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Pittsburgh Steelers, finally healthy, eye return to typical form


PITTSBURGH -- Come Sunday, when the Philadelphia Eagles come to town, the Pittsburgh Steelers might finally indeed be the Pittsburgh Steelers.

An early bye did the 1-2 Steelers the favor of an extra week of healing. That means linebacker James Harrison and running back Rashard Mendenhall are healthy enough to play for the first time all season, safety Troy Polamalu for the first time since Week 1.

The Steelers have a saying around here: The standard is the standard. Loosely translated, the next man up is not supposed to let play drop off from that of the man he replaced. Expectations are always the same, namely: high. Which is nice. As a cliché.

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With no disrespect to safety Ryan Mundy, he is not Troy Polamalu. If he were, he'd be the guy the Eagles' Marty Mornhinweg called "the best in the game." Like every other offensive coordinator, Mornhinweg said he has to account for Polamalu on every single play. Is he rushing the passer? Is he dropping back in coverage? Does this dancing at the line mean something different than the dancing he did two plays ago? The quarterback always has to locate him. And a Steelers team without the distraction Polamalu offers isn't the Steelers.

Neither is one without Harrison. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley constantly has faced chip blocks and double teams, as opponents don't have to worry about Harrison. And then there's Mendenhall. His backup, Jonathan Dwyer, openly admitted Mendenhall is speedier and more elusive and a better pass-catcher than either himself or fellow backup Isaac Redman.

Safety Ryan Clark joked a week ago that a defense with Harrison is an uglier one. Wednesday, more seriously, he said a defense with Polamalu and Harrison "allows us to be the defense we have been for years." He knows Polamalu and Harrison will produce, he knows what they are capable of. The pair gives defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau two players to isolate.

"It's no more excuses," Clark said. "We can't run in here and say, 'Well we don't have Troy, we don't have James.' We have everybody that we're supposed to have, so we have to make plays."

To their credit, the Steelers haven't made those excuses themselves. Still, receiver Jerricho Cotchery says human nature does come into play.

"If something doesn't go right, it's natural to feel inside of you, 'Well, this guy's not here,' " Cotchery said. "The reality is guys have to step up and make plays any time a guy goes down. But with that said, you do feel good to have 43 and 92 on the field."

The Steelers let go of receiver Hines Ward and linebacker James Farrior this offseason, and perhaps there was a hit on the leadership front. But two big hitters were also gone, and it's that trademark toughness that the Steelers haven't shown as much of these first three weeks. Their run defense has been pedestrian (allowing a 14th-ranked 101 yards per game) and the intimidation factor hasn't been there. Get those two guys in uniform, and boom -- it's back.

The Steelers have never been 1-3 under Mike Tomlin. They just went 12-4 in 2011, and yet there is no panic here. Cotchery frankly said panic doesn't happen in Pittsburgh. A 1-2 team coming off a bye, facing its in-state rival, would have an intense Wednesday meeting, he figured. As it turns out, the tenor of the meeting was: Let's get it done.

Whether they do or they don't, they'll at least be the team they're supposed to be.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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