Roethlisberger to sit out Steelers Sunday game

By Ray Fittipaldo
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS

PITTSBURGH - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will not play in the regular-season finale in Cleveland on Sunday, opening the door for backup Mason Rudolph to start against the Browns.

The Steelers are locked into the No. 2 or 3 seed in the AFC and secured at least one home playoff game by winning the AFC North division title when they beat the Colts. They can become the No. 2 seed by winning on Sunday and if the Bills lose at home to the Dolphins.

But with only the No. 1 seed getting a bye in the first round of the playoffs, head coach Mike Tomlin decided it was in his team's best interests to make sure Roethlisberger is healthy and well-rested for the postseason.

Roethlisberger admitted last week he was not 100 percent healthy, and he was listed on the injury report a few weeks ago with a knee injury. There also has been some speculation his surgically repaired arm is tired late in the season, which might explain his and the offense's late-season struggles.

Rudolph will return to First Energy Stadium to face the Browns and Myles Garrett, who last year hit Rudolph in the head with his helmet after a late-game skirmish. It will be Rudolph's first start of the season. He was 5-3 as a starter last season when Roethlisberger missed the final 14 games due to his elbow injury.

Tomlin did not commit to resting any other starters, but he said a few others could be inactive if some players who sat out last week are able to return.

"We'll look potentially to resting some other guys, but the number of those guys and who those guys are will be determined as we push through the week," Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon. "Player availability dictates that."

If players such as Chris Boswell, Marcus Allen and Ola Adeniyi are able to return this week, it would allow some other starters to rest. Tomlin also indicated he would try to rest players during the game by being more liberal with his substitution patterns.

"I'd much rather preserve and protect players with a rotational mindset than to remove one player and expose the rest of the group to an abnormal number of snaps," he said. "It's a blessing to be in these circumstances and make these types of decisions. Make no mistake about it, it does not change our intentions. Football is our game. Our job is winning. We intend to do our job."

The Steelers have a chance to knock the Browns out of the playoffs with a victory. If they lose, the Browns are one of the most likely first-round matchups. Tomlin said that will not factor into his game-planning this week.

"It does not factor in whatsoever," he said. "We'll worry about the playoffs when we get there."

Several Steelers posted photos and videos that showed them celebrating without masks on in the locker room after their 28-24 victory over the Colts clinched the AFC North division title. That is a no-no under the NFL's COVID-19 protocols.

Tomlin said the NFL has been in touch with the Steelers about the violation and understands there could be some consequences for the players and the team.

Earlier this season, the New Orleans Saints were fined $500,000 and docked a seventh-round draft pick when NFL Films aired a piece showing their locker room celebrating without masks after beating Tampa Bay. The Saints were second-time offenders for league protocols and were previously fined $250,000.

The Steelers would be repeat offenders as well. They were fined $250,000 and Tomlin $100,000 for not wearing masks on the sidelines.

In the most shared video after the game, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Eric Ebron and Jaylen Samuels are shown in a video dancing without masks on.

"Obviously, emotions were what they were in terms of being divisional champs, but we are in a global pandemic," Tomlin said. "We take that very seriously. We have to control our emotions. It is a continual education process in terms of making sure that our guys understand how important it is that we adhere to the protocols of the pandemic.

"That being said, sometimes the education is punitive in nature and that's just the reality of it. But we will keep that business in-house and appropriately so as we work to keep all business in-house in that regard as it pertains to discipline.

"But make no mistake about it, we take this global pandemic very seriously. We take the guidelines prescribed by the NFL very seriously. We work our tails off to adhere to them, even in the midst of big emotional moments like we experienced after securing our AFC North divisional championship. In the midst of all the excitement, there are still lessons to be learned. There's still growth for us there. We do not run away from it. We run to it."

The NFL's decisions on how they penalize teams during the pandemic haven't been consistent, though. The Ravens were only fined $250,000 when they had the NFL's biggest COVID-19 outbreak of the season that forced several postponements, including three postponements involving the Steelers.

Tomlin has been widely criticized for taking three timeouts into halftime when the Steelers trailed, 21-7. Tomlin had a chance to call a timeout when the Colts faced a third-and-18 with over one minute remaining.

CBS sports analyst Tony Romo opined Tomlin did not call a timeout because he was duped by Colts quarterback Phillip Rivers, who feigned getting the Colts into a hurry-up offense before letting the play clock tick down and calling a running play with 26 seconds left.

Tomlin had a different explanation on Tuesday when he was asked about it. Two plays earlier, the Colts ripped off a 68-yard gain on a screen pass that was negated by a penalty. Tomlin said that development is the reason he did not use his timeouts.

"Really, I was taken aback by the screen we gave up just prior to that," Tomlin said. "I was more concerned about getting that unit off of the field without getting anymore splash plays. It's really unsettling when you give up a field-flipping play such as that.

"Thankfully that play was called back due to a block in the back, but we were fortunate there. Our execution was poor, and it really kind of changed my whole mentality about how the end of the half was unfolding."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers passes the ball in the first quarter of the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field on Dec. 27, 2020 in Pittsburgh, Pa.