As Titans’ COVID-19 cases grow, could Bills game be in jeopardy?
SportsPulse: Lorenzo’s picks have been like clock work going 2-1 each of the first three weeks of the season. For Week 4 he gives his three locks hoping to finally have the perfect weekend.
One positive COVID-19 case has ballooned into more than a dozen, and the concern over the Titans playing in Week 4 now has bled into Week 5.
The Titans (3-0), who had Sunday’s home game against the Steelers postponed by the NFL on Thursday until Oct. 25, are dealing with the league’s first teamwide COVID-19 outbreak. Two more players tested positive Friday, bringing the total number of team members infected since Sept. 24 to 15, including eight players and seven team personnel.
Amid the mounting cases, the team’s Week 5 game against the visiting Buffalo Bills is quickly approaching on Oct. 11.
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What needs to happen for Titans to host Bills as scheduled?
Put simply, negative COVID-19 tests.
As it stands, their scheduled noon kickoff next Sunday appears to be in jeopardy — unless the Titans see better results with their daily testing. Friday’s positive tests represented the fourth consecutive day the team had at least one player test positive. The list of infected players includes:
- defensive lineman DaQuan Jones
- long snapper Beau Brinkley
- tight end Tommy Hudson (practice squad)
- outsideline backer Kamalei Correa
- cornerback Kristian Fulton
- cornerback Greg Mabin (practice squad)
- wide receiver Adam Humphries
- wide receiver Cam Batson
Saturday and Sunday’s test results will be critical. The Titans hope to reopen their team facility early next week after they were forced to shut it down Tuesday, when they reverted to virtual meetings.
NFL Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills on Thursday said the reopening of the Titans facility “totally depends on test results” and requires a period where experts are convinced there’s no COVID-19 transmission, according to NFL Network.
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What if the Titans won’t be able to return a significant portion of infected players?
That’s where the team’s expanded practice squad will come into play.
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, the size of teams’ practice squads already was set to increase from 10 to 12 players this year. But in light on the pandemic, the NFL further increased the size to 16 players for 2020 with six slots open to players with any amount of experience.
Additionally, four players on the practice squad can be protected from other teams on a weekly basis. For the Titans’ since-postponed game against the Steelers, for example, they had planned to protect quarterback Trevor Siemian, linebacker Daren Bates, wide receiver Cam Batson and kicker Tucker McCann.
Also new for 2020: Teams can carry up to 55 players on their roster, up from 53, by elevating one or two players from their practice squad before 3 p.m. CT on the day before that team’s game. The move allows teams a larger pool from which to select their 48 active players on game day. Batson has benefited from the rule change the past two weeks, playing meaningful snaps for the Titans in both games.
No, it’s not anywhere close to ideal for a 3-0 Titans team that is trying to stay perfect. There’s no one on the practice squad who can make up for Jones’ run-stopping ability, Brinkley’s consistency as long snapper or Fulton’s speed at cornerback.
But it’s a solution, and one the Titans would have to live with if the game is played as scheduled and a significant number of the players who tested positive were unable to return.
In certain instances, like trying to find a fill-in for Brinkley, the Titans could look to free agency for roster help. Titans coach Mike Vrabel said as much when it comes to filling a niche position like long snapper.
Per the NFL, a player who has tested positive and is asymptomatic can return once 10 days have passed since the initial positive test, or five days have passed since the initial positive test and the player receives two consecutive negative tests at least 24 hours apart within that five-day period. Those who show symptoms can return 10 days after the symptoms first appear and 72 hours have passed since any symptoms have ended.
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Safety concerns for Bills?
Then there are the undefeated Bills. Would they have any apprehension about traveling to Nashville to face a team that has endured an outbreak?
Earlier this week, Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin was asked as much when Titans-Steelers was still looking like it could be played in Week 4.
“No, we’re going to trust the medical experts,” Tomlin said. “If they deem it safe for us to proceed, then we’re going to go down there with the intentions of playing and playing to win.”
What if Titans-Bills needs to be postponed?
That’s a nightmare scenario.
The Titans were fortunate there existed a clean fix for this week’s postponement; only three teams were affected as Titans-Steelers was moved to Week 7. The Steelers-Ravens game originally scheduled for Week 7 was pushed back to Week 8, when both teams were originally set to take their open week.
The Titans have no more open dates on their schedule; as it is, they are set to play 13 straight weeks to conclude the regular season.
Playing after the final regular season weekend would appear to be the only viable path forward if Titans-Bills needed to be postponed until after Week 5.
Follow Erik Bacharach on Twitter @ErikBacharach.