Steelers conclude disappointing season with win over Browns
The Steelers must be hoping a game out of their past will portend their future.
Troy Polamalu made a interception, one of four turnovers forced by the NFL's top-ranked defense. Ben Roethlisberger threw touchdown pass after touchdown pass. James Harrison was a one-man disruption force.
Too bad that what the Steelers envisioned for the season happened only in the meaningless final game of a forgettable, injury-disrupted and loss-filled season already relegated to the scrap heap.
After a 24-10 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns before the smallest crowd to watch them at Heinz Field, the Steelers (8-8) must wonder if only their second non-winning season since 2003 will signal big changes to come.
“It will be an interesting offseason,” said Polamalu, who made his first interception since the final game of the 2011 season.
The offseason already has begun, a result of three straight losses and five of six down the stretch that cost the Steelers their ninth postseason appearance since 2001 — and likely jump-started their most extensive makeover in a decade.
Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, Rashard Mendenhall and possibly Casey Hampton might be gone due to salary-cap restraints and the realization it might be time to start retooling an aging team.
There probably will be others who leave, too, following the Steelers' second-worst season in 13 years.
“It was a humbling experience for us,” said Antonio Brown, who made his fourth touchdown catch in as many games. “The Steelers' organization isn't used to ending the season on an early note, so there's a lot of stuff that's going to come from this.”
If there had been more games like this, there might not have been such an ominous change-is-coming atmosphere in the locker room following only their second win since Roethlisberger was injured during a 16-13 overtime win over Kansas City on Nov. 12.
The offense took awhile to get going, and it took the defense to help it along.
Cornerback Cortez Allen forced the first of two fumbles he caused, this one by receiver Josh Gordon, and Roethlisberger took advantage by finding tight end Leonard Pope in the end zone from a yard out to put the Steelers up, 10-3, in the final minute of the first half.
Allen caused five turnovers by himself in the final two games, or one-fourth of the Steelers' total season production.
“I hope I do that every game,” Allen said.
The Browns (5-11), down to their No. 3 quarterback, tied it in the third quarter on Thad Lewis' first career touchdown pass, a 7-yarder to Greg Little. But the Steelers regained the lead on Roethlisberger's 9-yard TD throw to Brown to end their only extended scoring drive, 80 yards in 12 plays.
Roethlisberger finished it off with a back-to-the-future TD throw to Plaxico Burress with 3:20 remaining, drawing cheers from the few in the crowd of 51,831 who remained. Burress likely was in uniform only because Wallace (hip) was injured.
“We wanted to come out and finish the year with a win and have a good feeling going into the offseason,” Roethlisberger said.
Burress, Polamalu, Roethlisberger, Harrison and Starks all contributing to a win? What is this, 2004?
The trouble is, 2013 is almost here and this cast won't be together again. The Steelers are about $12 million over the salary cap, and that could make unrestricted free agents such as Lewis and Wallace unaffordable and require renegotiations with Harrison, Polamalu and Roethlisberger, among others.
Harrison (11 tackles, one sack) and Polamalu were outstanding all day as the Steelers averted the first season sweep by Cleveland since 1988. But it wasn't until the final two weeks of the season that both former Defensive Players of the Year were close to being healthy at the same time.
“Nobody can play this game forever,” Harrison said, foreseeing the impending changes. “Each year it's a different mix of people. Whoever we've got, we're going to hit the ground running.”
And do it a lot sooner than they did this season.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.