- Previously covered the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star and Oklahoma University for the Oklahoman.
PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin didn’t rule out the possibility that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger could play Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, but the game plan this week will revolve around backup Mason Rudolph.
“We’re going to build our plan around getting Mason ready to play,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “We’re going to highlight his talents and skills relative to the opponents that we’re intending to play. We’re going to build that plan, work that plan. We’ve got a young offensive unit, and we’ll let that lead us throughout the week.
“If we get to a point in the week where Ben has an opportunity to get to a moving train, that’s exactly what he’ll do. He’ll be capable of executing the game plan.”
Roethlisberger, who landed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Saturday with a positive test, is vaccinated and needs two negative tests and to be symptom-free for 48 hours to return to the active roster. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick went on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday after a positive test, and Tomlin said he doesn’t expect to have him Sunday.
Roethlisberger missed a week last season as a close contact of a teammate who tested positive. After a week of isolation, Roethlisberger was activated off reserve/COVID-19 list a day before facing the Cincinnati Bengals and threw for 333 yards and four touchdowns.
Like that week, Roethlisberger will participate virtually in all team meetings, Tomlin said.
“He’s been injured and had personal discomfort in the past over the course of the 15 years we’ve worked together; he always answers that bell,” Tomlin said.
“We’ll definitely leave the light on for him.”
If Roethlisberger does return, Tomlin doesn’t anticipate any obstacles in last-minute adaptations to the game plan for his veteran quarterback.
“We prepared the game for Ben last week, and Mason executed it,” Tomlin said. “There’s not a lot of significant differences. It’s not like Mason Rudolph runs a 4.4 and all of a sudden we’re going to start doing some run-pass options and things of that nature. It’s not as significant a discussion as one would imagine. It’s probably more likes and dislikes or feel-related things relative to the in-helmet perspective of the position.”
Rudolph started in Roethlisberger’s place Sunday, completing 30 of 50 attempts for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the 16-16 tie against the winless Lions. After the game, Tomlin said Rudolph gave them a “chance to win,” and Tuesday, he praised his ability to execute the game plan.
“His ability to communicate not only in-game, but between series and express likes and dislikes and articulate what he saw was acceptable,” Tomlin said. “His reads and distribution of the football was largely what we wanted. He stretched the ball down the field at times and gave us an opportunity to make them not only defend the field horizontally but vertically.”
But Tomlin noted that Rudolph’s accuracy needed to improve. Rudolph’s passes often were too high, and once he missed a wide-open Ray-Ray McCloud in the end zone when he threw the ball short and it bounced on the turf in front of his receiver.
“I thought he could be better from a pinpoint-accuracy standpoint, in some instances, to set up run after [the catch] and putting the ball in an ideal circumstance so a guy in the flat can win that flat confrontation,” Tomlin said. “Largely, this is not the first rodeo for him. This is not the first rodeo for him with us. I don’t think any of us were surprised by the things he was able to do for us.”
If Roethlisberger isn’t activated, Rudolph would make his 11th career start for the Steelers, and he enters the game with a 5-4-1 record. Before starting the Week 17 game against the Cleveland Browns last season, Rudolph started eight games in 2019 after Roethlisberger went down with a season-ending elbow injury.
“I’m so much more comfortable out there,” Rudolph said after the game. “Comfortable with Coach [Matt] Canada and our offense and the young players on our offensive line. We just jell well as a unit. Those are my friends. Those are my brothers. We enjoy each other’s company.
“There’s a level of experience that you have. Experience is the best teacher, and these opportunities don’t come around often, so obviously, I was excited to get it. We’ve got to make more plays to get in the win column.”
In addition to the Steelers on the reserve/COVID-19 list, the team is also dealing with injuries to T.J. Watt, Joe Haden, Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner, all sustained against the Lions. Tomlin didn’t have a concrete timeline for any but said he’d “leave the light on” for Watt, who had MRIs on his hip and knee that came back negative, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
“As a competitor, we’re always excited about having an opportunity to smile in the face of adversity — the adversity that life and the game of football presents, whether it’s injuries or COVID or otherwise, that’s just something that always has my attention, something we’re always ready to stand up against.”
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