Steelers have history of sitting starters in finale — with success
To play or not to play, that is the question that has hovered over the Steelers all week as they prepare to play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday in the regular-season finale.
Would coach Mike Tomlin play his high-profile starters against the winless Browns with the No. 2 playoff seed and a first-round bye guaranteed but a shot at home-field advantage available?
Indications are Tomlin will rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive end Cam Heyward, among others, and hope the backups can finish off a 13-3 season. Team MVP Antonio Brown already has been ruled out with a lower leg contusion.
While the game is unfolding, the Steelers will keep an eye on the scoreboard to see if the lowly New York Jets can hand the New England Patriots a fourth loss.
"We want to play and play to win the football game, and I think when you keep it that simple, it's a football game," Tomlin said earlier in the week while keeping his plans close to the vest. "It's a regular-season football game. It's AFC North football. We are going to play to win it."
Tomlin's decision to rest his starters — and give them essentially three weeks off between games — likely was born out of a similar scenario in 2008 when an injury to Roethlisberger nearly derailed the run to the Super Bowl XLIII championship before it even started.
Like this season, the Steelers entered the finale playing the last-place Browns. Unlike this season, there was no chance for the Steelers to increase their playoff position. They were locked in as the No. 2 seed no matter what transpired in Week 17.
Tomlin played his starters, and the Steelers romped to a 31-0 win. Willie Parker rushed for 116 yards. Hines Ward caught six passes for 70 yards. Roethlisberger, however, wasn't so lucky.
He suffered a concussion late in the first half on a hit by D'Qwell Jackson and Willie McGinest. He remained on the ground for 10 minutes and was taken off on a stretcher.
Roethlisberger, though, returned for the divisional playoff round and led the Steelers past the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens to reach the Super Bowl.
For his part, Roethlisberger said he wants to play Sunday against the Browns but acknowledged that not taking a meaningful snap until mid-January in the divisional round could have consequences.
"That's the other side of the sword, if you will," Roethlisberger said. "But I've been doing this a long time. If that is the case, I'll prepare myself and make sure I am ready to go mentally and physically."
If he doesn't play, Bell will fall short of winning the first rushing title by a Steelers player since Bullet Bill Dudley in 1946. He trails rushing leader Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams by 14 yards. Gurley also is expected to sit out the Rams' finale in preparation for the playoffs.
Bell said his goal is to win a Super Bowl title rather than a rushing crown, and he doesn't think back-to-back off weeks will hinder him heading into the divisional round.
"I know I'll be able to get back into football mode," Bell said. "With taking one or two weeks off, you're just taking off games. I'll still be practicing, doing everything else and working out. It will be just taking the hits off my body. I'll be ready."
When Tomlin played his starters in the 2008 finale, it was a departure from his first season as Steelers coach. In 2007, with the division title and No. 4 seed wrapped up, Tomlin rested several key starters, including Roethlisberger. The Steelers lost to the Ravens and then were beaten at home the following week by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the wild-card round.
In 2008, Ward advocated for the starters to play against the Browns rather than have two consecutive weeks off.
"We rested last year, and it didn't get us anywhere," Ward said at the time. "It's our last dress rehearsal for two weeks. Sit all of the guys out, now you've put us three weeks (resting), and you get some rust."
The only other time the Steelers had a bye in Tomlin's 11 years as coach was 2010, the team's most recent trip to the Super Bowl. Circumstances were different then. The Steelers were tied with the Ravens for the best record in the AFC North and needed to — wait for it — beat the Browns to get the No. 2 seed. Again, they made it look easy with a 41-9 win at Cleveland.
Only a handful of Steelers players remain from that game. One is guard Ramon Foster, who said the Steelers would be wise to take the same level of intensity into the game Sunday no matter how many starters are (or are not) dressing.
"Everybody that is in it is focused only on the Browns," he said. "Our goal is to rule the North in every single game. The Browns are another team that's in the way."
The backups, of course, got the job done last year when the Steelers entered the finale against Cleveland unable to improve on their No. 3 seed. Tomlin gave Roethlisberger, Brown, Bell and Pouncey the day off to rest up for the game the following week against Miami in the wild-card round. Led by backup quarterback Landry Jones, the Steelers beat the Browns, 27-24, in overtime.
Jones is expected to make his first start since that game, facing a Browns team that has one fewer win than it did last year.
"If we overlook them," he said, "we will be foolish."
No matter what transpires in the finale, Steelers players said the extra time off won't be an issue.
"Coach Tomlin does a great job of keeping everything the same every week, which is nice," guard David DeCastro said. "You get into that routine, and you just kind of go. From that standpoint, everything is pretty much the same."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.