A tie in an NFL regular season game is something of a mixed bag, in that there's some good and some bad contained in the outcome. The same could be said for the Steelers injury report leading up to Sunday night's game against the Chargers in Los Angeles.
What looked so ominous as the final minutes ticked away in the 16-16 tie with the Detroit Lions last Sunday at Heinz Field has turned out to be not quite that bad, but it still stings, and it stings more than just a little bit.
During his weekly news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Coach Mike Tomlin outlined what he knew about the status of seven injured players, all of whom are starters.
"From a health standpoint, we're dealing with a couple of things," began Tomlin. "We're excited about Chase Claypool (toe) practicing (on Wednesday) and seeing where that work leads us in terms of him being included in this thing. In-game injuries (from last Sunday), those probably are less clear. We'll give Kevin Dotson (ankle) an opportunity, but we don't know where that leads in terms of his practice participation. Same for Joe Haden with his foot injury. I feel confident that Trai Turner (ankle) is going to be able to show up, and I'll always leave the light on for T.J. Watt (hip, knee). The things he does routinely aren't things done routinely by others. We'll see where his participation leads us this week.
"On the COVID front, Ben (Roethlisberger) has an opportunity, provided he gets the required negative testing to be available to play. You guys know that we've been in circumstances with Ben in the past when he's been less than available during the course of the week. Like I told the team (Monday) in a team meeting, and I'll tell you guys that we're gonna build our plan around getting Mason (Rudolph) ready to play. We're going to highlight his talents and skills relative to the opponent that we're going to play. We're going to build that plan. We're going to work that plan. We've got a young offensive unit, and we'll let that lead us throughout the week.
"If we get to a point in the week where Ben has an opportunity to get on a moving train, that's exactly what he'll do. He'll be capable of executing the game plan. I really have no reservations about that. I think he missed a significant amount of time during a work week last year when he was on the (COVID) close contact list. He got back to us late in the week and performed. He's been injured … in the past over the course of the 15 years that we've worked together. He always answers that bell, and so we'll definitely leave the light on for him.
"But as we sit here today, as we sat here yesterday, as we're in the midst of our schematic plan development, and as we come out of the gate (Wednesday) with our work, laying down the foundational things for the week, rest assured that we'll be focusing our energy on readying Mason Rudolph and highlighting what he does and what the group does with him."
Replacing someone with Roethlisberger's talent and experience is not easy, but at least for the Steelers it's a one-for-one substitution. That's not necessarily the case with Minkah Fitzpatrick, also in the COVID protocol, and as Tomlin said, "We don't anticipate him coming back" in time for the game vs. the Chargers.
"I meet with the defensive staff on Tuesday afternoons," said Tomlin, "and I'd imagine it's going to be a multi-person discussion (about replacing Fitzpatrick), just like the replacement of Mike Hilton was a multi-person endeavor. When you've got significant players, those who are multi-talented, usually that's the case as opposed to putting the onus of it on one individual."
Tomlin wasn't about to tip his hand about any potential plan to replace Fitzpatrick, but some of the players who could figure into that mix are rookie Tre Norwood, free agent acquisition Miles Killebrew, and someone who wasn't mentioned but usually works himself into consideration in these types of circumstances is Cam Sutton. And if Sutton is moved away from his outside cornerback spot, that could bring Ahkello Witherspoon into the conversation.
When it comes to the offensive game plan, however, Roethlisberger and Rudolph having the same basic style of playing simplifies things somewhat.
"But to be quite honest with you, there's not a lot of significant differences," said Tomlin. "Mason plugged into Ben's plan last week, and we didn't necessarily change that, and largely he functioned the way that we needed him to: He gave us a chance to win."
But make no mistake, as Tomlin said "he will leave the light on" for his franchise quarterback.
"I'm sure there are a lot of hypotheticals that could change the discussion that I outlined (about the quarterbacks), but basically, logistically, the framing that I outlined is the mode that we're in, and we'll cross those bridges when we come to them," said Tomlin. "So many decisions and significant days between now and then that we waste a lot of time pondering the hypotheticals. We're going to build a plan around Mason, that's what we're doing (Tuesday). We have a workday (Wednesday) with our guys. It kind of starts the week. We'll start weighing those things as the sand runs through the hourglass and we get closer to kickoff."