Cook: Only fast healing can save season

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CLEVELAND -- The Steelers lost here to a really bad Cleveland Browns team on a frigid December Thursday night in 2009. It was their fifth consecutive defeat and left them with a 6-7 record. Nose tackle Casey Hampton put their playoff chances into perspective.

"This [bleep's] a wrap."

It's fair to wonder if the Steelers are at that point again after another loss here Sunday to a really bad Browns team.

Hampton was right in '09. The Steelers missed the playoffs despite winning their final three games. The situation isn't quite so dire after this latest 20-14 defeat. The Steelers are 6-5 and would be the second AFC wild-card team and No. 6 playoff seed if the season ended today based on their win Oct. 21 against the Cincinnati Bengals, the other 6-5 team in the AFC. But the Bengals are coming -- they beat the Oakland Raiders Sunday for the third consecutive win -- and will play Dec. 23 at Heinz Field. Dead ahead for the Steelers Sunday is a much tougher game against the Ravens in Baltimore. Good luck to them there. Only one man figures to be able to save the Steelers now.

"I'm going to try," injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said when asked if he thought he could play against the Ravens. "It's killing me to watch."

That gives a lot of us something in common with Roethlisberger, who never has seemed more valuable after missing his second consecutive game with a shoulder/rib injury. The Ravens beat the Steelers without him Nov. 18 at Heinz Field.

The performance against the Browns by the Steelers offense -- led not so ably by third-string quarterback Charlie Batch -- might have been the worst in franchise history. Not to be overly dramatic. Batch threw three second-half interceptions. Each of the four running backs lost a fumble, as did wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders on a desperation lateral play on the game's final snap. "I'm surprised it was that close given the turnover situation," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. The offensive line contributed to the team's nine penalties for 68 yards. A holding call against reserve offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum wiped out its best play, a 33-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller in the third quarter. Guard Ramon Foster, tackle Mike Adams and Miller also were called for holding penalties.

"We were highly penalized, we turned the ball over and, when you do those things, you are going to lose. I don't care who is playing quarterback," Tomlin said.

The Steelers weren't just without Roethlisberger. They didn't have wide receiver Antonio Brown -- their 2011 Most Valuable Player -- for the third consecutive game. Their pass offense was lousy without him in their win against the Kansas City Chiefs Nov. 12 even before Roethlisberger was injured early in the third quarter.

Before the game Sunday, the Steelers learned they would be without guard Willie Colon, whose left knee didn't respond last week after he was injured in the Ravens game. That forced Doug Legursky to start. Then, in the third quarter, Adams went down with a left ankle injury. That forced Beachum to play.

"Continuity?" tackle Max Starks asked in response to a question, laughing out loud.

Starks quickly regrouped to say the injuries weren't an excuse. He was right. Nobody cares about injuries in the NFL. It's all about wins and losses.

"Offensively, we didn't get it done," Batch said. "That's on my shoulders."

Tomlin wasn't about to argue.

"Not good enough," he said when asked to describe Batch's performance.

Batch was awful -- his passer rating was 38.7 -- perhaps silencing those who said Tomlin was a fool for not starting him over Byron Leftwich against the Ravens. The Steelers had to go to Batch against the Browns because Leftwich was out with two broken ribs. Batch underthrew wide receiver Mike Wallace twice on deep balls, the second leading to an interception by cornerback Joe Haden. He also threw behind Wallace on a pass over the middle that was tipped in the air and intercepted by defensive lineman Billy Winn.

But as bad as Batch was, the Steelers running backs were worse. If only their meager production -- 20 carries for 49 yards -- were the biggest problem. Rashard Mendenhall started but lost a fumble on his second carry. Isaac Redman lost another on his second carry. Jonathan Dwyer lost a third fumble in the second quarter. Chris Rainey made the backs 4 for 4 with a lost fumble late in the game, ending the Steelers' final legitimate chance to win.

"After everybody does it, obviously there aren't very many choices left," Tomlin said.

Anybody for Baron Batch against the Ravens Sunday?

Don't be surprised if you see him activated from the practice squad.

"We let our team down by what we did today," said Mendenhall, who also had a fumble recovered by teammate Will Johnson.

There was plenty of that going around on this ugly day on the Lake Erie shore. The turnovers led to 17 points for the Browns.

"That was a very poor offensive showing by all of us," Starks said. "It's unacceptable."

No one in the Steelers locker room -- including Hampton -- was ready to pronounce the season over.

"We didn't help ourselves, but this isn't the worst thing," Starks said. "It's not a good situation, but we still have an opportunity to dig ourselves out of this hole."

That will require a lot of heavy lifting by Roethlisberger and Brown. If they aren't able to do it soon ...

I'll say it.

This bleep's a wrap.

mobilehome - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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