The words “normal” and “2020” are not two things which are combined in the same sentence over the last several months. When it to come to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the entire NFL, it still holds true.
The Steelers are coming off and rough stretch of games where their schedule was thrown completely off due to the COVID-19 outbreak with the Baltimore Ravens. Preparing for their Thursday night game on Thanksgiving, the Steelers were forced to have their game rescheduled three times until it was ultimately played six days later. Although players got a few days off over Thanksgiving, having the situation being up in the air so much was quite awkward for everyone involved.
Not only was it unusual circumstances when it came to the Steelers schedule, it also created a rough stretch of games in a 12 day period. Yes, teams play three games in 12 days all the time. Any NFL team which has a Sunday—Sunday—Thursday schedule over a three week period sees the same number of games in the same amount of time. But in those scenarios, the team only has one game in which it’s an unusual preparation time—the Thursday game—which is at the end of the stretch and then they are rewarded with an extra three days off before going back to a normal week. This is not at all how it worked out for the Steelers in 2020.
The schedule of playing a game, four days off, playing another game, five days off, and playing a third game is quite unusual. It’s easy to say teams play on Monday and turn around and play the next Sunday with one less day of preparation all the time in the NFL. While this is true, teams aren’t playing on that schedule after coming off an even shorter schedule the week before.
The most difficult thing to balance on a short week, even when just shortened by one day, is preparation versus recovery. If players don’t fully recover, it’s difficult to perform at a top level. Between injuries and fatigue, it’s an obstacle to overcome. But if a team is also dealing with rushed preparation, not having these players available for prep puts a strain on what can be implemented. Case in point, Ben Roethlisberger did not practice between the Steelers Wednesday night game against Baltimore and their Monday night game against Washington. While it was important for Roethlisberger to recover, there was very little change to the offensive game plan as a result. Therefore, tendencies Washington was able to pick up on in the Baltimore game is exactly what they could expect the Steelers to do when they faced off.
This is the NFL in 2020. It’s what players and coaches signed up for. It’s what is necessary in order to make sure there is a season. It doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult.
To say the stretch of games didn’t affect the Steelers would be unwise. The fact Coach Tomlin mentioned it multiple times in his press conference on Tuesday is a telling sign.
When addressing the Steelers woes in the run game, Tomlin mentioned the short weeks as a factor in fixing the problem.
“We will continue to work,” Tomlin stated in regards to improving the run game. “We haven’t necessarily seen the fruit of that work yet. Some of that can be traced to some of the short weeks we’ve had. We acknowledge that. That’s why we are excited about working this week and continuing with our emphasis there in an effort to get that product to look the way we need it to look and round out our offensive attack and allow it to be more fluid and productive.”
Tomlin also mentioned the desire to lower the playing time of players across the board to combat the short weeks.
“If you remember several weeks back when we talked about that block of games, we mentioned we were going to have an all hands on deck mentality because of the number of games that we played in a short number of days,” Tomlin answered in response to a question about the playing time for T.J. Watt. “We thought it was appropriate to play a lot of people, to roll a lot of people at all positions. Outside linebacker and T.J. Watt is not excluded from that. If you look at any of that, it’s probably a bigger theme in terms of us acknowledging that we had to play a bulk of the games in a limited number of days and in an effort to keep everybody up and function with the level of physicality and effort that was required to preform in those games.”
Hopefully the issues with a short week are now behind the Steelers. Yes, they do play on Monday night in Week 15 so it will be a slightly shorter schedule before taking on the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field on December 27. But coming off a week of normal preparation, including an extra day before heading in to the slightly shortened week, should help alleviate any issues.
But as we all know, playing football during a global pandemic means schedules could be changed at a moments notice. Although the Steelers have had to take the brunt of these rescheduled games as having their bye week moved early in the season did not help things over this most recent stretch of games, it is now behind them. Coach Tomlin stated on Sunday night there is enough time to fix the Steelers offense before they play next Monday. All that’s left now for the Steelers is to use the extra day of preparation in what would otherwise be a normal week to get both rested and prepared for their game in Cincinnati on Monday.