Mike Tomlin delivered both good and bad news during his weekly press conference. The Steelers' coach informed the media that linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, cornerback Joe Haden and defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk are expected to practice this week after each player was inactive for Pittsburgh's Week 11 loss to the Chargers.
While the Steelers' defense received positive news, Pittsburgh's offense will likely be without several key players for Sunday's game against the Bengals. Ray-Ray McCloud, the Steelers' No. 4 receiver and the team's main returner on special teams, is on Pittsburgh's reserve/COVID-19 list. Tight end Eric Ebron, who caught a touchdown pass in Sunday night's 41-37 loss to Los Angeles, is dealing with a series knee injury. The injury may require surgery, according to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. J.C. Hassenauer, who filled in for injured starter Kevin Dotson as the Steelers' starting left guard on Sunday, is dealing with a shoulder injury sustained during Sunday night's game.
If he is not cleared for Sunday's road game against the Bengals, McCloud would be replaced by second-year receiver Cody White, who caught two passes during Pittsburgh's Week 3 loss to Cincinnati. Ebron's place in the lineup will likely be filled by Zach Gentry, a three-year veteran who is likely the Steelers' best blocking tight end. If Hassenauer is not ready to return to the lineup for Sunday's game, Pittsburgh's opening at left guard will likely be filled by B.J. Finney, who was picked up by the Steelers in 2015 after going undrafted. Finney, who spent the 2020 season with the Seahawks and Bengals, made 13 starts with the Steelers between 2016-19. He was in the starting lineup when Le'Veon Bell ran for a franchise record 236 yards in Pittsburgh's 2016 win against the Bills.
The Steelers will need as many healthy bodies as possibly as they prepare to face a Bengals team that is currently ahead of them in the AFC North division standings. Cincinnati snapped its two-game losing streak by defeating the Raiders this past Sunday in Las Vegas, 32-13. Running back Joe Mixon led the Bengals' offense with 123 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while the Bengals' defense held the Raiders' offense to just 13 first downs and 278 total yards.
Pittsburgh was without Watt, fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith and receiver Diontae Johnson for their 24-10 loss to Cincinnati back in Week 3. Joe Burrow took advantage of Pittsburgh's weakened pass rush by going 14 of 18 passing that included two touchdown passes to rookie Ja'Marr Chase. Conversely, Cincinnati's pass rush led to four sacks of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw a season-high 58 passes in Pittsburgh's second loss of the season.
"This is a big week for us, and I think that's one of the approaches that we're going to take this week," Tomlin said of Sunday's game. "We're not going to play it cool and pretend like it's not or downplay it. This is significant AFC North football for us. ... These games are big. You're not going to back door your way into the single elimination tournament. ... You've got to go on the road and win games in this division. That's just the reality of it.
"The sugar on top is obviously, earlier in the season, they were able to come to our place and win. So it's a big game for us, it's a big game for them."