"Just rest assured, we're going to make the right decision. We won't be swayed by circumstance – the magnitude of the game and so forth. If he's healthy and able to protect himself and can be a positive contributor to our efforts, we'll play him. If we can't answer 'yes' to all of those questions and then some, we won't. It's just that simple, and we'll proceed with no excuses. We feel confident that we can field the type of team capable of winning this game, but also any game, if given legitimate time to prepare. And we have legitimate time to prepare."
With that, Coach Mike Tomlin summarized the up-to-the-minute situation regarding Le'Veon Bell and his hyper-extended right knee. Earlier in his weekly news conference today, Tomlin confirmed what he had said after the game against the Bengals, that there was no structural damage to the knee, which by extension means surgery isn't necessary.
"There is pain and soreness and discomfort associated with (his injury)," said Tomlin. "We're going to take it day-by-day. I met with him just moments ago, and he was in the training room on the stationary bike and riding like he was training for the Tour de France."
The Steelers are in the preparation phase of their most significant game of this NFL season, that being a visit from the Baltimore Ravens in the Wild Card round of the AFC Playoffs, and Bell is the reigning team MVP. Despite the win-or-go-home situation in which the Steelers now find themselves, Tomlin emphasized the Steelers would make the "right decision" regarding Bell.
"Guys have been cleared by doctors in the past," said Tomlin, "and I've chosen not to play them. As recently as last week."
To prepare for the eventuality of Bell being out this weekend, the Steelers signed veteran Ben Tate, who has played with Cleveland and Minnesota this season. Tomlin said he believes Tate will have sufficient time to prepare himself to the extent he would be able to contribute on Saturday against the Ravens.
Tate was a No. 2 pick by the Houston Texans in the 2010 draft, and he has 540 carries for 2,363 yards and 14 rushing touchdowns while adding 67 catches for another 347 yards in 51 games (15 starts). This year, with the Browns and Vikings, Tate had 371 yards on 119 carries (3.1 average) and four touchdowns.
There also is Josh Harris, who was signed a couple of days after the start of training camp back in July when the Steelers waived Alvester Alexander. Harris was waived by the Steelers on Aug. 30 and then signed to the practice squad the following day, where he stayed until Nov. 18 when he was added to the 53-man roster following the release of LeGarrette Blount.
"We're looking at our options, and Josh Harris is at the top of our list, but we're not opposed to going outside the box with how we might prepare a winning formula for this football game," said Tomlin. "Josh is a hard-working guy. His story is not a sexy one. He didn't come into this league with a lot of fanfare, or even to this team with a lot of fanfare. A lot of us didn't know a lot about him, even after we acquired him, but we pride ourselves in giving every man an opportunity, and during his time here he has proven he belongs. Not only in terms of talent but what he's willing to do, and his willingness to work has earned him the respect of the guys."
Now with Tate on board and Harris already in the fold, plus Dri Archer available, Tomlin said the work to be done will involve coming up with a plan for the Ravens in the event Le'Veon Bell does not play.
"The big thing for us to do is to prepare for if Le'Veon does not play. If he does play, that's easy," said Tomlin. "We're going to do our due diligence and make alternative plans for if he doesn't, and we'll leave the light on for him. It's going to be based on how he feels and how effective he is.
"I'm sure there has been progress (with Bell's knee), but I haven't spent a lot of time asking about it, because I'm not seeking comfort. I'd rather spend my time focusing on the what-ifs from the negative standpoint if he's unavailable. If he is available, that's easy because we've done that for 16-17 weeks already.
"I try to get as singularly focused as I can to the variables that matter and that are within my control. Le'Veon's overall health and where he is (in this rehabilitation) isn't within my control. Our plan, particularly if we don't have him, is within my control, and so I spend a lot of time talking about that as opposed to getting minute-by-minute updates on how he feels."
Tomlin also acknowledged the reality that it will take more than one player to compensate for the multiple ways Bell contributes to the team. He also acknowledged that he isn't going to limit himself to asking running backs only to pick up the slack.
"Le'Veon contributes in a lot of ways, and when you're talking about replacing an impact guy like him it's not always a one-man job," said Tomlin. "It's a multiple-man job, and it might be a multiple-man job cross-positionally. It may mean we don't play with a back on third down. It may mean we play with an additional wideout. Or an additional tight end. We're going to turn over all the stones to make sure we're prepared to replace his significance. It may not just be running back jersey for running back jersey. There's more depth to it than that."
But whatever the plan and whomever is asked to execute it, Tomlin said, "I have confidence in anybody who is on our 53. If I didn't, he wouldn't be on our 53. Anybody can be a reason why we're successful. I mean that."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"We'll do similar things this week as we did last week. We'll work a number of guys who are working through injuries – like Ike and Troy – and we'll see what their practice participation holds for us this week. Matt Spaeth had positive reviews about getting back into play. He's playing with a brace, and we'll see what the ramifications are of his participation against the Bengals."