Fumbles, injuries serve as catalysts for big shakeup in Steelers lineup

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Mike Tomlin once threatened lineup changes as his team tanked near the end of the 2009 season, and the only change was a switch in nickel backs. Tuesday, he lowered the boom on two offensive stars after two consecutive losses, not only without a warning but also without saying a word.

The team's official depth chart, always approved by the coach, was published at mid-morning. Not only was "franchise" halfback Rashard Mendenhall not listed as the starter as he has been since his return from an ACL injury, but he was listed No. 3 behind newly crowned starter Jonathan Dwyer and his backup Isaac Redman.

Tomlin confirmed those moves at his noon news conference.

If that was a surprise, consider what happened to Pro Bowler Mike Wallace, the team's starting split end since 2010 and their leading receiver in '11. Tomlin listed Antonio Brown as one starting wide receiver -- indeed, he might return to play in Baltimore -- but no longer did he definitively list Wallace as the other starting wide receiver.

The depth chart lists Mike Wallace or Emmanuel Sanders as the starter. Asked what would determine who will start, Tomlin answered simply, "Situations."

It might be Tomlin merely sending a message to a receiver who has not been productive lately. Wallace caught one pass in Cleveland on the final play of the game for 9 yards. He has eight receptions for 49 yards total in the past three games.

"Mike was frustrated, and rightfully so," Tomlin said of the game Sunday. "He's not producing in the manner in which he'd like to or which we'd like him to. 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."

Wallace and Mendenhall will become unrestricted free agents in March if the Steelers do not sign them before then, so both could be in their final season here. Mendenhall has been beset by injuries, missing the first three games while overcoming January ACL surgery. After starting games four and five, he missed four more with an Achilles injury that occurred in his second game back.

His first game, against Philadelphia, was his best when he rushed for 68 yards on 13 carries and caught three passes for 33 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown. Since then, he has done little and has 113 yards and a 3.3-yard per carry average.

He had been listed as the starter since the fourth game and has started all four in which he has played, including Sunday. But, when he fumbled on the second play on offense, his second carry, Tomlin pulled him. Mendenhall fumbled a second time on his fourth and final carry of the day, but it was not a turnover.

Dwyer leads the team with 429 yards and a 4.4-yard average.

"He's been consistently the most productive guy," Tomlin said after announcing he would start. "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. Other guys will supplement him in some form or fashion based on the situation and how we formulate our game plan."

Of patients and patience

Tomlin had plenty of news related to injuries, both coming and going.

• Ben Roethlisberger threw Monday, and, while Tomlin said he "will leave the door open for him," he said they will proceed as if Charlie Batch is the quarterback and draw up the game plan around him. Backup Byron Leftwich also threw Monday and, like Roethlisberger, his work this week will determine his status.

• Safety Troy Polamalu, who has missed nine games, including the past seven with a pulled calf muscle, will practice today "with the possibility of him playing. We are encouraged by his status as well."

• Wide receiver Antonio Brown will practice today, and Tomlin said he will play after missing the past three games with a sprained ankle.

• Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery ran Monday and will be limited in practice today "with an eye toward playing."

• Offensive tackle Mike Adams is out with a left ankle sprain.

• Offensive left guard Willie Colon (knee) has a "strong chance of playing" after he was held out in Cleveland.

• Outside left linebacker LaMarr Woodley is doubtful with an ankle sprain from the Cleveland game.

• Offensive tackle Marcus Gilbert was placed on injured reserve Monday and surgery "is a strong option" on his ankle.

• Offensive guard David DeCastro, activated from IR Monday, is "healthy enough to proceed ... and we'll continue to work him in practice and see what he's capable of doing."

The injuries will necessitate some lineup changes:

• Rookie Kelvin Beachum is scheduled to start for Adams at right tackle. Another option is to play DeCastro -- if he is ready -- at right guard and move Ramon Foster from right guard to right tackle, but Tomlin indicated they will most likely go with Beachum because DeCastro has not played since the preseason and had not practiced until last week.

• Jason Worilds, who leads the team with five sacks, would start at left outside linebacker if Woodley cannot play.

Tomlin supports Batch

Tomlin explained why he has not lost confidence in Batch despite his three interceptions in the 20-14 loss against the Browns.

"Just his body of work, not only that singular performance. Just his body of work, not only through this season on the practice field and in training camp and in preseason settings, but what he's done since he's been here. He's a capable, veteran guy, one that the guys believe in, one that we know is capable of providing a winning-type performance for us. That didn't occur on Sunday, but he wasn't alone."

He said Brian Hoyer, who was signed last week to back up Batch in Cleveland, would be used only in an emergency.

Other Batch is back

Halfback Baron Batch, released last week, was signed to the practice squad.


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published November 28, 2012 5:00 AM

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