Labriola On

Spillane, Feiler could return from IR

It's the same question Coach Mike Tomlin has been asked, and has asked himself, many times over the course of this 2020 NFL season. But this time, pondering the possibilities shouldn't be as stressful.

During his weekly news conference today from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, Tomlin indicated the team has a chance to have both inside linebacker Robert Spillane and tackle Matt Feiler off the injured reserve list and in uniform for Sunday night's Wild Card Round game vs. the Browns at Heinz Field, as well as Terrell Edmunds (shoulder) and Chris Boswell (groin), to add to the four players he airmailed to the postseason – Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward, and T.J. Watt.

"Hopefully, it produces some difficult challenges for us in terms of selecting who to utilize this weekend," said Tomlin. "We get a chance to infuse the four guys we chose to rest (in the regular season finale) – Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, T.J. Watt, and Cam Heyward – back into the action. Some of the guys who maybe missed (that game) because of lack of health – Terrell Edmunds and Chris Boswell, for example – may get an opportunity to work their way back into the fold, and we should anticipate that.

"But we also have some guys who are getting clearance to work this week, and that work this week may produce an opportunity for them. Robert Spillane is a significant one, and Matt Feiler is another significant one. The inclusion or the potential inclusion of those guys is exciting, but it also creates some challenges from a decision-making standpoint, because we feel like we have some options. The guys who played in place of some of those guys have done good work for us. That's a good problem to have as we prepare this week."

Since Spillane injured a knee against Washington on Dec. 7, Avery Williamson and Marcus Allen have seen their playing time increase significantly. In the final two regular season games – vs. Indianapolis and at Cleveland – Williamson combined for 22 tackles, and he had a sack against the Colts, while Allen missed the Colts game with an injury but came back against the Browns to record seven tackles, including one for loss. To say nothing of Vince Williams coming off the COVID-19 list to play every snap against the Colts.

After going through a period where the Steelers had the minimum number of bodies at inside linebacker to have two on the field at the same time, they potentially could have Williamson, Williams, Spillane, and Allen as potentials to open the playoffs.

"More than anything, it provides quality depth at some of the core special teams positions where linebacker play is a significant component," said Tomlin. "Forget defense. Having quality depth at that position fills very, very important roles in the special teams phase as well, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention that."

But more significant than controlling the Browns kick returners is doing something about running back Nick Chubb.

Cleveland's leading rusher this season with 1,067 yards on 190 carries (5.6 average) and 12 touchdowns, Chubb exploded for a 47-yard touchdown on Cleveland's sixth offensive play last Sunday, and he finished that game with 108 yards on 14 carries (7.7 average).

"We needed to minimize Nick Chubb in their run game. We gave up too many big runs. A lot he had to do with, particularly on the touchdown run where he made two defensive backs miss," said Tomlin as a way of explaining how and why the Steelers lost to the Browns, 24-22. "He's capable of that, because he has the No. 1 make-you-miss rate in the NFL, and so that's why he is a challenge, that's why he was a challenge, and that's why he'll be a big challenge along with Kareem Hunt this time around."

If Feiler is able to return from injured reserve and play on Sunday, Tomlin will have to decide between him and Kevin Dotson at left guard. "That doesn't become a component of play unless Feiler is viable," said Tomlin, "and so until Feiler becomes viable, I won't spend a lot of time pondering those things."

What won't be much of a decision at all is who will handle the placekicking, because if Boswell is healthy, the job is his. But Boswell has missed two games already this season, with a hip injury and then a groin injury, and Matthew Wright is 4-for-4 on field goal attempts and is perfect on seven PATs in Boswell's absence.

"I'm comfortable with Wright. He's putting the ball through the uprights, and that's Job 1," said Tomlin. "We'll support him in the kickoff coverage area with quality coverage if need be. Boswell's participation (in practice) over the course of the week and the quality of it will determine whether or not he is in uniform on Sunday."

And so after so many weeks of trying to cobble together a game day roster because of a bunch of injuries, Tomlin may have to put together a game day roster by choosing which guys he would rather have in uniform.

"I know having a plethora of capable guys is not a detriment to us as we get into this single-elimination tournament," said Tomlin.

STEELERS NOTES: Tomlin offered no update or prognosis on the status of cornerback Joe Haden and tight end Eric Ebron, both of whom were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list before the regular season finale. Tomlin referred to the NFL's COVID-19 protocols and said the team would follow those to the letter with those two players.

Advertising