The Steelers are preparing for the possibility that linebacker James Harrison will not be able to open the season Sept. 9 at Denver.
Harrison had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Wednesday to remove an impairment that has caused swelling since the spring. There remains optimism that Harrison could make it back for the opener.
"Shouldn't be long," coach Mike Tomlin said, although not estimating that in weeks. "We'll see when we get him back here and start the process of working him back."
In the meantime, they are proceeding with alternate preparations.
"There's always concern when you don't have James Harrison," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "We'll see, I don't know. I have to prepare and get people ready."
Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl player and former NFL defensive player of the year, has been on the physically-unable-to-perform list and has not practiced since early spring because of his knee problem. He is 34 and has been the team's starting outside linebacker on the right side the past five seasons.
As to why the surgery was not performed earlier, perhaps even in June, it was assumed rest would cure it. But the Steelers suspect that Harrison may have pushed it too hard working out in his impatience to return to the team, aggravating the injury.
Compounding the problem for the Steelers is the continued absence of Jason Worilds, the top backup at outside linebacker. He also has been on the PUP list with a wrist injury. Chris Carter, a fifth-round draft choice by the Steelers in 2011 who played mostly special teams as a rookie, has taken Harrison's place on the right side, so to speak.
"I don't know if you can replace James Harrison," Butler said. "I don't know if you can do that. Right now, we're short until either Jason or James gets back. Chris has done a great job. He's improved quite a bit. I think he'll be ready to play. I don't know if he'll be ready to play a full game, so that's a concern."
Adding more layers of drama to the situation at outside linebacker is the venue in which the Steelers open the regular season. Not only do they not know if Carter can play a full game under normal conditions, they must play in the high altitude in Denver.
"We might just sub a little bit more," said Butler, a former linebacker who played a decade for the Seattle Seahawks. "That first game is going to be tough, it's going to be in Denver, it's going to be at Mile High. People say there's nothing to the thin air out there but that's [nonsense]; I played there for 10 years so I know what it is. Denver was in our division when I played and there's some acclimation involved, especially in the first half.
"So we have to have more than one team ready to go out there with our outside guys. I'm still looking to see who that guy is."
Butler noted that there still is plenty of time for things to work out, that Harrison and Worilds could be ready to go to start the season. He's working on contingencies, just in case.
Stevenson Sylvester and veteran newcomer Brandon Johnson have practiced at the inside and outside positions. Undrafted rookie Adrian Robinson has a chance to make the roster but won't be ready to start.
Butler could be forced to do something he prefers not to -- play starting inside mack linebacker Lawrence Timmons on the outside, as he did last season when Harrison missed five games and parts of others. If that happens, either Sylvester or third-round draft pick Sean Spence would move into his inside spot.
"I prefer not to put Lawrence back outside," Butler said. "But that's always a possibility. What we want to do is put our best people on the field regardless who they are. It's my job to try to make sure they're prepared for any contingency we might have."
Isaac Redman's sore groin has not improved, so he will have an MRI this morning to have a better diagnosis of the injury that has dogged the new starting halfback since early in training camp.
"It's tough to run right now," Redman said.
The injury caused Redman to miss some practices before the first preseason game in Philadelphia a week ago. He started that game, carried five times for 14 yards and caught two passes, and did not return after the first series. He did not return immediately to practice Saturday when the Steelers returned to Latrobe. Although he has tried to do some things, practices the past two days have mainly been up to the only two healthy running backs eligible, Baron Batch and rookie Chris Rainey.
Redman tried to join them Wednesday, but early on in some individual drills he dropped in pain on all fours and, after getting some aid from the trainers, watched the rest of practice.
Redman said he is unsure if he will play Sunday against Indianapolis at Heinz Field.
"I heal pretty fast. Hopefully, I can get right past this."
The running backs have been hit harder with injuries than anyone this year. It began on New Year's Day with Rashard Mendenhall's ACL injury in Cleveland. Over the past week, the Steelers lost starting fullback David Johnson for the season to a torn ACL and MCL, lost backup halfback John Clay for the season to a thigh injury, and have had Redman and Jonathan Dwyer on the sideline. Dwyer has an AC joint sprain in his shoulder from the Eagles game.
"Me and Dwyer tried to come back," Redman said of practice Tuesday. "Dwyer couldn't do any contact but we tried to come back and just have two more fresh legs out there and try to give them a break when we could."
It has left the team with Rainey and Batch, who returned this year from an ACL tear in the first two weeks of his rookie training camp in 2011.
"You'll never hear me complain about getting a lot of reps," Batch said Wednesday after practice. "It's been like that the past few days.
"I just want everybody to be ready to go when the season starts. I know how hard it is to sit out and not be able to play. I don't want that for anybody."
The Steelers have one fullback, Will Johnson, and another running back on his way in the form of undrafted rookie Jason Ford. He signed Tuesday but rules do not permit him to practice until Friday.
The NFL will reveal by the end of this week what punishment it will hand Eagles cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie for his hit Thursday on Steelers quarterback Byron Leftwich.
While Rodgers-Cromartie thought the hit was "clean," he was flagged for it and some are calling it a classic illegal grand slam -- late, launched, high and to a quarterback.
• Game: Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts, Heinz Field.
• When: 8 p.m. Sunday.
• TV: WPXI.
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 16, 2012 4:00 AM