On Tuesday morning, the Steelers announced that four more players – Ben Roethlisberger, Jerald Hawkins, Jaylen Samuels, and Vince Williams – were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list where they joined Vance McDonald, who had been placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Monday evening.
At noon on Tuesday, Coach Mike Tomlin conducted his weekly news conference from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and he clarified the situation in terms of how that could impact Sunday's game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field.
"We have a player who tested positive for COVID, and he will not be available this week," said Tomlin. "He's resting at home and going through all the necessary things as it pertains to that. Also we had a number of players – four who were acknowledged (Tuesday) morning who are also in the program because of contact. And so it is our desire to participate fully in the procedure. Those guys will be working remotely throughout the week and testing daily. As long as their tests come back negative, we believe all four guys have an opportunity to be made available to us on Saturday."
From a football standpoint, the most significant name on the list is Roethlisberger, who hasn't missed a game since returning from surgery on his right elbow that caused him to miss all but six quarters of the 2019 season. Having completed 68.1 percent of his passes for 1,934 yards, with 18 touchdowns, four interceptions, and a rating of 101.8, Roethlisberger's return to form in 2020 is the most significant reason why the Steelers set a franchise record with eight straight wins at the start of a season.
"Some of the guys have more experience than others. So I'll lean on that experience," said Tomlin about the possibility of individuals coming off the Reserve/COVID-19 list and playing against the Bengals. "Guys like Ben and Vince Williams may have an opportunity to suit up and play for us this weekend, and they'll simply work remotely and sharpen their sword in that way. And really, it will probably give their bodies an opportunity to get some much-needed rest, and we're optimistic those guys will be their normal selves if given an opportunity to play this weekend.
"Some of the others, we'll make judgments based on how the week transpires. Their lack of a resume or experience could be a factor in determining whether or not we utilize those guys. That's just the reality of it. We have a lot of decisions to make in this environment, as a lot of people do. How we manage it, the players we choose to utilize, how we highlight their positive traits, how we work to minimize some of their negative traits or their lack of experience is a big component of us pushing through this."
The Steelers had some issues with COVID-19 during the early portion of training camp, but that had more to do with false positives being returned from the one testing facility. The team has had to place no players on the Reserve/COVID-19 list between then and Monday's move with McDonald.
"These are issues everybody in the league has to deal with, and so from that standpoint it's fair and the playing field is fair," said Tomlin. "We're working our tails off to adhere to the protocol. It's actually been a good experience the last couple of days working with New York sorting through some of the details associated with this and seeing how procedurally things get done."
Tomlin said that in response to the moves the team made on Monday night and then Tuesday morning, all meetings this week in preparation for the Bengals will be held remotely. Individual meetings, position meetings, unit meetings, team meetings, post-practice meetings all will be conducted that way.
"The guys will simply come into the building to walk-through and to practice," said Tomlin. "All of the things they do to take care of their bodies or maintenance of their bodies – weight training, etc. – will be done on a rotational basis to minimize close contact in an effort to isolate any potential COVID things we may be dealing with."
Tomlin is a stickler for preparing during the week for the upcoming opponent, but he said he believes the experiences of the 2020 offseason have taught him, his assistants, and the players how to get quality work done without being in the same room together.
"We're not overly concerned about that, to be honest with you," said Tomlin about installing a game plan remotely. "We've had a lot of practice here in 2020 installing and giving information and receiving information remotely. We've done this with our entire playbook multiple times already throughout this process. In the offseason I think we installed twice in the spring. We have no reservations about the remote meetings this week. As a matter of fact from a coaching standpoint, we're excited about the challenge of keeping the group engaged and utilizing all the tools at our disposal to make sure that we have good and productive meetings in spite of circumstance."
The other issue Tomlin addressed was whether he believed Roethlisberger could play effectively without any on-field repetitions with his teammates.
"I'm not very concerned about it," said Tomlin. "This guy has been doing this job for 17 years. He's got snap experience that he can call upon. We're still going to work extremely hard virtually to prepare. A lot of his work is above the neck anyway in terms of preparation. I have very little concern about it to be quite honest with you."
And in the event Roethlisberger isn't available, Tomlin detailed his plan at quarterback this way:
"We're going to work both young quarterbacks this week. Mason (Rudolph) is going to get the bulk of the work; that's the position he's in. But we'll play it by ear as we proceed through the week. I'm not opposed to playing anybody who increases our chances of winning based on what we're looking at."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"We're hopeful we're going to get a return from a number of guys who have missed some time. Mike Hilton (shoulder) has a chance to play this week; Derek Watt (hamstring) has a chance to play this week; Tyson Alualu (knee) has a chance to play this week. We'll monitor them throughout the week in terms of their work and the quality of it, but we're excited about getting those guys back into the fold if we can. We had a bunch of other bumps and bruises associated with play that may limit some people from an availability standpoint at the early portions of the week, but nothing in-game happened of any major significance in Dallas."
Regarding reports that Roethlisberger injured both knees during the victory over the Cowboys, Tomlin said, "Ben had some bumps and bruises associated with play that happened in the first half. He was able to come back into the game and finish the game."
About Watt being inactive last Sunday and how that might have impacted the Steelers' failures in short-yardage situations, Tomlin said, "Watt took a step back as we got close to game time in terms of availability, but there are no excuses in terms of our short-yardage failures. We own that."