Pittsburgh's once rock-solid defensive line will be missing another piece Monday night when it plays in Denver.
The Steelers lost end Aaron Smith for the season with a rotator cuff injury Oct. 11. Now comes news that his replacement, Travis Kirschke, likely will miss at least their next game with a torn left calf muscle.
Nick Eason will start at left end for Kirschke, but that leaves two rookies as their top two backups as they enter the high altitude of Denver. The Steelers like to spell their starters as it is, and have done so even more often when they play in Denver.
"We've played there a few times and we know what it's like," said veteran backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, who also could be called to play a few snaps at end in Denver. "I played in high altitude in college so you need to make sure have a good rotation going."
But behind the starting ends are Ziggy Hood and Sunny Harris, both rookies. Hood, their first-round pick, has played a few snaps in each game but not many. Harris has not played yet, and he was cut by the Steelers after training camp, only to get him back from Carolina's practice squad after Smith's injury.
"We're going to continue to do what we've always done around here, which is come at all angles," said Brett Keisel, their starting end on the right side. "If guys got to come in to play, they have to come in to play. We feel Ziggy's come a long way since training camp."
As it is, the Steelers' defense could be down three starters Monday night. Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has missed both practices this week with a sprained right ankle that coach Mike Tomlin listed as questionable. Free safety Ryan Clark likely will not play because he nearly lost his life the last time he played in Denver in 2007 - he has sickle cell trait and his blood reacted in the exertion of the high altitude and he lost his spleen, gall bladder, 30 pounds and the rest of the season.
Timmons could be limited to playing in the nickel defense with Keyaron Fox starting at inside linebacker on the run downs. Tyrone Carter would replace Clark at free safety but young Ryan Mundy will be ready to go there as well.
The more important aspect, though, is what's happening in the defensive line. The Steelers have prided themselves on having one of the best 3-4 lines in the NFL this decade, and they have the top-rated run defense this season.
But without Smith and Kirschke, that line is showing some cracks. Coincidentally, one of the players the Steelers cut in 2008, Ryan McBean, starts at defensive end for Denver. He was a fourth-round draft pick who spent only his rookie season with the Steelers.
"They're ready to play," former backup Eason said of the two rookie backups. "Ziggy, Sunny as well. He's been here, he knows the defense."
21st regular-season meeting. Denver leads series 13-6-1. The Broncos are 7-2-1 at home vs. Pittsburgh. The teams are 3-3 in the playoffs. The Steelers have not won in Denver in the regular season since 1990, including a 31-28 loss in 2007. However, Pittsburgh did win the AFC Championship Game in Denver after the 2005 season.
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