Steelers will be limping into the postseason
CLEVELAND — The victory, not secured until after the final play on a blustery day, did nothing for the Steelers' playoff positioning.
A 13-9 win at Cleveland Browns Stadium gave the Steelers a second consecutive 12-4 season, but it also exacted a pretty stiff price.
Already thin at running back, the Steelers likely lost their feature ball-carrier to an ACL tear. Rashard Mendenhall, on his way to a second consecutive 100-yard game, went down at the end of the first quarter. An MRI taken today could confirm coach Mike Tomlin's worst fears regarding Mendenhall's right knee.
At the very least, Tomlin said Mendenhall won't play Sunday when the Steelers visit the Denver Broncos at 4:30 p.m. in the opening round of the AFC playoffs.
"You should anticipate that he won't be participating next week for us," Tomlin said of Mendenhall. "It's not good when a guy goes down in open grass, not touched by anyone. Experience tells me that's generally not good."
The Broncos finished just 8-8 but are the No. 4 playoff seed by virtue of winning the AFC West. The Steelers are the No. 5 seed and won't play at home in the postseason unless they meet the sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC title game.
The Steelers needed Cincinnati to beat Baltimore yesterday to win the AFC North outright and get the No. 2 seed.
Their luck wasn't any better in Cleveland than it was in Cincinnati, as the Steelers sustained a spate of injuries.
No position has been hit harder by injuries than running back, and it started in training camp when rookie Baron Batch tore his ACL. Batch, who had been an early sensation in camp, suffered a season-ending injury while making a cut.
Since then, the Steelers have lost Jonathan Dwyer to a foot injury, while Mewelde Moore has been hampered by a knee injury. Moore didn't play yesterday for the second consecutive week and his status for the Denver game is in question.
Not that the Steelers' ground game looked beat up against the Browns.
The Steelers gashed Cleveland (4-12) for 161 rushing yards, and they averaged 4.5 yards per carry.
Isaac Redman, who takes over Mendenhall's duties as the feature back, rushed for a game-high 92 yards on 19 carries. He also scored the only touchdown of the game, a 7-yard scoring run that came after strong safety Troy Polamalu made a diving interception midway through the third quarter with the score tied, 6-6.
But Redman also lost a pair of fumbles after his touchdown, and those turnovers were a major reason why the Browns had a chance to win on the final play of the game.
Not long after Seneca Wallace's final pass was knocked down in the end zone, Tomlin was asked if rookie John Clay — the Steelers signed him from the practice squad a little more than a week ago — saw increased playing time in the second half because of the turnovers.
"There's no demotion there," Tomlin said. "We just utilized two guys. Obviously, we'd like (Redman) to hold on to the football better than he did there at the end of the game."
Redman said offensive coordinator Bruce Arians told him that battling for extra yardage isn't always the wisest course of action.
"I need to get down," Redman said, "and I can't hurt my team like that."
The biggest question as the Steelers prepare for their fourth playoff appearance in five years under Tomlin is whether they are healthy enough to make a run at a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played the entire game, completing 23 of 40 passes for 221 yards. But he is still hobbled by the high ankle-sprain he sustained in the Steelers' 14-3 win over the Browns a little less than a month ago.
When asked if he is concerned about the overall health the offense, Roethlisberger said, "Absolutely."
The defense didn't allow a touchdown for the second game in a row, and the Steelers may have to rely on that unit given how beat up they are on offense.
The good news for the Steelers: outside linebacker James Harrison said the defense can play better.
"I don't feel like we're peaking," Harrison said. "I feel like we played subpar (against the Browns), but it was good enough to get the win. We've got to get better."
Steelers vs. Browns January 1, 2012
The Pittsburgh Steelers defeat the Cleveland Browns, 13-9, Sunday, January 1, 2012.