The 2017 Pittsburgh Steelers conducted their first training camp practice of the season on July 28, which means they’ve been on the football grind for more than five months. By the time quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and running back Le’Veon Bell enter the field for the AFC divisional playoffs, though, they won’t have played in a competitive game for 19 days.
OK, so that Christmas Day game against Houston might have been stretching the definition of “competitive.”
Playing against Cleveland would not have done anything to change that perception.
There still is, to some folks in Pittsburgh, worry about whether that much time off might lead the Steelers to being rusty against whomever they play in the AFC semis. Coach Mike Tomlin is not one of those concerned.
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“I don’t buy into it. We’ve been playing ball, man, since July. Every day,” Tomlin told reporters at his weekly press conference. “We’ll be fine.”
Whether it’s fans looking for reasons to fret or talk show hosts looking for a subject to stir conversation, the Steelers’ decision to rest Roethlisberger, Bell, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and defensive end Cam Heyward was widely debated in advance of the game and after the Steelers won 28-24 without them.
Tuesday, Tomlin fielded multiple questions about the rust issue. The first was whether it was something to be concerned about; he acknowledged it could be considered a concern, as could the possibility of player injury resulting from participating in Sunday’s game.
“I prefer the ‘rust equation.’ We get an automatic pass to the second round, and get to do so with all the people on our roster,” Tomlin said. “So we’ll deal with the rust element of it. We’ll work and prepare and hopefully get better in the process.”
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Indeed, if concern about getting out of practice were of such importance to NFL teams, they would not fight so tenaciously to secure one of the two byes granted to the top teams in each conference.
If taking a week off from the game created issues of “rust,” it would follow that teams coming out of an open date would perform below par. However, in playoff games alone, teams that qualify for a bye past the wild-card weekend have won 67.5 percent of their divisional round games over the past decade.
Including the regular season and the playoffs, teams coming off “bye weeks” have won 59.2 percent of their games over the past 10 years.
Tomlin had to decide before the Cleveland game about whether it was more important to keep his players in a routine or assure his key veterans would be as healthy as possible. Given that the Steelers never have completed a playoff run with Bell healthy, and that wide receiver Antonio Brown was not around for the team’s second playoff game in the 2015 season, this seemed an easy choice to make.
The coach anticipated he would be dealing with some discussion about this decision, though. “The question is a real thing. I’m used to the question,” Tomlin said. “And don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the question, because the scenario, the variables around the question, are good for us. I’m not overly concerned about it, to be honest with you.”
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Some have compared the Steelers’ decision to rest Roethlisberger and company with Indianapolis resting Peyton Manning in 2005 — the season Pittsburgh went into Indy and won in the divisional round, then went on to win Super Bowl XL — but there is a significant difference. Manning rested the final two regular-season games and the playoff bye week, which meant he went 27 days between games. Manning also lost in the divisional round when he played the final regular-season game in 2007, which means it’s a stretch to draw any conclusions.
Steelers fans might remember 2008, when they played a meaningless final game against the Browns. The team was favored to reach the Super Bowl that season, but used Roethlisberger in the final game with the idea of keeping him sharp. Instead, he was hit hard by two Browns defenders and didn’t get off the ground for 15 minutes.
He was able to play when the Chargers came to town 15 days later, but the Steelers didn’t mount a scoring drive until the final possession of the first half. It didn’t seem playing that empty game against Cleveland did much to keep the offense in rhythm, and it almost cost Roethlisberger the chance to compete in the playoffs.
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The reality: Most every NFL playoff game is hard, and they get harder as the rounds progress because the teams that last are the best teams.
Or, as Tomlin put it Tuesday: “It’s no longer a 32-team league. It’s a 12-team league.”
And none of those 12 teams is bad.