Mike Tomlin ready to ‘smile’ as he tries to cobble together offense to face Bengals
His Pro Bowl wide receiver and team MVP has a knee injury in addition to a concussion. One of his other starting receivers also is concussed. His Pro Bowl running back aggravated a shoulder injury that already kept him out for two weeks. His All-Pro center is facing a three-game suspension, pending appeal.
Oh, and his franchise quarterback is on injured reserve, leaving the backup to make his eighth career NFL start Sunday.
It’s not an ideal situation that Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin faces as he tries to assemble an offense for a game Sunday — even if the opponent is the only winless team in the NFL.
When the 5-5 Steelers play the 0-10 Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium, they could be without JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Conner, and they know they will take the field without Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey.
“The bottom line is our job is to win games regardless of circumstances,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. “That is our focus. I really don’t spend a lot of time crying over who is available and who is not available. It’s as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. If you’re a competitor like we as coaches are competitors, that fires you up.
“You want to smile in the face of adversity and deliver.”
The offense hasn’t given anyone, let alone Tomlin, much reason to smile in recent weeks, even while the Steelers were crafting a four-game winning streak that was halted Thursday night in a 21-7 loss at Cleveland.
The Steelers have been held to fewer than 275 yards in seven of their 10 games, including the past three in a row with Mason Rudolph under center. That has the Steelers ranked No. 28 among the league’s 32 teams in total offense, with the lowly Bengals sitting one spot higher.
And this week, the Steelers will begin game preparations not knowing whether Smith-Schuster and Johnson will be catching passes or whether Rudolph will be throwing to James Washington, Johnny Holton, Tevin Jones and new addition Deon Cain.
Conner could be another bystander because of his aggravated shoulder injury, and B.J. Finney will start at center while Pouncey begins serving his suspension for fighting with Browns defensive lineman Myles Garrett.
“We’re presented with a set of circumstances or variables week in and week out, some of which we don’t have control over,” Tomlin said. “We do have control over our preparation and readiness and ultimately the execution of those available to us.”
Jones was promoted from the practice squad to play against the Browns after wide receiver Ryan Switzer was placed on injured reserve. Jones had two catches for 24 yards in his NFL debut. Holton finally got his first catch of the season in his 10th game. Cain was signed from the Indianapolis Colts practice squad to provide a healthy option in the wide receiver room.
At running back, Kerrith Whyte was signed from the Chicago Bears practice squad to provide depth behind Jaylen Samuels, Trey Edmunds and a returning Benny Snell while Conner recovers from his shoulder injury.
Raiding another team’s practice squad for skill players isn’t ideal, Tomlin admitted, but he considered it better than the alternative of signing a street free agent such as Eli Rogers, Terrelle Pryor and Dez Bryant.
“Most veterans getting off the couch lack a certain readiness from a physical standpoint,” Tomlin said. “Guys on a practice squad are working every day and have a conditioning and readiness associated with working every day. That is an element of discussion.
“We also like the upside. And we like to coach and instruct and teach, and we don’t hide from that.”
Bringing in players from the outside midseason also has its drawbacks, such as an unfamiliarity with the playbook and the daily practice routine. Tight end Nick Vannett is beginning his eighth week with the Steelers and only recently has gained familiarity with their system.
“It’s difficult,” guard David DeCastro said. “Football is a game of experience. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Guys coming in, even if they are talented players … it’s tough without the reps.”
For players with a firm grasp of the playbook, adjusting to injuries in-game can present other challenges. For Samuels, he went from a complementary role to getting the carries normally allotted to Conner.
“It affects it a lot, changing the gameplan, changing the personnel,” Samuels said. “That’s what we get paid to do. We’ve got to come in here and learn and get the gameplan and go from there. If it switches during the week, it switches and we’ve got to be ready.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .