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Injuries Mount As Steelers Limp Into Denver

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Maybe Mike Tomlin has a medical career in his future after all.

In his post-game press conference, the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach declined to speculate on the injury to running back Rashard Mendenhall. He simply opined, “When a guy goes down in open grass not touched by anyone, experience tells me that’s generally not good.” Well, the diagnosis turned out to be as bad as we feared with Mendy suffering a torn ACL requiring immediate surgery. The Steelers placed him on injured reserve, ending his 2011 season.

Longtime members of Steeler Nation will remember Rod Woodson became the first (and as far as I know, only) player to return from a torn ACL in the same season when the Black and Gold made it all the way to the Super Bowl in 1995. Typically, that injury requires a 6-8 month healing period and even then players often take a few years to get back to where they were before. If they ever get there at all.

A torn ACL is particularly bad for a running back because without the ability to cutback and without a quick burst of speed when hitting holes, they’re pretty much sitting ducks. That’s why running backs who suffer this sort of injury tend to fall out of favor with NFL teams rather quickly. Frank Gore suffered a torn ACL in college then saw his stock plummet from a late first round pick to a third rounder. He did wind up having a really good career with the Niners. On the flip side is Willis McGahee, who was projected to be a top five pick when he tore his ACL although the Bills rolled the dice and took him late in the first round anyway. McGahee had a few good seasons with the Ratbirds (we’ll see him this Sunday playing for the Broncos) but he’s bounced around the league and never really fulfilled the potential he once had.

It’s a bit premature to start worrying about off-season moves but it’ll be interesting to see how the Steelers address Mendenhall’s injury. He wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire this season and the offense is becoming more and more reliant on the Flying Circus to move the ball anyway. He’ll be back next year, probably right in time for training camp or thereabouts, although I wouldn’t expect him to be fully recovered until 2013. The Steelers may need to hedge their bets next year by taking a running back early in the draft or maybe even *gasp* signing a free agent.

The Steelers also re-signed veteran cornerback Anthony Madison. When the nuclear holocaust comes, the only thing left standing will be Anthony Madison wearing the Black and Gold. We just can’t seem to get away from this guy. Not that I have anything against him, he’s by all accounts a swell person and well-liked teammate. It’s just getting to the point we should probably nickname him Gum Shoe or something due to his being impossible to be rid of.

Bringing in Madison sends an interesting message in regards to the status of the Steelers’ top ranked secondary. Both Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen left Sunday’s game with injuries and the team noticed their absence. A big reason the Steelers pass defense has been awesome this year is because Dick LeBeau has been putting six DBs on the field to cover for the aging linebackers and weaknesses of the corners. Stuck in the base D, Gay struggled in coverage. And with Lewis and Allen out, Bryant McFadden had to come in as the nickel. Might as well put at tackling dummy out there for all the coverage skills B-Mac brings to the table.

Madison’s return may also be related to the status of Ryan Clark. Madison has switched between corner and safety during his time in Pittsburgh and we may need an extra safety come Sunday. Clark had his spleen and gallbladder removed (and nearly died) a few years ago when the Mile High altitude triggered his sickle cell disease. The last time we played in Denver, Mike Tomlin took the decision away from Clark by telling him he would not play and Clark expects that to be the case once again. Perhaps signing Madison is a signal that Tomlin has made his decision.