The Associated Press
LATROBE - Before they broke camp at St. Vincent College Friday, the Steelers made a surprise move in activating nose tackle Casey Hampton and running back Rashard Mendenhall from the physically unable to perform list.
Each veteran has been rehabilitating a torn ACL sustained in January. Mendenhall's right knee was injured in the Jan. 1 regular-season finale at Cleveland, while Hampton's left knee ligament was torn in the Jan. 8 playoff loss at Denver.
"It's a great feeling to have everybody coming back," said defensive lineman Steve McLendon, who was taking Hampton's spot with the first-team defense.
The Mendenhall move was particularly unexpected because the stress placed on the knee by lateral cuts typical of a running back usually results in a longer recovery time. General manager Kevin Colbert has publicly suggested, on numerous occasions, that Mendenhall would begin the regular season on the PUP list.
But the former first-round pick has repeatedly said his rehabilitation was on schedule and that he was progressing well. That must have made the team reconsider.
"I've been talking to him, and he's been saying he's been feeling good," running back Isaac Redman said. "He's been cutting and running at full speed, so it's just a process with him coming in live now and being able to take hits."
Throughout camp, both Mendenhall and Hampton - as well as coach Mike Tomlin - were vague when talking about timetables. Neither player will practice before Tuesday in Pittsburgh at the team facility. The Steelers (No. 7 in AP Pro32) host Indianapolis Sunday.
Redman is the alternative to fill in as the Steelers' featured back if Mendenhall is not able to play. But Redman has been dealing with a groin injury that required an MRI examination Thursday. Redman did not practice Friday and will not play Sunday. He said he is hopeful to return to practice next week.
With Mendenhall out, Redman was one of a slew of injuries to Pittsburgh's other running backs. Jonathan Dwyer sustained a shoulder injury in a preseason loss at Philadelphia last week and did not return to full practice status until Thursday.
Reserve John Clay was knocked out for the season with a quad injury sustained during Sunday's practice, and fullback/tight end David Johnson sustained a torn ACL of his own against the Eagles.
"We're hurting right now," Redman said. "And we're a better team with Rashard out here, so we're excited to get him back."
Among the team's running backs, only Baron Batch, rookie Chris Rainey and fullback Will Johnson have made it through camp unscathed. None has played in an NFL regular-season game.
The Steelers want to give Mendenhall - and Hampton - every opportunity to be ready for the Sept. 9 opener at Denver. If they stayed on the PUP list through the beginning of the regular season, they would have been required to sit out six weeks. The risk is that each will take up a roster spot that could have been saved for a replacement, should they not return to action.
With Mendenhall being a former 1,273-yard rusher and Hampton a five-time Pro Bowler, that was a chance the Steelers were willing to take.
"Casey is going to make our team go to that next level where we really want to go," nose tackle Steve McLendon said. "Casey is like a dominant threat in the middle."
McLendon was having an eye-opening camp and the Steelers were confident in his ability to fill in if need be. But Hampton, who will be 35 by opening day, has been a consistently reliable presence for more than a decade in Dick LeBeau's defense.
"It's just a matter of when I feel like I can get out there and go," Hampton said last week, "I'm going to be ready to go."
Hampton has come back from a torn ACL twice before. In 1997 while at the University of Texas, he also injured his left knee. Seven years later with the Steelers, Hampton tore his ACL in a Week 6 game at Dallas, ending his season.
Mendenhall hasn't had to come back from the injury before, prompting Hampton to predict Mendenhall will be tentative when he first takes to a live practice field.
"That's how I was when I tore mine (the first time), too," Hampton said. "That's just what it is because you've just never had it before"
Notes: The removal of Mendenhall and Hampton from the PUP list came three days after the Steelers activated offensive tackle Max Starks from the list. Starks also suffered a torn ACL - his right knee - in the playoff loss to the Broncos. His first practice was Friday. ... LBs James Harrison and Jason Worilds are the lone remaining Steelers players on the PUP list. ... Dwyer said he will play against the Colts. ... Tomlin said his starters will play "about twice as long" Sunday as they did in the preseason opener. ... Tomlin said backup QB Byron Leftwich will not play Sunday. The team will give another extended look at young QB Jerrod Johnson.