With Haden hurting, Steelers turn to Coty Sensabaugh
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PITTSBURGH — Joe Haden's career revival in Pittsburgh is on hold, though maybe for not as long as the first-place Steelers feared.
While the veteran cornerback's broken left leg will keep him out for Thursday night's visit by Tennessee, the team remains hopeful Haden can return at some point in the season. Pittsburgh eyes a run at a second straight division title and home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs.
"It could be less than it might be, or could be more than we think," Coach Mike Tomlin said Monday. "The reality says he is not playing this week. We will leave him available to us in the short term until we get a better sense of what the prognosis is. Obviously, if there is a chance for him to participate with our team this year, we'll leave that light on."
Haden left in the first quarter of a 20-17 victory over the Colts. He briefly tried to run on the sideline before being taken to the locker room and spending the second half watching on crutches from the sideline while Pittsburgh (7-2) rallied for a fourth straight victory.
Coty Sensabaugh will get the first crack at replacing Haden. The Steelers signed Sensabaugh in the spring, but his chance to become the starting cornerback ended with the Browns released Haden near the end of training camp and he signed a three-year deal with Pittsburgh a day later.
Sensabaugh finished with three tackles against the Colts and broke up a pass down the sideline intended for T.Y. Hilton in the fourth quarter.
"Coty came out and did his thing," safety Sean Davis said.
So did safety Robert Golden, who filled in after Mike Mitchell left with an ankle injury following a collision with teammate Mike Hilton. Given just three days to prepare for Tennessee (6-3), it's doubtful Mitchell will participate in any walk-throughs before Thursday night.
Sensabaugh doesn't have Haden's athleticism, but compensates by taking a more cerebral approach.
"He studies the playbook a lot and studies the opponent tremendously," said Steelers rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has faced Sensabaugh plenty in practice since the start of training camp. "I'm always talking to him about how I can get better in my route and my reads. He's just a very smart dude."
Haden and Mitchell are important parts of a secondary that is second in the league in yards passing allowed. Yet the Steelers did just fine without them while scoring the final 17 points after spotting Indianapolis a 17-3 lead. Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett completed 5 of 11 passes for 91 yards after halftime, and 61 of those came on a touchdown throw to Chester Rogers just over two minutes into the third quarter. Rogers zig-zagged his way to the end zone, and Mitchell left the field limping after slamming into Hilton while trying in vain to bring Rogers down.
That was the last big play by the Colts' passing game as a rejuvenated Steelers' pass rush helped take some of the pressure off Sensabaugh and Golden. Pittsburgh sacked Brissett twice in the second half and forced him to throw early or tuck the ball and run on a handful of other snaps. That included a flip to tight end Jake Doyle that ended up in the hands of Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier that set up the tying score.
If the Steelers can be just as disruptive in the pocket going forward, they like their chances regardless of who is — or isn't — playing in the secondary.
"We got to get ourselves in more ... situations where we can light our hair on fire and get to the quarterback," defensive end Cam Heyward said.
And for all his mobility, Tennessee quarterback Marcus Mariota is gettable. He's been sacked 10 times over the last four games, though it's hardly slowed down the Titans, who like the Steelers are on a four-game winning streak.
Mariota and Tennessee have the Steelers' attention. That can only be a good thing for a team that spent most of the first half Sunday sleepwalking following a bye week. Pittsburgh woke up in time to avoid another baffling road loss; the victory brought a sense of relief but nothing more for a team with designs on playing into February.
"We know how we want to play, and at the end of the day we know we're not happy with how we played," Heyward said. "Our standards are pretty high."
NOTES: TE Vance McDonald (ankle) and LB James Harrison (back) did not participate in the team's light workout Monday. ... QB Ben Roethlisberger, CB William Gay, G Ramon Foster and WR Darrius Heyward-Bey participated on a limited basis.
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