The Steelers defense lies in tatters, torn apart by two opposing running backs, silenced in turnovers and sacks and now shattered by the loss of two of its best players.
It is time, captain Hines Ward said, for his offense to turn the tables and carry the defense on its shoulders, starting Sunday against Tennessee. Time to pay back all those games their defense pulled out with dominating performances and timely turnovers.
"It's time for the offense to step up and carry this team," Ward said, "because the defense has carried us for many years now. And now they're going through this situation. We need to be there for our teammates and for this organization, we have to go out and make more plays."
The Steelers defense will be without four-time All-Pro linebacker James Harrison for 4 to 6 weeks and for their all-time best 3-4 defensive end, Aaron Smith, for at least this week. They will not have had the same starting defensive lineup in any of their five games this season when they take Heinz Field Sunday to play the Titans.
- Game: Steelers (2-2) vs. Tennessee Titans, (3-1).
- When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
- TV: KDKA.
- Favored: Steelers by 5.
"James Harrison went down! He's like the terminator," Ward said.
"I never thought he'd miss any games. That puts a lot of stress -- not really stress, but importance -- on offense that we have to control the ball, keep Chris Johnson off the field."
The Steelers offense, though, has its own problems, such as an offensive line that has had three starting lineups in four games and could have another this week.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not practice Wednesday and still wore a boot on his injured left foot, and two halfbacks did not practice because of injuries -- starter Rashard Mendenhall (hamstring) and Mewelde Moore (ankle).
Roethlisberger repeated what coach Mike Tomlin predicted Tuesday, that he will play Sunday. And Ward said they will play as an angry team.
"We have a lot of guys who are [ticked] off right now," Ward said.
"We know we're not playing good football."
Roethlisberger will wear the same kind of protective shoe on his left foot that he wore last season on his right when a bone was broken. He said Wednesday there was no structural damage to his left foot, that it was bruised, but he does not want to take any chances of hurting it more severely.
The shoe will be an extra size larger and have a metal plate in the sole.
"We hope that we don't aggravate it, that's kind of the big key," Roethlisberger said.
He said he wants to make sure the injury does not affect him stepping into his throws or how he plays.
"I play the game a certain way and I don't want to change that. People talk about getting the ball out of your hand faster, do this and do that. But I've been playing this game pretty successfully, this is my eighth year and done a decent job, we've done a good job and the line has done a good job.
"I want to make sure [the linemen] don't get too much blame because a lot of it is my fault. We'll just play the game the way we know how."
Max Starks signed a one-year, $810,000 contract and reported back to the Steelers Wednesday at 352 pounds, about 60 lighter than he was earlier this year. He then said he took about half of the snaps with the first team at left tackle.
He hopes to share time with the first team all week, provided his coaches liked what they saw.
"If I did OK, I'll probably stay on pace to do what I did today," said Starks.
It was his first practice since November, when he was lost for the season after neck surgery. Starks said his neck feels fine now but agreed it might be difficult to jump into a starting job with just a few practices after 11 months of none.
"It's a little premature to think that far ahead. I think I have at least an opportunity to dress by Sunday if I keep on this path and getting after it like I have. It probably would be a little tough [to start], but I'm a professional and it doesn't take too long to get back into things. We'll see how the week goes."
Jonathan Scott, who opened the season as the starting left tackle, returned to practice Wednesday after missing the loss Sunday at Houston with a sprained ankle. He said he does not know if he will regain his job or not.
"I don't know that now but I'll definitely be prepared for whatever direction they take us. [Starks] helped me out last year and having him in the offensive line is definitely an addition."
Roethlisberger, by the way, said he has pushed for the Steelers to re-sign Starks since training camp.
• Brett Keisel, who missed the past two games with a sprained knee, practiced Wednesday and said he will start at right defensive end. "I'm going to play. There wasn't anything today to indicate I wouldn't."
• With Keisel back, Ziggy Hood likely would move to left defensive end to start Sunday in place of Smith. He replaced Keisel the past two games.
• Ward, who needs 67 yards to pass Michael Irvin (11,904) for 19th most career receiving yards in the NFL, said he has been open this season for the most part. "I'm in the right spots I need to be. I can't tell someone or dictate where the ball goes. It's out of my control." Ward has 13 receptions for 136 yards.
• Keisel, on the team's 2-2 record: "I know people want to bury us, but we'll be OK."
• With his team's next victory, Mike Tomlin will notch No. 51 and tie Buddy Parker for third most among the franchise's coaches, including the postseason. Chuck Noll leads with 209 and Bill Cowher is second with 161, but Tomlin (50-25) has the best winning percentage (.667).
First Published October 6, 2011 4:00 AM