PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin isn’t into hypotheticals. The longtime Pittsburgh Steelers coach prefers to deal with what is happening, not what might happen.
This season, however, has challenged that approach. The unbeaten Steelers (10-0) are scheduled to host some semblance of the Baltimore Ravens (6-4) in a game already pushed back three times, first from Thanksgiving to last Sunday, then from last Sunday to Tuesday night, then from Tuesday to Wednesday. The game is the first NFL contest scheduled for a Wednesday since the 2012 season opener.
Assuming, of course, that they play. Hardly a given in a year when uncertainty and chaos is just one positive COVID-19 test away.
“It’s day to day,” Tomlin said. “It’s a sensitive situation.”
An ever-changing one too. The Ravens had more than a dozen players on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of Tuesday afternoon, a group that includes reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. The Steelers have COVID-19 issues of their own, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt and starting running back James Conner among the four players who will not play.
The NFL is making every attempt to keep the league on track to finish a 16-game season in 17 weeks; look for quarterback-less Denver’s loss to New Orleans on Sunday as proof.
“We understand that every team is going through something like this,” Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward said. “Not to this extent, but we have to be ready for any situation. I think (Tomlin) has laid out the plan. It’s up for us to follow it and it’s up for us to bounce back with it.”
With a win, the Steelers would effectively eliminate Baltimore, the defending AFC North champions, from the division race. It would also keep Pittsburgh a game clear of reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City for the top seed in the conference — and the one bye available this season.
Yet the Steelers remain wary. The previous time they saw Ravens backup quarterback Robert Griffin III, scheduled to start in place of Jackson, the 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year guided Baltimore past Pittsburgh in the 2019 regular-season finale. Baltimore could also have its entire stable of running backs available if Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins both continue to test negative for COVID-19.
“They have a mobile quarterback who has beaten us this last time,” Heyward said. “Their defense is opportunistic, and they can be on long fields and have a kicker that can buy them out of any situation. I know we are dealing with a lot of uncertainly with guys going in and out, but we will deal with that when the time comes. We are ready for what they throw at us.”
If the pandemic offers both clubs a chance.
Conner’s absence means Pittsburgh will have to rely on second-year back Benny Snell Jr. and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr., to help out quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Snell ran for 113 yards in a season-opening win over the New York Giants while filling in for an injured Conner, but has been largely unproductive since outside of short-yardage situations.
Snell has 82 yards on 38 carries and three touchdowns over Pittsburgh’s past nine games. McFarland has been used sparingly since running for 42 yards in Week 3 against Houston.
TACKLING A PROBLEM
The Ravens had trouble bringing down Derrick Henry in an overtime loss on Nov. 22, and they didn’t get any practice time to correct the situation because of the COVID-19 outbreak within the team.
So, they’ll be working on muscle memory.
“Our guys know how to tackle, and we tackled, for most of the game, very, very well,” coach John Harbaugh said in reviewing the Titans game. “I think toward the end, we weren’t able to finish it for whatever reason.
“We can tackle better in those situations, but it’s not from a lack of knowing how to tackle or anything like that. It’s not something that we need to be in pads every day to get ready to do in a game. So, we just need to do better in a game situation. These are professional players. They certainly know how to tackle. They wouldn’t be on our team if they weren’t good tacklers.”
The ripple effect of postponing the game will linger well into the stretch run. The NFL moved both Pittsburgh and Baltimore’s next games as a result of the delay. The Steelers will now host the Washington Football Team on Monday, Dec. 7, with the Ravens hosting Dallas on Tuesday, Dec. 8.
Assuming the Ravens and Steelers ultimately do make it onto the turf at Heinz Field, it means the NFL could potentially play a game on every day of the week this season. There are Saturday games scheduled for both Dec. 19 and Dec. 26 and Minnesota is slated to visit New Orleans on Christmas Day, which is a Friday.