The Pittsburgh Steelers already entered Sunday’s contest against the Detroit Lions facing added obstacles thanks to injuries. Already down JuJu Smith-Schuster at wide receiver entering the week, a toe injury to Chase Claypool further depleted the team’s offense prior to the game. And then, less than 24 hours before kickoff came the big loss, though not due to injury: Because of a positive test for COVID-19, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would miss the game.
That put quarterback Mason Rudolph in the big spotlight, one of multiple players stepping in on shorter notice along with the likes of James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud at receiver. But the injury hits kept on coming once the game began: On offense, guards Kevin Dotson and Trai Turner left the game, and on defense, cornerback Joe Haden and then pass rusher T.J. Watt also left at different points with injuries.
A lot of unexpected players ended up in bigger roles during the contest, which ended in a 16-16 tie. Speaking after the game, head coach Mike Tomlin offered some praise for his players, while expressing that there is always the expectation that people may need to step up on short notice and do their jobs well.
“We expect those guys to play well. You’re a starter or you’re a starter in waiting, and there’s a fine line between being a starter and backup,” Tomlin said via the team’s YouTube channel. “We have respect for the men. All the guys in the helmet are capable of being a component of helping us win. And so we proceed with that understanding and expectation. We’re not surprised, we don’t throw pep rallies when guys answer the bell and play well. We expect them to be competent.”
Many were competent in relief. McCloud ended up with 63 yards on a team-high nine catches, and James Washington caught the team’s only touchdown of the game.
Defensively, players like James Pierre and Tre Norwood assumed more snaps when Haden was lost, and helped limit Detroit quarterback Jared Goff to a miserable line of 114 yards on 14/25 passing.
And along the line, Joe Haeg and J.C. Hassenauer came in and filled the guard spots well enough to give Rudolph opportunities to try and throw. Haeg in particular got a chance to show off the versatility to play more than just either tackle spot, a big reason of what got him to Pittsburgh in the first place as arguably the most important depth piece of the unit.
“Joe is very versatile. That’s one of the reasons why we had interest in him in free agency,” Tomlin said. “He’s played tackle, both tackles, he’s played guard, it’s all over his resume.”
Although an ugly game start to finish for both franchises, Pittsburgh’s backups, both those who knew before kickoff they were going out there and those who came on mid-game, did well enough to earn Pittsburgh the tie, at least. Every member of the team had to be ready to go in if called upon, and Haeg is one such example that can be used for the entire roster the rest of this season.