chart Tuesday, adding some intrigue to the final month of the season as the team tries to stay alive in the AFC playoff race.
Jonathan Dwyer was promoted from third string to the starter at running back, changing places with Rashard Mendenhall, while Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders are now sharing the starting wide receiver spot opposite Antonio Brown.
As for the quarterback situation heading into Sunday’s game at Baltimore, third-stringer Charlie Batch is currently the starter for the Steelers (6-5) heading into the rematch with the AFC North-leading Ravens (9-2).
Coming off an eight-turnover game in last Sunday’s 20-14 loss at Cleveland, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin felt he needed to shake things up on a struggling offensive unit that has produced 26 points in its past three games.
After going with a running back-by-committee approach in the previous two games with Dwyer, Mendenhall and Isaac Redman all healthy at the same time – a first this season – Tomlin said the decision to make Dwyer the featured runner was a simple one.
“He’s been consistently the most productive guy,” said Tomlin of Dwyer, who leads the Steelers with 429 yards rushing. “I think we’ve got a large enough body of work to be able to identify that at this point. Obviously, we’ve been working in less than ideal circumstances with the rotation and shuffle of those guys due to health and lack of production. But over the course of the last several weeks it’s obvious that he, one, is healthy and, two, is the most productive of the group. He’ll start for us and get the bulk of the carries.”
Mendenhall, who has led the Steelers in rushing the past three seasons but is coming back from a torn ACL suffered last January, started the past two games. But he fumbled twice against Cleveland - losing one - while Redman and Dwyer also lost fumbles.
Tomlin benched all three in the first half following their fumbles, allowing rookie Chris Rainey to finish out the first half. Rainey also fumbled twice, losing one in the second half.
“We talked all week about being backup quarterback-friendly, and turning the ball over is not that,” Tomlin said. “We made that very clear, even prior to kickoff. That’s why we did what it is we did last week. It has no bearing on how we might conduct ourselves this week.”
But the Steelers expect Batch to make his second consecutive start, despite the fact that starter Ben Roethlisberger and No. 2 quarterback Byron Leftwich were both able to throw on Monday. Roethlisberger is three weeks removed from a sprained shoulder and dislocated rib, while Leftwich suffered two fractured ribs in a 13-10 loss to the Ravens two weeks ago.
Tomlin wouldn’t rule Roethlisberger or Leftwich out yet for this week, but it seems unlikely either will play.
“We are working offensively to put together a game plan that complements (Batch’s) strengths,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, Leftwich and Roethlisberger will be participating in some form or fashion. We will let that participation and the results guide us in terms of their availability as we push toward the latter part of the week. We will see where those guys are later in the week.”
Sanders has started the past three games with Brown nursing an ankle injury. But the Steelers expect to have Brown back this week and given the performance of both Sanders and Wallace, the team isn’t ready to simply put Sanders back into a No. 3 role.
Sanders has 10 receptions for 195 yards in the past three games, while Wallace has eight catches for 49 yards and a touchdown.
“(Wallace) is not producing in the manner in which he’d like to or which we’d like him to,” said Tomlin, who added that he does not believe Wallace’s struggles are due to a lack of effort. “It’s the function of a lot of things. He’s just going to be committed to continuing to work and we’re committed to that as well.”
Odds and end zones
In addition to Brown, the Steelers also could get All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu back this week. Polamalu has missed nine games, including the last seven, with a calf injury, but returned to practice last Friday. ... Linebacker LaMarr Woodley is doubtful to play this week with an ankle injury. Jason Worilds, who leads the Steelers with five sacks, would start if Woodley does not play. ... Tomlin said rookie Kelvin Beachum is first in line to start at right tackle in place fellow rookie Mike Adams, who suffered a sprained ankle against the Browns. But he would not rule out moving right guard Ramon Foster to right tackle and starting rookie David DeCastro at right guard. DeCastro was activated from injured reserve on Monday.