Mike Tomlin called football a game of attrition the first day the Steelers hired him to coach their team. Nowhere has the erosion been felt more than in his backfield.
An already shaky backfield took three more blows with the revelation that fullback Frank Summers was placed on injured reserve with a back problem, his replacement last Sunday, David Johnson, is out with a high ankle sprain and starting halfback Willie Parker has turf toe.
The Steelers were fortunate in one sense that Carey Davis, their starting fullback through the first half of last season, was still available after they cut him before this season. They quickly re-signed Davis yesterday and he will become their third starting fullback in three games. Add to that the loss of Sean McHugh, their starting fullback the second half of last season who was placed on injured reserve this year.
Coordinator Bruce Arians said two weeks ago that there was no fullback in his offense, and, darn, if he wasn't correct.
Parker's injury might mean the resurrection of Rashard Mendenhall at halfback. Mendenhall was benched on offense by Tomlin Sunday in Cincinnati when his learning curve of the playbook looked more like a flat slider.
Tomlin took issue yesterday when he was asked at his news conference if Mendenhall was still in his doghouse.
"He is not in the doghouse. I don't have a doghouse," Tomlin replied. "A doghouse is something you have when you let things stew and you don't take action. I intend to take action and I'm done with it.
"He lacked a little detail in his preparation last week, so I chose not to play him offensively, and really was quite frank in dealing with him."
Perhaps, like Snoopy, Mendenhall merely spent time supine on top of his doghouse.
Tomlin explained why older players might get a break from him that Mendenhall, in his second season, did not over similar circumstances:
"It's a little different when a veteran football player potentially makes mistakes in preparation for a game. If Hines Ward misses an assignment on a Thursday, you kind of 'hmm' and you move on. Young guys have to earn their opportunity. They have to make coaches comfortable with their ability to execute details of their assignment. They need to make the other guys in the huddle very comfortable with their ability to execute the details of assignments.
"[Mendenhall] didn't do that to my satisfaction last week, so he didn't get a chance to play offense. That being said, I took action. I'm not carrying baggage into this week. If he plays above the line in preparation for the game, he'll be given an opportunity to play for us."
Tomlin might have no choice if Parker's big toe prevents him from running to satisfactory levels. As it is, the once-vaunted running game has been grounded, ranking 27th in the NFL with an average of 81 yards per game -- only 3.3 yards per carry. Parker leads with 159 yards but averages just 3.1 per carry.
Perhaps Mewelde Moore, their third-down back, also could become involved more if Parker cannot play. Moore helped save it last season when, with Parker and Mendenhall out, he rushed for 303 yards in three consecutive starts.
Not so Sweed
Say goodbye to Limas Sweed for a while.
Like the passes he keeps dropping, Sweed has plunged to the bottom of the depth chart at wide receiver, and it looks as though veteran Shaun McDonald will take his place with what Tomlin likes to call a "hat" for Sunday night's game against San Diego at Heinz Field.
"He's quite frankly not catching the football when he's deep downfield," Tomlin said two days after Sweed dropped what would have been a 34-yard touchdown, all alone in the end zone. "He's got some tape that shows that. He's got to shake that off. If and when he's given the next opportunity to make a similar play, he'd better make it."
Asked if he were concerned if that could happen, Tomlin answered, "I am, I am," and that he would "absolutely" consider dressing McDonald instead Sunday.
Holmes' blocking praised
Santonio Holmes dropped his fourth pass in two games -- like Sweed, he dropped one in the end zone in Chicago -- and ran that wrong route that led to a Cincinnati interception for a touchdown. Yet Holmes did some things right on Sunday and that was Tomlin's response when he was asked if perhaps his Super Bowl MVP had lost his focus.
"I thought he did some great things when the ball wasn't in his hands," Tomlin said. "It was one of the most physical games he's played since I've been here. I think he had four or five knockdowns in the game. I was pleased with that.
"I don't worry about whether or not his numbers are his numbers. I don't care who the ball goes to. I want the ball to go to the open guy because the guys we put on the field are the guys we feel are capable of helping us."
Some minor injuries
Tight end Matt Spaeth (hip pointer) and center Justin Hartwig (ankle) came out of Sunday's game with more minor injuries that might limit them in practice but should allow them to play against the Chargers.