The knee injury to rookie guard David DeCastro is not as serious as first believed and it is possible he could return at some point this season. But it has made a tricky situation just a bit more precarious for the Steelers.
That's because DeCastro, the team's No. 1 pick, is the latest in a line of injured players who will impact the decisions made on the 53-man roster.
The Steelers have to cut their roster to 53 players on Friday or at any point after tonight's final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. But they have several injured starters they will have to carry on the roster who won't be able to play for a couple more weeks -- or even longer.
DeCastro is one, or could be, pending the results of the surgery he had Wednesday on his injured right knee. (The Steelers did not release any update on the surgery.) Another is running back Rashard Mendenhall, who is coming off surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and is still waiting to practice.
Then there is inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, the top backup to Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons, He will be out two more weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament.
The situation gained a little more clarity Tuesday when Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison (knee) and top backup Jason Worilds (wrist) were taken off the physically-unable-to-perform list. Both players are scheduled to return to practice Monday for the first time since the spring and, barring any setback, should play in the season opener in Denver.
And that doesn't even include nose tackle Casey Hampton, who hasn't played in a game since having ACL surgery in January. Hampton could play tonight. The team gets a roster exemption for tight end Weslye Saunders, who will serve a four-week suspension to begin the season for violating the league's banned substance policy.
"There's always a problem getting to that 53," coach Mike Tomlin said. "That is the challenge that is the National Football League. We understand it and embrace it, and I think our guys do as well."
It is possible the Steelers could elect to put DeCastro on injured reserve, ending his season. But, by carrying at least two players who will not play for a while, the Steelers might have to keep fewer players than usual at other positions. And one of those could be at quarterback, where veteran Charlie Batch might be the odd man out.
Batch, 37, is scheduled to get a lot of playing time against the Panthers, but the Steelers may not be in position to keep three quarterbacks -- something they have traditionally done because of the importance they place on the position. Byron Leftwich cemented his position as the backup to Ben Roethlisberger with an impressive showing last week in Buffalo, creating a situation where Batch could possibly be playing his final game with the Steelers tonight.
If the Steelers release Batch, a Homestead native and Steel Valley High School graduate, they will try to put Jarrod Johnson on the practice squad to give them a scout-team quarterback for practice. Of course, they could always release Batch and then re-sign him when the status of their injured players is much clearer.
"We've got some tough decisions to make," Tomlin said. "But if we do our job and they do their job, those decisions are always tough."
The return of Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Wallace means offensive coordinator Todd Haley needs to find only one player from his crop of rookies or free agents to be the No. 5 receiver.
Right now, the battle appears to be between David Gilreath, a first-year free agent from Wisconsin; and Derrick Williams, a third-year free agent from Penn State.
"We got a lot of guys still trying to make this team and we're still in the evaluation process for a lot of young guys fighting for their NFL lives right now," Haley said.
One player Haley does not need to evaluate is rookie running back Chris Rainey, who has two long touchdowns in the preseason and will be used as a situational player in the regular season.
"That's why they drafted me," said Rainey, a fifth-round pick from Florida who is listed at 5 feet 8, 178 pounds. "Everybody has always said small guys can't do anything and I keep proving them wrong
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published August 30, 2012 4:00 AM