The Pittsburgh Steelers will be the healthiest we've seen them all season in Week 5 when they take on the Philadelphia Eagles. Safety Troy Polamalu, linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall will all be on the field—the latter two for the first time this season—and as such, we'll likely see a transformation in the Steelers' effectiveness on both offense and defense.
But how much of a transformation? Let's take a closer look at how big of an impact these three players can reasonably have in their return to action this week.
Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall is coming off an ACL tear he suffered in Week 17 of last season and the subsequent surgery to repair it. What was once thought of as an injury that would keep him off the field for the entirety of 2012 has him now back after five weeks of the regular season.
Mendenhall has been practicing for a month now and just has to pass a knee strength test before being cleared to play on Sunday, and there's little chance he won't pass it. The consensus as of now is that Mendenhall will play—he said he believes as much on Wednesday—and that he will be the lead back in what will remain a committee approach while the Steelers watch his progress.
The Steelers clearly need all the help they can get in the run game. On an average of 24.7 rushing attempts per game, the Steelers are averaging just 65 yards and 4.3 first downs. Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman haven't been able to get much running room behind an offensive line that is far better at protecting the quarterback than creating running lanes.
The hope is that Mendenhall, with his east-west running abilities, burst and general shiftiness, can lift the Steelers out of the 2.6 yards per carry they're averaging presently. Of course, the Eagles defense will present some obstacles in this effort. Their wide-nine formation prevents edge running, and that's an area the Steelers need Mendenhall's contributions the most.
The Eagles have allowed just 91.5 rushing yards per game on average, and the Steelers, even with Mendenhall back in the fold, will be hard-pressed to get beyond that mark on Sunday.
However, if Mendenhall does have an impressive performance—regardless of the Steelers' overall rushing yardage total—it's a good sign that he'll be ready to return to being Pittsburgh's go-to running back. The result should be some overall improvement in that area of their offense each week he's on the field. This Sunday is just the first step in that longer-view effort.
The first and arguably biggest benefit of Troy Polamalu coming back from his calf injury is that Ryan Mundy won't be on the field as a starter for the third consecutive week. Pro Football Focus has Mundy currently ranked 106 out of 118 safeties regardless of snaps on the season; Polamalu, in contrast, is ranked 35 though he's played just one game.
Polamalu's presence on the field means a more dimensional pass rush (i.e. those blitzes that helped him make his name) and better run coverage. Both will be key with the Eagles' shifty quarterback Michael Vick and top-tier running back LeSean McCoy coming to town this week.
Vick's biggest strength is his ability to roll away from pressure and make throws or run with the ball, and Polamalu will be a major part of stopping him from doing either. It's well-known that Polamalu's field position helps dictate what quarterbacks (and running backs) do or do not attempt, and that element of surprise is just what the Steelers defense needs considering their own players have declared it "predictable" earlier this season.
Polamalu may not be the player he used to be, and his wild style of tackling can result in him missing altogether on bringing down a running back or quarterback, but the Steelers defense is usually better when he's playing than when he's not. To that end, they should look far better and far faster than they have in Weeks 2 and 3 when he was sidelined.
Limiting Vick's and McCoy's effectiveness is the key to defeating the Eagles this week, and Polamalu has the particular skill set to help them do just that.
The Steelers front seven just hasn't been the same this year without James Harrison. When, last year, he missed four games with a broken orbital bone, fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley was able to step up and notch 7.5 of his total nine sacks on the season during that time.
But now, things have changed. Without Harrison, the Steelers pass rush has dwindled to practically nothing. Woodley has been the only rush-dedicated linebacker in their first three games, and as such, the team has a total of just five sacks and a 1.7 sacks-per-game average (last year, it was 2.1).
Harrison's replacements during the first three games, Chris Carter and Jason Worilds, have been used more heavily in run defense, while Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons have been splitting their time against the run and in coverage.
Now, with Harrison back, opposing offensive lines won't be able to focus so much attention on Woodley—they'll be splitting it up between him and Harrison and thus leaving more opportunities open for the two to beat their men and get their hands on quarterbacks.
Though the Steelers also rely on a heavy dose of the blitz to get to quarterbacks, this approach is more risky against one as mobile as Vick. They'll need more of a traditional pass rush as a way to lay hits on him without losing containment. If it were just Woodley on his own, this would be quite difficult, but with both Harrison and Woodley, their chances for success are far greater.
As long as Harrison can stay healthy—i.e., his knee doesn't flare up on him again—then the Steelers pass rush should pay greater dividends. And, immediately, against the Eagles, it gives Pittsburgh (you guessed it) more of that much-needed unpredictability that has been so effective for them in seasons past.