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Saunders: Steelers’ Depth Will Tell Team’s Tale

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Groin injuries are not contagious, Steelers linebacker Melvin Ingram established on Thursday.

That hasn’t stopped them from going around the Steelers’ locker room. Four defensive starters: cornerback Joe Haden, linebackers Devin Bush, Alex Highsmith and T.J. Watt are all dealing with groin issues as part of a rash of injuries after just two weeks for the Black and Gold.

Starting nose tackle Tyson Alualu is out long-term with a fractured ankle that required surgery on Monday. He’s on the injured reserve list along with starting defensive end Stephon Tuitt (knee), starting right tackle Zach Banner, Anthony McFarland (knee) and Josh Dobbs (turf toe).

Also banged up are starting wide receiver Diontae Johnson (knee), quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (left pec) and backups Carlos Davis (knee), Justin Layne (Achilles) and Marcus Allen (abdomen).

It seems like Roethlisberger and Watt, the two most impactful players on that list, will likely be able to suit up on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals. But the Steelers will have to rely on their depth at several positions.

Isaiah Buggs, the No. 3 option at nose tackle and no better than the No. 5 option at defensive tackle will now be the starter and top backup at those spots. Fifth-round rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk will go from inactive even with Tuitt’s injury to the top backup at defensive end.

First-year outside linebacker Jamir Jones seems as if he will play a large role with Highsmith likely absent. Fourth-round rookie Dan Moore Jr. has already been plugging away at left tackle for better or for worse.

The Steelers as a team came into the 2021 NFL season with question marks at a lot of places. The team’s unsettled situations at slot cornerback and all along the offensive line were not addressed coming into the season.

Now, there are a half-dozen other positions unsettled by injury: defensive end and tackle and outside linebacker chiefly among them. Injuries are a part of life around the NFL. It doesn’t take but a quick glance to see quarterbacks already dropping like flies and star Panthers running backs Christian McCaffrey going down on Thursday night.

The Steelers haven’t suffered an injury like that yet. But for a team that’s thin to begin with, what the Steelers are going through is more than enough to raise concern. The 2021 draft class was already expected to be leaned on heavily, with Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth and Kendrick Green in position to play a lot as early as the start of training camp.

Now, the whole class except for Buddy Johnson will be expected to contribute and mightily by their third NFL game, with other inexperienced players like Jones thrown into the fire as well.

How that depth plays in the absence of some stars might very well define how the Steelers’ season goes. Ingram said Thursday that the only thing contagious around the locker room was winning. They’d better hope he was right.

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