PITTSBURGH (AP) — Three weeks into his comeback from right elbow surgery, Ben Roethlisberger could feel the rust coming off.
The timing was starting to get better. So was his confidence in a group of playmakers who are a decade younger (and in some cases, closer to two) than the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.
It all came to a screeching halt last week when Roethlisberger and the rest of the unbeaten Steelers were hit with an unexpected weekend off following a COVID-19 outbreak in Tennessee that brought the Titans' season to a standstill.
Roethlisberger understands there are bigger issues at play than the state of his team's offense. Still, his frustration is palpable. While the Steelers have so far avoided a single positive COVID-19 test since the regular season started, they found themselves at the mercy of things far beyond their control.
Yeah, it's frustrating.
“I guess I’m going to start back over from scratch and hope this week I didn’t take too many steps backward,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “Just try and see how it goes this week, I guess.”
While coach Mike Tomlin has made it a point not to harp on the prospect of playing 13 straight games to end the regular season — a reality now that the makeup date with the Titans has been set for Week 8 and their original bye week set for Week 7 is now a trip to Baltimore to face the Ravens — the ripple effects of the cancellation are telling.
Typically the Steelers use the bye to evaluate their rookies and sprinkle in some extra teaching they typically can't get to during a normal game week.
Not this time. They spent last week preparing to face the Titans. It wasn't until they arrived at the team's training facility on Thursday that they found out the game was being pushed.
“We didn’t take that step back, if you will, and worry about development and macro things if you will,” Tomlin said.
Meaning they won't have their usual bye week, where they build in time for review and instruction. Then again, there's nothing usual about 2020.
“A lot of things happened on the fly,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “We’re just trying to adapt to the situation. Things are going to change every minute now. And we’ve just got to be willing to adjust.”
Roethlisberger joked he didn't give his surgically repaired right arm a day off, mostly because his son Benjamin kept bugging him to play catch.
Still, the 38-year-old gave an atypically blunt assessment on the odds of the Titans ultimately forfeiting the game, something NFL commissioner Roger Goodell hinted at as a possible penalty for teams that don't strictly adhere to COVID-19 protocols.
“I don’t think they will consider forfeiting our game, and of course, we got the short end of the stick,” he said.
There is a little bit of a silver lining. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson should be ready to go after being placed in the concussion protocol during a win over Houston on Sept. 27. Johnson was likely on a path to being ready to face the Titans, but the additional time means he will be full-go against cross-state rival Philadelphia (1-2-1) on Sunday.
Johnson barely saw the field during Roethlisberger's brief 2019 season, one that ended after he tore three flexor tendons in his right elbow in the second quarter of Week 2.
The two have quickly built a rapport. Johnson's 25 targets lead the team and Roethlisberger can't help but notice the way defenses have started to pay close attention to where Johnson's No. 18 lines up on a given play.
“He’s a heck of a football player with an incredible skillset,” Roethlisberger said. “He’s deserving of the attention that he is getting.”
NOTES: The 5,500 fans allowed to go to Heinz Field on Sunday after Pennsylvania officials eased restrictions on outdoor gatherings must wear a face covering at all times. Fans must also stay 6 feet apart. ... Johnson (toe), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (knee), CB Joe Haden (illness), FB Derek Watt (hamstring) and S Marcus Allen (foot) did not practice Wednesday.
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