Administratively, his options are limited.
It cannot be treated like a preseason game, because he won't have between 80 to 90 players in uniform on the sideline. He can't rest all of his starters plus his significant backups, because with 48 players at most available for the game, the numbers simply do not work. And so Coach Mike Tomlin will not treat Sunday's regular season finale in Cleveland against the Browns as a de facto bye week because he cannot, even if he wanted to.
"There's one bye available in this single-elimination tournament," said Tomlin about the AFC Playoffs that begin on the weekend of Jan. 9-10. "We're not going to be that team (with the bye). We made that bed, and so we're prepared to lay in it. That's the most significant variable for us, and so with that being said, given an opportunity to airmail a player or two to the postseason, we will. Ben (Roethlisberger) will not be playing this week. We'll turn toward Mason Rudolph and our young quarterback positional group and give those guys an opportunity."
The Steelers already had clinched a spot in the playoffs, and then with last Sunday's victory over the Indianapolis Colts they clinched the AFC North Division title. Buffalo clinches the No. 2 seed with a win over Miami or a loss by the Steelers. The Steelers can do no worse than enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed, but they could get to No. 2 by beating the Browns if the Dolphins beat the Bills.
During a year in which homefield advantage has been watered down by COVID restrictions on large gatherings, the difference between a No. 2 seed and a No. 3 seed is close to insignificant. But there are other factors that will prevent Tomlin from manufacturing a Week 17 bye for his team.
"We'll look potentially at resting some other guys in terms of making them inactive, but the number of those guys and who those guys are will be determined as we push through the week. Player availability dictates that," said Tomlin. "We had a number of players miss the game last week (against Indianapolis) due to injury, players like Marcus Allen, Ola Adeniyi, Chris Boswell, and others. Those players' ability to come back and be available to us in Cleveland really dictates the number of people we're capable of (airmailing to the playoffs).
"The only thing I'm willing to acknowledge at this point is that Ben will not play, and so we'll formulate a plan with that understanding. All of the other variables in terms of who's playing and who's not, we'll determine later in the week based on injury and health. Positional health, probably more importantly than anything else. There's strength in numbers, and so I'd much rather preserve and protect players with a rotational mindset than to necessarily remove one particular player and expose the rest of the group to an abnormal number of snaps."
A typical game day inactive list contains six players. With Roethlisberger already earmarked for one of those, that would leave Tomlin with the ability to place five more players on that list. But if one or more of the walking wounded cannot play in Cleveland, that further limits the number of guys who can be airmailed into the postseason.
"It's just something we manage when faced with these circumstances. We're not going to allow it to become a negative," said Tomlin. "It's a blessing to be in these circumstances and to be afforded an opportunity to make these types of decisions, and that's going to be the spirit in which we address it.
"Make no mistake about it, it does not change our intentions in terms of going to Cleveland this weekend. Football is our game, but our job is winning. We intend to do our job. We intend to prepare with that mindset and ultimately let our play lead us to that destination. We're not seeking comfort. We're not grading ourselves on a curve. This game is on the schedule, and so the guys who will be on the field represent us. And the standard that is the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the standard."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"The two injuries (hip, groin) to Chris Boswell this season have been two distinct injuries. Separate. Hopefully we have him back this week. I know his intentions are to work. We'll let the quality of that work be our judge in terms of his availability. I haven't had a chance to talk to John Norwig, our head athletic trainer, (about Robert Spillane). I know Spillane is down the hall working as we speak, and so we'll get some clarity there. Make no mistake, we're looking forward to getting him back, and when we do it'll be appropriately so, and he'll be capable of putting his hand in the pile and helping us with our efforts."