Steelers likely to rest stars in season finale vs. Browns
The health of the Steelers starters apparently will outweigh the outside chance of securing home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs.
Nothing is official, but indications are that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell and possibly defensive end Cam Heyward will sit out the season finale Sunday against the winless Cleveland Browns.
All three were limited in practice Thursday with a not-injury-related designation. Roethlisberger also did not practice Wednesday.
In addition, center Maurkice Pouncey did not practice for the second day in a row with a hip injury.
Tackle Marcus Gilbert said the plan is for the Steelers to start backup Landry Jones at quarterback. If Bell doesn't play, recently signed veteran running back Stevan Ridley would be in line to start.
"They'll get a little taste of Landry Jones," Gilbert said, responding to a question about the Browns. "We'll have Landry Jones in there. We don't have Ben, we don't have 8-4 (Antonio Brown), we don't have Le'Veon Bell."
Here's the raw audio quote from Gilbert (Tweeted below).It's at 17:17 in.5pm HR of @MarkMaddenX show. You hear I jumped in to try to assure he understood what I asked, & he reiterated the quote below. I didnt even ask about the line up in the first place. https://t.co/al87JNldTB https://t.co/HN6z2b0txI— Tim Benz (@TimBenzPGH) December 28, 2017
Brown already has been ruled out for a second consecutive game with a calf injury.
Coach Mike Tomlin used a similar strategy last year when the Steelers played the Browns in the regular-season finale. Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown and Pouncey were inactive for that game.
One difference is the Steelers couldn't improve their playoff seeding last year heading into the finale. They were guaranteed of the No. 3 seed and a playoff game on wild-card weekend.
This year, the Steelers are guaranteed a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed but can secure the top seed and home-field advantage by beating the Browns and hoping the 5-10 New York Jets upset the 12-3 New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. Both games kick off at 1 p.m.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley didn't tip his hand Thursday on whether the starters will play against the Browns or for how long, but he said the game plan won't change no matter the personnel on the field.
"We're getting ready to play as we always get ready," Haley said. "Every guy in here is expecting to play and is going through their normal routine to get ready."
Jones has attempted one pass this year — the same number as safety Robert Golden. He threw an incompletion Monday in mop-up duty when he played the final seven offensive snaps in the Steelers' 34-6 win in Houston.
Jones has taken 11 snaps the entire season.
"I've made it a habit as long as I've been a backup that I prepare like I'm playing in the game," Jones said. "If I do have to play, it's not like one of those things where it's, 'Oh, my goodness, I don't know the game plan or what we're doing.' "
Jones led the Steelers to a 27-24 overtime victory over the Browns last year, completing 24 of 37 passes for three touchdowns and an interception. He ended the game with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Cobi Hamilton.
"Landry has done nothing but get better," Haley said. "We see it every day, whether it's reps for us for (the scout team) or in the preseason. We've seen nothing but improvement from him."
If Bell sit against Cleveland, he'll miss a chance to win the first rushing title by a Steelers player in 71 years. Bell is 14 yards behind Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams. With 1,291 rushing yards, Bell also trails Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt by 1 yard for the AFC rushing lead.
The last Steelers player to lead the NFL in rushing was Bullet Bill Dudley in 1946.
Gurley and Hunt also are unlikely to play in their games Sunday while the Rams and Chiefs prepare for the playoffs.
Signed last week after a season-ending injury to backup James Conner, Ridley carried nine times for 28 yards against Houston as Bell's backup.
"He's a hard runner," Gilbert said. "He's smart. He picked up the offense pretty fast. You can't ask for too much from someone who has been here a week, but we can always ask for effort and he's given that since he's been here."
Brown also appears likely to finish with the most receiving yards despite missing the final two-plus games with his calf injury. Brown's 1,533 yards are 155 more than runner-up DeAndre Hopkins, but the Houston Texans receiver is expected to miss the game Sunday with a calf injury.
Note: In addition to Brown, Pouncey and players being held out for non-injury reasons, G Ramon Foster (concussion) and CB Coty Sensabaugh (shoulder) remain listed on the official injury report. Both practiced fully Thursday for the second consecutive day after each had missed Monday's game in Houston.
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.