Updated: Jan 2, 2021
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
The big news from Mike Tomlin's weekly press conference on Tuesday was that Ben Roethlisberger won't play against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday and Mason Rudolph will get the start at quarterback.
The Steelers are going to be either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the playoffs and with only one team getting a bye week in the new playoff format, the Week 17 game against the Browns really doesn't mean much for the Steelers. However, that doesn't mean the Steelers will just hand over a win to the Browns.
"Make no mistake about it, it does not change our intentions in terms of going to Cleveland this weekend," Tomlin said. "Football is our game, but our job is winning. We intend to do our job. We intend to prepare with that mindset and ultimately let our play lead us to that destination. We're not seeking comfort. We're not grading ourselves on a curve. This game is on the schedule, and so the guys who will be on the field represent us. And the standard that is the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the standard."
As of right now, Tomlin has only ruled out Roethlisberger for Sunday and said they'll look potentially at resting other key starters.
"We'll look potentially at resting some other guys in terms of making them inactive, but the number of those guys and who those guys are will be determined as we push through the week. Player availability dictates that," Tomlin said. "We had a number of players miss the game last week due to injury, players like Marcus Allen, Ola (Adeniyi), (Chris) Boswell, and others. Those players' ability to come back and be available to us in Cleveland really dictates the number of people we are willing to do that with. The only people I’m willing to do acknowledge at this point is that Ben will not play."
Along with Roethlisberger, I'd assume Tomlin would rest players like veterans David DeCastro, Maurkice Pouncey Cam Heyward, Tyson Alualu and Joe Haden. Stephon Tuitt, T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick and JuJu Smith-Schuster could be held out as well, or at least play a limited amount of snaps.
"We will formulate a plan with that understanding," Tomlin said regarding injuries and how many players they will not play on Sunday in Cleveland. "All the other variables in terms of who’s playing and who’s not we will determine later in the week based on injury and health, positional health probably more importantly than anything else. There’s strength in numbers, so I much rather preserve and protect players with a rotational mindset than to necessarily remove one particular player and expose the rest of the group to an abnormal number of snaps."
Rudolph will return to the same stadium where he got into a brawl with Browns' defensive end Myles Garrett last year, which resulted in Garrett ripping off Rudolph's helmet and hitting him over the head with it near the end of the game.
Garrett would be suspended for the rest of the season for his attack on Rudolph, and would almost a week later claim that he was called a racial slur by Rudolph which caused him to act the way he did. The NFL investigated Garrett's allegation against Rudolph and they found no evidence to his claim. Rudolph vehemently denied the allegation. It was an ugly scene on the shores of Lake Erie on that Thursday night in November and it affected Rudolph not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.
Rudolph got benched the next week against the Cincinnati Bengals for performing poorly and Devlin Hodges started the rest of the season. Rudolph did replace Hodges in a Week 16 game against the New York Jets for the same reason he was benched and completed 14 of 20 passes for 120 yards (70%) and a touchdown but would suffer a season-ending shoulder injury in the fourth quarter.
It was a rough year altogether for Rudolph last season and Sunday's meeting will be the first time that he'll play against Garrett since last year's incident.
"I haven't had a chance to talk to him about it," Tomlin said when asked if he's talked with Rudolph about starting against Cleveland. "But I'm sure he's excited about getting an opportunity to start, certainly."
With Roethlisberger out and potentially a number of other premier starters not playing on Sunday, Tomlin wanted to make it clear they are not treating their matchup with the Browns like an exhibition game.
"Again, I don’t want to make this seem like it’s a preseason game," he said. "As I mentioned, Ben is the only guy that I am willing to acknowledge won’t play in this game. We have a number of guys who are working to come off of injury right now and that could fill out the remaining portion of our inactive list if you will. This is no preseason game where we are playing backups where we have player 54 through 75 to evaluate and things of that nature. We have one NFL football team. That NFL Football team will go play minus Ben and maybe another guy or two. I don’t want to make more out of it than what it is from that perspective."
For the Browns, they need to beat the Steelers to clinch a playoff spot and return to the postseason for the first time since 2002. Their season is on the line and will look to bounce back after an embarrassing 23-16 loss to the New York Jets, who were 1-13 before their victory over Cleveland. All the pressure is on the Browns, but Tomlin said he's not particularly motivated by the fact that they can prevent the Browns from making the playoffs.
"Motivation, intentions and all of those things, that’s good water cooler fodder and I get it. But again, this is a scheduled game, our business is to win, and so we are going to prepare with that mindset," Tomlin said. "That will be unchanged in terms of how we approach it. ... I know what our mentality will be, I know what our intentions will be, so we will go play football."