PITTSBURGH (AP) — The boot is off Ike Taylor's fractured ankle.
It's still too soon, however, for the Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback to slip his cleats back on.
Taylor will miss his third straight game on Sunday when the Steelers (7-7) try to revive their postseason hopes against Cincinnati (8-6) in a game that will likely define the season of both teams.
Coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday he's encouraged by Taylor's progress but that Pittsburgh's secondary will have to find a way to defend Cincinnati's deep group of receivers without its best cornerback.
The Steelers won't have one of their fastest cornerbacks either after fill-in DeMarcus Van Dyke was placed on the injured reserve after injuring his shoulder in Sunday's 27-24 overtime loss in Dallas. Pittsburgh signed veteran free agent Justin King to provide depth, but it will be largely up to Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen and Josh Victorian to slow down Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton and second-year receiver A.J. Green.
Victorian, a practice squad player, was pressed into service against the Cowboys and endured a difficult afternoon. Then again, he was hardly alone as Dallas quarterback Tony Romo lit up the Steelers for 341 yards passing and two scores in a rare off day for the league's top pass defense.
Tomlin praised Victorian's effort but knows things are unlikely to get easier while facing one of the best young offenses in the NFL.
"We are going to have our hands full," Tomlin said.
The Steelers won the first meeting with the Bengals 24-17 on Oct. 21, holding Dalton to 14 of 28 passing for a season-low 105 yards. The victory kickstarted a four-game winning streak that appeared to put to rest any concerns about Pittsburgh's slow 2-3 start.
A shoulder injury to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a handful of critical mistakes have pushed the Steelers to the fringe of the playoff race. Pittsburgh has dropped four of five — including two straight since Roethlisberger's return — but have a direct path to the postseason. Wins over the Bengals and Cleveland (5-9) and the Steelers will play into January.
Even if, at the moment, it hardly feels like it.
Pittsburgh appeared to stir the echoes of 2005 after winning in Baltimore on Dec. 2. The players talked openly about going on a playoff run the way they did seven years ago, when the Steelers squeaked into the playoffs then won three games on the road en route to the franchise's fifth Super Bowl title.
The last two weeks, however, look a lot more like 2009. The Steelers were 6-2 at the season's midway point then collapsed down the stretch, enduring a five-game skid to miss the playoffs entirely.
Things aren't quite that bleak at the moment, and Tomlin did his best to quell any sense of unrest by Roethlisberger, who took blame for the loss in Dallas but also acknowledged some frustration about the successful but infrequent no-huddle offense.
Roethlisberger loves the no-huddle and pointed to how well the Steelers moved the ball against the Cowboys as proof it works. Tomlin downplayed the idea Roethlisberger was taking a shot at offensive coordinator Todd Haley in his comments.
"He's on board with what we're doing," Tomlin said of his quarterback.
Maybe, but the Steelers have gotten away from the formula that worked so well for them earlier in the year.
The short passing game that thrived in September and October has disappeared in November and December. Roethlisberger, Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich have completed just 55 percent (124 of 224) of passes during the team's last six games, down from nearly 70 percent (201 of 288) during the first half of the season.
The lack of any semblance of a running threat hasn't helped. Tomlin dropped the running back-by-committee approach three weeks ago, awarding the starting job to Jonathan Dwyer. The spark Dwyer provided earlier in the season hasn't materialized, though. Dwyer has just 101 yards over the three starts, but Tomlin doesn't appear to be in any hurry to change things up.
The Steelers reinstated running back Rashard Mendenhall from a one-game suspension on Monday for conduct detrimental to the team, but Tomlin said he's "happy" with the current situation and will let Mendenhall — who hasn't suited up since a loss to Cleveland on Nov. 25 — practice before determining whether he'll be involved.
Mendenhall isn't the only veteran who has spent most of the last month watching. The Steelers brought back wide receiver Plaxico Burress last month to give Roethlisberger a big target. Burress has just one catch in the two games he's been active.
Injuries in the secondary and along the offensive line have limited Pittsburgh's flexibility to incorporate Burress. And Tomlin is reluctant to give any specifics on when or even if Burress will play over the final two weeks.