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The ripple effects of COVID-19 have been felt all across pro football, never more so than this past week in Tennessee, where the Titans have been dealing with an outbreak of 20 confirmed positive cases.
The Titans’ outbreak was serious enough that it led to the postponement of their Week 4 game against Pittsburgh, an anticipated showdown between two undefeated AFC contenders that was supposed to be one of the spotlight games on Sunday’s slate.
The NFL made the safe decision, and also the correct one. But there was still fallout, and not just in Nashville. The Steelers suddenly had a bye week forced upon them that was not only earlier than they’d prefer, but also really didn’t feel like a bye week.
They came in Monday last week and practiced before a mandatory off day Tuesday, only to return to the facility on Wednesday before they found out their game against the Titans was suddenly up in the air.
“We’re practicing and the next thing you know, coach tells us,” said Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who recently spoke to Yahoo Sports on behalf of the Oikos Greek Yogurt TikTok Challenge. “We hear stuff on social media, the news, and we're like, ‘OK, cool — [the Titans’ practices are] canceled until Saturday and it's like oh, we're going to play Sunday. You know, we still have a chance.’”
Then more positive tests came back for Tennessee on Thursday.
“So we prepared for game week, and by the time practice is over, our game is canceled,” Smith-Schuster said with a laugh. “So now it’s like, alright, is this our bye week?”
Turns out it was, and it was hardly ideal. The bye is the players’ only respite from the grind of the season, a chance to get away from the team facility for a whole week. The league’s decision essentially sliced Pittsburgh’s typical off time in half. Due to the preparations they were making to play Tennessee, players got only Friday through Sunday off instead of the customary full week.
What’s more, the timing of the bye — now in Week 4 rather than the previously scheduled Week 7 — means Pittsburgh would no longer have the typical midseason break that can be so helpful in giving players’ bodies time to heal.
“We have about 10-plus games left and it's just, 'Ah, why is it so early?’” Smith-Schuster said with a laugh. “But it is what is, you know, I can't complain. Our coach says, you know, whatever time, wherever we are at, there's a game that we've got to play and we've got to rock.”
It was a message that Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin also made crystal clear with the media Thursday, when asked about the postponement of the Titans game.
“There’s disappointment, no question,” Tomlin said. “We’ve worked extremely hard at the beginning portion of this week in preparation for what we thought was an opportunity against an undefeated team in their venue. You lean in on those opportunities. We’re not getting the opportunity to do that.
“Instead, we are getting a bye week. We’re going to make the best of that. We have every intention of getting the appropriate rest and taking care of those that need to be mended in any way.”
When asked about the proposition of playing at least 13 straight weeks, Tomlin was stone-faced, reflecting the same point he apparently made to his team.
“We do not care,” Tomlin said.
When asked about this, Smith-Schuster knowingly nodded.
“That is classic Coach Tomlin for you,” Smith-Schuster said. “He is very transparent in what he says.”
So the Steelers made due during the makeshift bye, all while also taking the proper COVID precautions, which included players taking their COVID tests at the facility in the morning.
“And if you miss your COVID test, fun fact — you get fined 50 thousand dollars,” Smith-Schuster said. “Can’t have that.”
While some players went home after their tests, others went into the building for treatment and to get some work in.
“Like I said, it doesn't feel like a bye week,” Smith-Schuster said. “For us, it's more so preparation for the Eagles.”
Players returned to practice Monday and will get the NFL-mandated off day Tuesday before returning to the facility Wednesday to begin their regularly scheduled work week. But the Steelers and their quarterback believe this is a Super Bowl-caliber team, so don’t expect them to let anything, even schedule inconveniences, slow them down.
And Smith-Schuster is hopeful that when Pittsburgh hosts Philadelphia on Sunday, they’ll not only be rested and ready for that game, but also for the tough track that still lies ahead.
“Everybody knows that, like he said, it doesn't matter where, who or when we are playing football — this is the NFL, this is what you get,” Smith-Schuster said. “We've got to conform to COVID-19.”
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