Unbeaten Steelers prepare for Bengals with COVID at fore
The quarterback situation is front and center again in Pittsburgh, but for vastly different reasons than last year.
Steelers backup Mason Rudolph worked with the first team this week and is ready to start Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field. Yet, veteran Ben Roethlisberger could still be under center as the Steelers aim to remain unbeaten, as he progresses through COVID-19 protocols.
Roethlisberger was one of four players Pittsburgh (8-0) put on the reserve/COVID-19 list based on contact tracing after tight end Vance McDonald tested positive for the virus. The others are offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins, running back Jaylen Samuels and linebacker Vince Williams.
If Roethlisberger and the other three test negative and pass protocols through Saturday, they will be active to play against Cincinnati (2-5-1), but they will do so with no practice time.
Rudolph, who passed for 1,765 yards, 13 touchdowns and nine interceptions last year after Roethlisberger had elbow surgery, has had two brief appearances this season.
To be safe, the Steelers held all their meetings virtually and used rotations on training equipment. The coaches found that less than ideal.
“The only difference for me, per se, is I don’t t see them,” Pittsburgh offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett said. “I don’t see their eyes, so when I’m explaining something I can’t look at the guy in the eyes, and that’s just something we’ve got to adapt to as coaches.”
Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar had the same complaint.
“Coaching, just like most things with football, is personal and it’s interactive and you don’t have that when you go virtual,” Dunbar said, “but this is the only way we can do it.”
Cincinnati, which is coming off its bye week, also is holding meetings virtually, something coach Zac Taylor shrugged off.
“We’ve become really good at it,” he said. “Our coaches know how to use the tape and keep the players engaged, give them the information they need. This isn’t a big distraction for us.”
The last time the teams met, a 16-10 Steelers win on Nov. 24, 2019, things were different, at least for the Bengals, and not just because there is a pandemic this year.
“(Thinking about) where we were personnel wise, guys were still feeling out the system and what our expectations were,” said Taylor, who was in his first season with the Bengals then. “Now here we are a year later and guys have way more confidence. We have a full grasp of what our identity is and guys are playing with a whole lot of confidence.”
Cincinnati could get a boost to an offensive line that has been banged up, as guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (ankle) was cleared to practice Wednesday, and center Trey Hopkins (concussion) was a full participant. In addition, linebacker Jordan Evans and cornerback Mackensie Alexander have been removed from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Bengals left tackle Jonah Williams (stinger) was limited Wednesday, while right tackle Bobby Hart (knee) and running back Joe Mixon (foot) remained out.
In non-virus Pittsburgh personnel news, cornerback Mike Hilton (shoulder) and fullback Derek Watt (hamstring) were full participants Wednesday in practice, and defensive Tyson Alualu (knee) was limited but according to coach Mike Tomlin has a chance to play. All three missed last week’s win at Dallas.
Steelers defensive end Isaiah Buggs (ankle) and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee) didn’t practice, but that could well have been precautionary.
–Field Level Media