It’s a rarity any time of year for an NFL team to field all 63 players at practice (the 53 active roster players plus the 10-man practice squad), but even more unusual for teams to be healthy this late in the season. By December, the law of averages generally dictates that at least a handful of players on any given team will have suffered injuries that are limiting their ability to take part in on-field workouts.
New England is currently bucking that trend. For the past two days, they’ve been able to see their entire squad participate fully in practices. In fact, only two players – tight end Dwayne Allen (left knee) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (ankle) – are even mentioned on the injury report.
“Yeah, it’s huge. Hopefully, we can keep it that way,” grinned running back Rex Burkhead, who spent nearly half this season on injured reserve, but has managed to return to full-time duty.
“Yeah, it’s important to have a healthy team this time of the season. It’s a long season,” defensive end Trey Flowers remarked. “To have the majority of the roster at full strength – obviously, you’ve got little things here and there – but to be mostly healthy is good.”
Conversely, this week’s opponent is dealing with some significant health concerns on its roster. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed the first practice of the week with a rib injury, but was able to return to the field today. Though he’s likely to play Sunday, Roethlisberger will almost certainly be less than 100 percent.
Meanwhile, running back James Connor has an ankle injury that has prevented him from practicing thus far this week. Pittsburgh’s starting right tackle, Marcus Gilbert, also hasn’t yet practice because of a knee problem.
“It doesn’t really matter if we don’t go out there and execute,” Burkhead added. “We may have everyone healthy, feeling good, but it matters how you execute on Sundays.”
“I wouldn’t say we’re where we want to be,” wide receiver Julian Edelman proclaimed, “but we’re trusting the process of going out and working hard each day in practice and trying to improve and see where that brings us.”
Just like last year, this Week 15 contest at Heinz Field could be crucial for both teams’ postseason hopes and playoff seeding implications. A year ago at this time, both teams were fighting for the No. 1 overall spot in the AFC. At the moment, Pittsburgh is struggling to maintain its grip on the AFC North, while New England can claim the AFC East with a victory, plus a Dolphins loss at Minnesota Sunday.
The Patriots have struggled to play well on the road with any degree of consistency this season, which makes this latest showdown with the Steelers even more drama-filled. It’s also one of two games being played in the 4 o’clock Eastern time slot Sunday, so, it will be available to most of the nation’s viewing audience.
“Yeah, they’re going to be hungry, for sure,” Burkhead continued. “It’s always a tough game to play there. It’s a great environment. They’re well-coached and have great players. It’s going to be a challenge for us.”
“It’s always poppin’ [at Heinz Field]. It’s a football atmosphere. It’s a football town,” declared tight end Rob Gronkowski, who played a year of high school football in the Steel City.
“It’s a physical team, well-coached team, a team that’s been playing good football for a long time,” Edelman told reporters Thursday. “With their defense, they can get after the quarterback. They have a spin-the-dial mentality, where they change things up. They’re always getting you thinking. And they play hard. They take the ball away. We have to do everything to protect the ball and try to execute.”
Of late, the Steelers haven’t been playing well, however. They’ll host the Patriots on the heels of a three-game losing streak, while New England comes to town having lost a heartbreaker in Miami last weekend. As often as these two teams meet during the regular and postseason, this marks the first time in 25 years that both clubs will do so coming off losses. It promises to be a playoff-like atmosphere in Pittsburgh Sunday evening.
“We have three more games left in the regular season,” Flowers concluded. “So, we’ve got to take care of business.”