The Steelers might have learned a lesson after the defense blew a pair of 10-point leads in the fourth quarter of their loss against Oakland.
Perhaps, that's why they plan to rotate outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in the game Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles and their elusive quarterback, Michael Vick.
Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl linebacker, will make his return against the Eagles (3-1) after missing spring and summer camps with a recurring knee injury. He will be joined in the starting lineup by All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu, who sat out the past two games with a calf injury.
The Steelers (1-2) told Harrison he will be spelled in the first half by Chris Carter, who has been starting at right outside linebacker since minicamp. The coaches want to be sure Harrison is fresh for the fourth quarter.
"I have to come off," Harrison said. "It's no need being out there, being dog-tired, and not be able to do what's necessary to play the position. You want to stay fresh. You don't want to go out there and play every snap in the first half and come out sluggish in the third and have nothing left in the fourth."
The Steelers have a similar plan for Woodley, who has three of the team's five sacks.
They will spell him early with Jason Worilds because they want to make sure Woodley is fresh enough to chase Vick in the fourth quarter. But the Steelers will not have Harrison and Woodley out of the game at the same time.
After the defense blew leads of 24-14 and 31-21 in the fourth quarter of their 34-31 loss to the Raiders, the coaches want to make sure their best players are fresh when the game might be on the line in the fourth quarter.
In Harrison's case, though, it is his first game since the wild-card playoff loss in Denver.
"When it comes down to it, a lot of it simply is because I haven't played," Harrison said. "To actually think you're going to go out there and play 60-plus snaps in a game ... I haven't seen the normal training camp, the normal [organized training activities] and preseason. When you look at it, it's really coming up on what would be my first preseason game."
It might not have seemed like a significant moment when running back Rashard Mendenhall participated in both indoor practices last week during the off week. After all, he had been practicing almost on a daily basis with the Steelers for more than a month while he continued his recovery and rehabilitation from anterior cruciate ligament surgery on his right knee.
But, when he did, it was one of the final steps the coaches needed to see before they proclaimed him ready -- physically and mentally -- to return to the lineup.
Mendenhall had no trepidation about practicing both days on the indoor facility's artificial turf -- a surface that tends to generate more stress and pounding on the knee. That convinced the coaches, who knew he was physically ready, that he was mentally ready, as well.
Mendenhall will make his return against the Eagles, his first game since he tore the ACL on New Year's Day in Cleveland.,
"That's just part of it," Mendenhall said about practicing. "Each day is a unique day. That was one of those days where it feels good and continues to feel good.
"For me, I've been taking steps accordingly, so I feel confident in everything I've been able to do. And the next step is getting out there, and I'm confident in that. The game will kind of tell its own tale."
The return of Mendenhall, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher, comes at a good time.
The Steelers have struggled in the running game, ranking 31st in the league and averaging just 65 yards rushing in three games. Worse, Mendenhall's replacements, Isaac Redman and Joanthan Dwyer, have averaged just 2.4 yards per carry and don't have a run longer than 13 yards.
That has been one of Mendenhall's signatures. In the past three seasons, he has had 23 runs of 20 yards or longer, including 11 in 2010.
"I thought he has looked good for a couple of weeks," said offensive coordinator Todd Haley. "You could tell he was gaining confidence and moving around pretty well. Like I said from the start, he is a heck of a football player. He is a difference-maker. The more of those you can have on the field, the better."
"It's awesome, man," center Maurkice Pouncey said. "He's a great back. He has speed and explosion. It gives us another force back there to go with the backs we already have."
The Steelers will waste little finding out about Mendenhall because he is expected to start against the Eagles.
Still, he likely will be rotated with the other backs Haley has employed in the first three games, at least for now.
"He will give us pretty good feedback through his actions, with how he is doing," Haley said.
"We will see how it goes."
Either way, Mendenhall is ready for his return, physically and mentally.
"There are little things to stepping back out here, from making certain cuts to getting in the game to getting hit on [the knee]," Mendenhall said. "It's just a progression that I'm preparing myself for.
"Periodically, there are different cuts, different movements -- making a jump cut where you weren't even thinking about it -- things like that are just steps toward being able to do everything you're asked to do as a running back."
First Published October 6, 2012 4:30 AM