PITTSBURGH (AP) Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt politely shooed away reporters on Monday when they approached his locker, saying he needed to go get an MRI on his achy right knee. Tuitt then walked away without any sort of noticeable limp.
He wasn't just playing tough for the cameras.
Coach Mike Tomlin indicated there's a chance Tuitt could play when Baltimore visits Heinz Field next weekend after the exam revealed Tuitt only sprained his knee when his right leg twisted underneath him three plays into Pittsburgh's 24-20 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday.
''We will watch him participate over the course of the week and see what that participation looks like,'' Tomlin said Tuesday. ''Obviously the position that he plays gives him an opportunity, probably it would be less likely so if he was a wide receiver or cornerback.''
Tuitt was closing in on Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton when he reached out with his left hand and snagged Dalton's facemask. He let go almost immediately while at the same time pirouetting awkwardly on the Paul Brown Stadium turf. He managed to walk off without any help, though he spent the rest of the afternoon in a jacket on the sideline at the Steelers (9-5) rallied for a fifth straight victory to set up what amounts to an AFC North title game against Baltimore (8-6) on Sunday.
There's little doubt Pittsburgh is better when Tuitt is on the field, particularly with Cam Heyward already out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Yet what was left of the line - Javon Hargrave, Daniel McCullers, L.T. Walton and Ricardo Mathews - eventually found their footing. The Bengals ran it seven times for just eight yards over the final 30 minutes as the Steelers steadily recovered from an early 14-point deficit.
''We knew we had to play big in the second half,'' Hargrave said. ''We let them start quick, so we knew we had to respond and grind it out.''
Pittsburgh will need to rely on that grit if it wants to end a four-game losing streak to the Ravens and clinch its second division title in three years. The Ravens won the first meeting 21-14 on Nov. 6 despite being limited to just 50 yards on the ground. They've improved steadily in recent weeks and put together a season-high 151 yards rushing in a 27-26 escape against Philadelphia last weekend while splitting carries between Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon.
Part of the credit goes to an offensive line that's found some stability. The rest to West's ability to find a hole and go. Yet Pittsburgh's defense has steadily improved during its surge into first place. The Steelers are allowing just 64.6 yards rushing per game during their current winning streak, way down from the 102.6 yards per game they gave up through the season's first nine weeks.
It's a stretch that's also coincided with the rapid development of rookie safety Sean Davis, who hasn't missed a snap over the last five weeks while quickly developing into a defensive presence at the line of scrimmage and acclimating to the 16-week slog of the regular season.
''I had a funny interaction with (Davis) a week ago-he came to my offices and asked, `How do you prepare for somebody the second time in a season?''' Tomlin said. ''Because he had never played someone twice in a season before. And that's just what's going on, not only with him, but with all of these young people.''
Young people who have been a critical part of Pittsburgh's charge to the cusp of a third consecutive playoff berth, something the Steelers have never done during Tomlin's 10-year tenure.
NOTES: RB DeAngelo Williams could play for the first time since undergoing knee surgery last month. Tomlin said he made Williams inactive against the Bengals when Williams developed swelling in the knee once the team arrived in Cincinnati. ... TE Ladarius Green remains in the concussion protocol and his status is uncertain.
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