PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin isn’t an excuses guy.
And that certainly isn’t changing this week as the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in the middle of the NFL’s first significant test of conducting a season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the Week 4 game against the Tennessee Titans postponed until a later date after two additional tests returned positive on Thursday, the Steelers face the very real possibility of playing 13 consecutive weeks.
That doesn’t matter to the all-business head coach.
“We do not care,” Tomlin said when asked about the potential gauntlet of games.
That scenario could occur if the league opts to move the Steelers-Baltimore Ravens game from Week 7 to Week 8 and play Steelers-Titans in Week 7. Because both the Steelers and Ravens have a Week 8 bye, that schedule swap is on the table.
But that would mean the Steelers’ official bye week is Week 4, giving them a long road to the end of the season — one they hope ends with their first playoff berth since 2017.
“I’m disappointed because we were preparing to play and we’re not getting an opportunity to,” Tomlin said of his reaction to the postponement. “But we understand the nature of this environment we’re in in 2020 and so we’re just adjusting accordingly. There’s disappointment, no question.
Adam Schefter reports that there were two more positive tests from the Titans, including one player, which led to the NFL postponing Tennessee’s game against Pittsburgh.
“We’ve worked extremely hard at the beginning portion of this week in preparation for what we thought was an opportunity vs. an undefeated team in their venue. You lean in on those opportunities. We’re not getting the opportunity to do that. Instead, we’re getting a bye week, so we’re going to make the best of that.”
The Steelers have had a bye during Week 4 or sooner six times in the past 20 seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info. They’ve missed the playoffs in half of those seasons, but this is the first year since 2005 the Steelers have taken a winning record into an early bye.
The Steelers got off to a hot start this season with the return of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, posting a 3-0 start for the first time since the 2010 season when they played in the Super Bowl.
But if Tomlin thought postponing the Titans’ game was unfair, he hardly expressed that Thursday afternoon.
“My opinion does not matter,” he said. “We take marching orders from the National Football League. We understand that they’re acting in our collective best interest. I have a great deal of comfort in that.”
Tomlin, a member of the NFL’s competition committee, said he’s not aware of any “developing plans” for contingencies if a team can’t play a full 16-game season, but he said there were hypothetical discussions about that scenario during the summer.
Louis Riddick reacts to the NFL’s decision to reschedule the Steelers’ Week 4 game vs. the Titans to later in the season because of COVID-19-related issues.
“They have things in place in terms of playoff tiering and things if we move in that direction,” he said. “But that’s everybody’s hope that that doesn’t come to fruition.”
Even after learning of the league’s decision to postpone the game longer than just Monday or Tuesday of next week, the Steelers still held practice on Thursday. It started about an hour earlier than scheduled and wrapped up in less than two hours.
“We’re trying to get better every day,” Tomlin said. “That’s our approach to business every day we take the field. We have areas of improvement, whether skill development, whether understanding of the game or situations relative to the game or just collective cohesion.”
The players have the rest of the weekend off with a “bonus day” scheduled for Monday. If the game against the Titans does indeed eliminate the Steelers’ Week 8 bye, players will not practice on Monday, giving them the required four days off for the bye.
Steelers players, though, must stay local during the off days so they can continue to be tested daily for COVID-19.
For some, the disruption to the schedule and likely loss of the Week 8 bye presented another challenge in an already difficult season.
Ebron’s family is in Houston while he plays for the Steelers this season, keeping him from his wife and two young sons.
Other players like Roethlisberger have insulated their families to lower the risk of getting infected.
“I don’t want to say it is what it is, but that is why the plan was put in place to have guys, to be prepared and why so many people … are being diligent and not going out and being reckless and being careful,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “I’m homeschooling my kids. We’re not having guests over at the house. You have to do those things if you want to play the games on Sunday.”
Rookie Chase Claypool started making plans for his suddenly free weekend after practice finished Thursday, tweeting about a rookie dinner — but requesting a little reimbursement from the Titans.
A rookie dinner instead of a game this weekend?? Yeah @Titans ima need a reimbursement from y’all.. 😪
— Chase Claypool (@ChaseClaypool) October 1, 2020