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Steelers defense getting healthy as stretch looms

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Ike Taylor is a heck of a cheerleader. The Pittsburgh Steelers veteran defensive back has spent the last two months serving as the team's self-appointed hype man while recovering from a broken right forearm.

It's a pretty fun gig, just not the one Taylor signed up for. He's only too ready to trade a sweatsuit for shoulder pads on Sunday when the Steelers (7-4) face New Orleans. He moved a step closer Monday when doctors cleared Taylor to return to practice, one of several regulars who could be back in the lineup as Pittsburgh begins the stretch drive.

Safety Troy Polamalu's sprained knee is almost healed. Linebacker Ryan Shazier's bum ankle too. Linebacker Jarvis Jones is optimistic his surgically repaired wrist will be good enough to go some time in the next three weeks. For a team that will need to play its best football to separate itself in the congested AFC North, the Steelers will have a chance to do it with their best players on the field.

''Timing couldn't be no better,'' said Taylor, who will likely wear a bulky brace on the arm he so gruesomely broke when teammate Lawrence Timmons' helmet smashed into it while making a tackle against Carolina on Sept. 20. ''Seeing young guys come up, make plays, do what they need to do is exciting. For me to get out there with them, I feel good.''

Taylor cautioned he's not going to let his enthusiasm get the best of him. He knows he's lucky to have a second chance at what looked like a lost season. There's no need to rush. Probably.

''I don't want to be stupid,'' Taylor said. ''When it comes down to football, I make stupid decisions because I want to be out there with the guys. If I leave it up to the docs, they'll make the right decisions.''

Coach Mike Tomlin stressed Tuesday he's going to see how Taylor, Polamalu and Shazier respond in practice before making sure there is a jersey hanging in their locker on Sunday but added he'd ''rather have Ike on the grass.''

Pittsburgh's defense is a middling 14th through the first 11 games and just 16th in passing yards allowed. Yet the Steelers have also come up with a handful of big plays. Veteran cornerback William Gay has two interception returns for touchdowns and Brice McCain's pick-six provided the winning score at Jacksonville last month. While getting to the quarterback has been an issue at times, Pittsburgh has also found enough big plays to win four out of five to keep pace in a division where all four teams are at least three games over .500.

Having Shazier and Jones back would certainly help. Shazier's rookie season has been dogged with mishaps. He sat out four games with a sprained right knee when Timmons rolled into him against Carolina. Shazier's initial comeback was cut short due to a sprained right ankle. It's the first time in his football life he's missed extended time during the year. Watching instead of playing isn't something the energetic 22-year-old plans on getting used to.

''The injury rate is 100 percent,'' Shazier said. ''You have to know things will happen and you have to persevere.''

Shazier, Taylor and Jones were all injured in the same quarter against the Panthers. Jones busted his wrist while sacking Cam Newton and forcing a game-turning fumble. The Steelers placed him on the injured reserve/return list, opening the door for him to play again. He participated in a limited capacity on Monday and Pittsburgh has three weeks to decide whether to activate second-year outside linebacker or shut him down for the year.

Jones has spent the last few weeks slowly rebuilding strength in the joint. While Jones insists he's ''pretty good'' he also knows there is danger in coming back too soon. Given the choice, however, he'd rather press his luck.

''You still want to be part of it, to hit somebody and make plays,'' he said. ''You want to be out there on the field with your brothers when they're going to war.''

NOTES: Tomlin labeled nose tackle Steve McLendon ''questionable'' as he deals with a shoulder injury. .... Cornerback Cortez Allen underwent surgery last week to fix a broken thumb. His status won't be determined until later in the week.


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