Steelers walking thin line on defense
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer

PITTSBURGH - It's a good thing the Steelers run a 3-4 defense.

With the injuries they've had on the defensive line, the Steelers might have only three healthy linemen when the season ends.

Already missing defensive end Aaron Smith, the Steelers saw Travis Kirschke, Smith's replacement, go down with a calf injury two weeks ago against Minnesota.

Even with an extra week because of a bye, Kirschke is still questionable to play Monday night at Denver. That means the Steelers (5-2) could be down to five healthy defensive linemen.

"We've been in circumstances like this before," said Nick Eason, who will replace Kirschke in the starting lineup if he is unable to play.

"We went into Jacksonville when me, Casey (Hampton) and (Brett) Keisel were all out and we won a game on the road. But we realize the Denver Broncos are probably a much better team than Jacksonville was at that point in time."

That game was last season when Jacksonville was in the midst of a 5-11 season. At 6-1, Denver is considerably better than the Jaguars were and should be a little angry after suffering its first loss, a 30-7 blowout at Baltimore last week.

"I just think the Denver Broncos ran into a buzz saw," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin. "Any team that would've gone into Baltimore this past Sunday would've had a heck-of-a time winning."

Baltimore was angry after having lost three consecutive games and took out its frustrations on the Broncos. The Steelers hope they don't run into a similar situation in Denver, particularly with a depleted defensive line.

Eason was inactive for the first three weeks and released by the Steelers Oct. 3. He was re-signed two days later and now could find himself starting ahead of Ziggy Hood, the team's top draft choice.

Being released is nothing new for Eason. A fourth-round pick of Denver in 2004, Eason was cut by the Broncos in 2005. He signed with Cleveland, which released him in 2007. Then he signed with the Steelers.

Denver starts former Steelers fourth-round draft pick Ryan McBean. Eason won a roster spot over McBean with the Steelers last year.

"It's crazy, huh?" said Eason. "It's the nature of the NFL. You never know what can happen in this league."

Hood, meanwhile, feels he's ready to see increased playing time.

The rookie has played sparingly in the first half of the season as the Steelers eased him into the NFL.

"I see I'm somewhat getting better, not only mentally but physically," Hood said. "I believe I've taken the necessary steps to get better. When the starters need to take a breather, I'll be able to fill in."