Injury-riddled Steelers' secondary could get a boost with activation of Sutton


Reinforcements are on the way for the injury-plagued Pittsburgh Steelers secondary.

Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell (23) can't get to a pass by Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017. Mitchell has been sidelined with an ankle injury the last couple weeks. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

How much? Well, coach Mike Tomlin isn’t quite ready to say.

The AFC North leaders activated rookie defensive back Cam Sutton from injured reserve on Tuesday, though Tomlin stressed that doesn’t mean the third-round pick will be on the field when the Steelers (8-2) host Green Bay on Sunday night.

Sutton spent the last two months recovering from a hamstring injury that he aggravated in the preseason finale against Carolina. He returned to practice this month and while he’s healthy enough to play, Tomlin is taking a pragmatic approach to whether Sutton is ready to play under the lights at Heinz Field.

“Working is one thing, playing is another,” Tomlin said. “He has yet to play. Stay tuned.”

The NFL’s fourth-ranked defense remains without starting cornerback Joe Haden, who is out indefinitely with a fractured left leg. Safety Mike Mitchell missed last Thursday’s win over Tennessee with an ankle injury.

Sutton has the versatility to play on the outside, in the slot and at safety. That doesn’t mean he will. While Sutton may be OK physically, there’s more to it than that. Tomlin doesn’t want Sutton to know only his job responsibilities, but also the responsibilities of those around him.

“We teach that you have a better chance to execute your assignment if you understand how it fits into the bigger picture specifically what those around you are doing,” Tomlin said. “So, it’s not unusual for us to ask guys to learn a lot of positions and even execute it in a practice setting, but in a game setting it’s different.”

The Steelers got by just fine without Haden and Mitchell in a 40-17 dismantling of the Titans. Though they allowed Marcus Mariota to pass for 306 yards, they also sacked him five times and collected a season-high four interceptions.

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden walks onto the field during warm ups before an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2017. Haden broke his leg in last week's game and is out indefinitely. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

“It was some of everything,” cornerback Artie Burns said. “It was home-field advantage. Our crowd was going crazy. We were applying pressure. The pressure, the crowd, the coverage, everything was getting to them. As the game kept going on and kept dialing it up and created more turnovers.”

They were the kind of splash plays Tomlin tasked his team with creating in the second-half of the season to help secure a second straight division title and perhaps home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. There’s still a long way to go, however, and as flashy as the defense looked in Pittsburgh’s most complete victory of the year, there’s still work to be done.

Tomlin pointed to Mariota’s 75-yard touchdown strike on the first play of the second half as the kind of plays the Steelers need to eliminate. It was the fourth touchdown throw of at least 50 yards during Pittsburgh’s current five-game winning streak, thanks in part to some shoddy downfield tackling.

“We’re missing tackles on big plays and allowing people to score,” Tomlin said. “We have to give our red-zone defense a chance to operate by making some of those tackles.”

The Steelers have been able to overcome the miscues and will face a backup quarterback for the second time in three weeks when Brett Hundley leads Green Bay at Heinz Field in place of injured Aaron Rodgers. Pittsburgh needed to rally to get past Jacoby Brissett in Indianapolis on Nov. 12. Hundley offers a similar challenge.

“We better not find comfort (in avoiding Rodgers),” Tomlin said.