Steelers notebook: Another draft pick, Spence, injures knee
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin gives a fist pump to injured linebacker Sean Spence in the third quarter Thursday night at Heinz Field.
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One game after the Steelers lost No. 1 draft choice David DeCastro for an extended period of time, they lost another top rookie when inside linebacker Sean Spence was carted off the field in the third quarter with what they initially termed a left knee injury.
Spence, a third-round pick from Miami, had a vacuum cast placed on his left leg while many of his teammates and coach Mike Tomlin huddled around him on the field.
Spence was transported to a local hospital and Tomlin called the injury "significant." Spence had his head draped in a towel and was in obvious anguish as he was taken from the field.
"He's a good kid, a tough kid," said linebacker coach Keith Butler.
The injury was another blow to a unit that already has three of its top six players out with injuries -- outside linebackers James Harrison (knee) and Jason Worilds (wrist) and inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester (knee).
Harrison and Worilds, though, were taken off the physically-unable-to-perform list on Tuesday and are scheduled to practice Monday when the players report back for work. Neither has practiced since the spring, but, barring any setback, the Steelers are anticipating them playing in the season opener in Denver.
Sylvester, the top backup to inside linebacker Larry Foote, sprained the MCL in his knee in the final practice at Saint Vincent College and is not expected to return until at least the second game of the season.
"Hopefully we're getting them out of the way now," Foote said.
The Steelers don't have to worry about deciding if they should carry DeCastro on their 53-man roster.
Not after the league and the NFL Players Association agreed Thursday to a new rule that allows teams to designate one player to go on injured reserve and be allowed to return to the roster eight weeks later. The rule originally was passed by the owners in May.
Teams are not required to bring the player back after eight weeks. They can wait longer, if they choose, if the player isn't ready to rejoin the team.
The rule only applies to a player who makes the final 53-man roster to start the season.
Steelers president Art Rooney II proposed the rule a while ago, and, ironically, it now appears as though he had DeCastro in mind.
"That was something we were in favor of and it worked out," Rooney said.
"It was first proposed at the meetings in March and [the owners] decided it was something that needed to be approved by the players association. It's been in discussion with the management council since then."
DeCastro injured his knee in the victory at Buffalo Saturday, but the injury was not as severe as initially feared and the Steelers think DeCastro might be able to return later in the season.
Without the new rule, the Steelers would have had to carry DeCastro on their 53-man roster or place him on injured reserve, ending his season.
Under the new setup, they would still have to put him on their 53-man roster and release a player when they make their final cuts by 9 p.m. today. But they could bring that player back Monday when they would have to designate DeCastro as the injured-reserve player who could return after eight weeks.
"He's a candidate for it, but we haven't decided if he's the candidate," Rooney said.
Rookie running back Chris Rainey, who already had long touchdowns of 41 and 57 yards in the preseason, appeared to add two more against the Panthers -- both on punt returns.
But, on each return, the touchdown was wiped out by a penalty
Rainey had a 78-yard scoring return on the first punt negated by a holding penalty against safety Will Allen. The next time the Panthers punted, Rainey returned that 90 yards for a touchdown, only to have the play wiped out by a holding penalty against safety Ryan Mundy.
Rainey was asked if he ever had two returns wiped out by penalty in the same game?
"I've never had two returns in one game," he said. "I don't care. It's preseason. I know they don't count anyway. You got to do it in the regular season."
Five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton returned to the field for the first time since having ACL surgery on his left knee in January and played the first two series. He even made the tackle on the first running play.
Since he injured his knee in the playoff loss in Denver, Hampton's goal was to return in time for the season opener. It appears as though he will do that.
"It felt pretty good," Hampton said. "I haven't seen full-speed action in a long time, so it was as good as it could have been. I didn't want to go into Denver without having any full-speed action."
Emmanuel Sanders has been playing the split-end position during Mike Wallace's holdout, but he didn't have a catch longer than 17 yards among his four receptions in the first three games.
That changed against the Panthers.
Sanders made a dazzling 37-yard touchdown catch in the end zone on the first possession, stretching between safeties Josh Thomas and Reggie Smith to haul in Charlie Batch's pass.
Tight end Weslye Saunders, who has to serve a four-week suspension to start the regular season, went out in nice style.
Saunders caught a 6-yard touchdown from Jarrod Johnson in the fourth quarter to give the Steelers a 17-10 lead. On that drive, he caught a 29-yard pass to help set up the go-ahead score.
Saunders was suspended for violating the league's banned-substance policy. He has had two appeals of the suspension denied by the league.
Coach Mike Tomlin elected to sit 11 starters against the Panthers, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Six were on defense -- safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor and defensive ends Brett Keisel and Ziggy Hood.
In addition to Roethlisberger, four other starters on offense did not play -- center Maurkice Pouncey, running back Isaac Redman, wide receiver Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller.
Keisel (ankle) and Redman (ankle) were held out because they were injured.
Cornerback Curtis Brown injured his left knee in the first quarter and did not return.
It was not known when Brown was injured, but it could have been when he recovered a fumbled punt after the second possession. The takeaway was the eighth by the Steelers in the preseason. They had a league-low 15 last season.
First Published August 31, 2012 12:06 am