Steelers could be without star outside linebackers Watt and Highsmith against the Colts

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers could be without star outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith as they prepare for a pivotal visit to Indianapolis.

Watt and Highsmith are both in the concussion protocol following a loss to New England last Thursday.

Watt took a knee to the facemask from Patriots running back Ezekiel Elliott on the first play from scrimmage. The perennial All-Pro was slow to get up after the play, then went to the sideline briefly to be examined by team physicians. Watt returned for the end of the drive and then was examined by an independent neurologist shortly thereafter and cleared, playing with a tinted visor the rest of the way on a night he played 52 of Pittsburgh's 57 defensive snaps.

It wasn't until Watt self-reported concussion-like symptoms when he arrived at the team's facility on Friday that he was placed into concussion protocol.

“I assumed that he was (checked) but again, you know, I’m managing the game,” Tomlin said Monday. “I leave that to the medical experts. They essentially tell me whether someone is out, whether they are subject to return or whether they’re back. I got a report that he was subject to return, and then I got a report that he was back.”

The potential absence of one of the NFL's best edge-rush tandems means rookie Nick Herbig and veteran Markus Golden could take on significantly expanded roles against Indianapolis. Herbig had a career-high seven tackles against the Patriots while Golden was inactive.

The Steelers are reeling a bit following consecutive home losses to teams that came to Acrisure Stadium with two wins. Pittsburgh followed up what Tomlin called a “subpar” performance against Arizona by falling behind by 18 points in the first half against struggling New England and never fully recovering.

Pittsburgh remains in the playoff mix despite the setbacks. The Steelers are in the AFC's second wild-card spot with four games left, including two straight against teams directly below them in the standings in the Colts and Bengals.

“We’re in a big game (vs. Indianapolis),” Tomlin said. “It’s big for both squads. Both squads have absorbed some negativity if you will. Our ability to manage that and remain focused in prep and in play will ultimately determine our positioning.”

Mitch Trubisky will make a second straight start for the Steelers while Kenny Pickett recovers from right ankle surgery. Trubisky completed 22 of 35 passes for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception against New England. The pick set up a Patriots score and Trubisky failed to connect with Diontae Johnson on a fourth down pass deep down the sideline with just over two minutes to go.

Tomlin defended Trubisky's decision-making, saying it got better as the game went along and that it's reasonable for Trubisky to take another step forward with a full week to prepare for the Colts rather than the three days he had to get ready to face the Patriots.

There are no plans to turn to longtime backup Mason Rudolph. The six-year veteran has been with the team since 2018, but hasn't played since the Steelers signed Trubisky in free agency and drafted Pickett in the first round in the spring of 2022.

Tomlin acknowledged he shares the frustration of both the fans and his players after the Steelers squandered an opportunity to create a little cushion as they try to return to the playoffs after missing out last season while finishing 9-8.

“Our business is winning,” Tomlin said. “In the last couple of weeks, we have not handled business and we understand that. And so, you know, we’re working and working with an edge.”

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