In NFL parlance, Labor Day was a bonus day, an extra day of practice for a team to get ready for its regular season opener. It qualified as a bonus day because there were no games played on Labor Day weekend, which meant teams didn't need Monday to rest their players' bodies and grade the video of the most recent performance.
With Labor Day as a bonus day for the Steelers, that qualifies Wednesday, Sept. 7 as the first day of preparation for their regular season opener on Sept. 12 in Buffalo against the Bills. During his weekly news conference today, Coach Mike Tomlin said he expects T.J. Watt to be a full participant in that practice.
Watt, in negotiations with the Steelers for a contract extension, has not participated in team drills this offseason as those talks continue. He has attended OTAs and minicamp and training camp, participated in meetings and individual drills, but he has not done any hitting while waiting for the contract extension to get finalized.
"I remain optimistic that something's going to get done from a deal perspective," said Tomlin when asked about Watt during his news conference. "That aside, I'm expecting him to (practice) tomorrow. I'm proceeding with the assumption that he's going to (practice) tomorrow. That's kind of the approach I'm taking. He's missed some time due to obvious reasons, but like I've also mentioned, over the course of this team development process I'm focusing very little on those who aren't working for whatever reason they're not working. I tend to focus my energy on those who are.
"We've had a lot of things to focus on at the outside linebacker position during the time (Watt) hasn't been working," added Tomlin, "the acclimation of Melvin Ingram, the development of Jamir Jones, the continued development of Alex Highsmith. I've been pleased with all of those things, and so like I mentioned, I'm proceeding with the assumption that (Watt) is working tomorrow, and he gets to add his talents to that collection and the development of that collection. Hopefully it culminates in quality play not only this weekend from that group, but also over the course of the 2021 season."
While the rest of his teammates were going through team drills, both in pads and in helmets and shorts during training camp, Watt could be seen working on his conditioning off to the side with a member of the Steelers' training staff. Watt also didn't play in any of the team's four preseason games.
Tomlin has said on more than one occasion that there's a difference between conditioning and football conditioning, and it remains to be seen how much playing time Watt will be able to handle against the Bills
"We'll play it by ear," said Tomlin when asked about a potential snap count for Watt vs. Buffalo. "One thing I'm not going to do is assume that he's regular, or normal. Guys who are in the position he's in end up in those positions because of their unique talents and skill-set and will. Several years ago, I watched Aaron Donald here in (Pittsburgh) for the vast majority of July and August, when he was in a similar circumstance (as Watt), and I was not surprised when he got to Los Angeles (for the season) and performed immediately to an Aaron Donald standard. Guys like those guys routinely do what others can't.
"And so, I kind of have that perspective on (Watt's) readiness and the anticipated quality of his play. I've just been in this game so long at this level that I'm used to seeing uniquely talented people rise up in the face of adversity or circumstance and exceed it. And so, I'd probably be lying if I told you I would be surprised if he didn't perform and perform well."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"I am acknowledging that from a health standpoint, I think we're in a really good spot. All the guys who are on the active roster, I'm anticipating their participation (in practice on Wednesday), and so I'm excited about that."
Tomlin also was asked about each of the three players put on injured reserve after the establishment of the initial 53-man roster. Rules will require players in that situation to miss a minimum of three games before they have a chance to return to the active roster and play in games.
On Zach Banner:
"We'll play it by ear (as to whether it's a short-term or long-term issue). I noticed he's working extremely hard, day to day, to get back to us. You know he sustained a significant injury and different guys come back at different rates. We'll continue to work him, he'll continue to work in an effort to get back to us, and hopefully it'll be sooner rather than later."
On Stephon Tuitt:
"You know I don't have the exact date (for his return), much like Banner. It's unfortunate. He won't be available to us this week. Hopefully he's back to us sooner rather than later."
On Anthony McFarland Jr. and whether his injury might be more long-term than three weeks:
"To be honest with you, I hadn't asked a lot of questions, and that's why I'm being somewhat vague about the guys who have been placed on IR. I focus my energy on guys who are gonna be in a helmet in the stadium this weekend. And so, I'll provide more information about those guys at a later date, or as they get closer to participation. I just hadn't spent a lot of time asking questions about the availability of guys I knew weren't participating this week, so I don't have a lot of detailed, accurate information. Sorry."