They passed in the Steelers locker room like two Titanics in the night, defensive end Brett Keisel just back from an MRI on his damaged right knee and safety Ryan Clark on his way to the hospital for an examination of a deep thigh bruise that left his left leg swelled nearly twice the size of his right.
"It stinks," teammate James Harrison said.
It's every player's worst nightmare, getting hurt in the final game of a long NFL season. That's especially true when the game is meaningless, as was the one the Steelers and Cleveland Browns played Sunday at Heinz Field. The Steelers won, 24-10, but all that meant is they finished with an 8-8 record instead of 7-9. They are not going to the playoffs for the first time since the 2009 season.
The injuries to Keisel and Clark didn't appear to be as serious as tight end Heath Miller's knee injury from a game a week earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals. Miller had surgery last week, is facing months of grueling rehabilitation and probably will miss at least a part, if not much, of next season.
Keisel was hurt late in the first half when teammate Ziggy Hood rolled up his right leg, buckling Keisel's knee. "Friendly fire," Keisel called it. "It happens." The other players knew the injury was potentially serious. They immediately gestured frantically for the team's medical staff to come to Keisel's aid. "We were like kids out there, screaming, 'Get up, 99! Get up!' " Clark said. "You're encouraged when you see him get up and walk off. But then you think about happened to Rashard [Mendenhall] last season. He walked off, too."
Mendenhall, injured in the final regular-season game of 2011 against the Browns, had major knee surgery the next week and missed all of the offseason, exhibition season and the first three games of the regular season. He wasn't the same player when he came back.
"I don't think it's as bad as it looked," Keisel said of his injury. "I don't think it's bad enough that I have to go under the knife. But if I do, we'll deal with it."
Clark said he was stepped on, the blow perhaps rupturing a vein in his thigh. "I don't even know how it happened. It swelled up right away. They tell me if it keeps hardening, they'll have to slice it open." Clark said the injury happened in the first half. "I probably should have come out right then. But who does that?"
Clark stayed in the game because the Steelers secondary was a mess. Already without injured cornerbacks Ike Taylor and Curtis Brown, the team lost cornerback Keenan Lewis early in the game when he aggravated a previous knee injury. That left Cortez Allen and Josh Victorian as the only cornerbacks. Allen came up huge, forcing two fumbles and recovering one. He forced three turnovers in a 13-10 loss Dec. 23 to the Bengals, which ended the Steelers' chance of making the playoffs.
The offensive line also had to do major reshuffling after a couple of new injuries. Already without guard Willie Colon and tackles Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams, the team lost right guard David DeCastro to a stinger early in the second quarter. Doug Legursky took over for DeCastro. Then, early in the third quarter, right tackle Kelvin Beachum left with a concussion after taking a cheap-shot well behind the play from Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor. That forced left guard Ramon Foster to move to right tackle. Legursky took over at left guard and John Malecki moved in at right guard for his first playing time of the season. Somehow, the line allowed only two sacks and gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger enough time to throw for three touchdowns and finish with a sparkling 120.3 passer rating.
"I'm proud of the way everyone stepped up," Roethlisberger said. "I'm proud of the way they performed all year."
Injuries hurt the Steelers from the first exhibition game when they lost fullback David Johnson for the season with a knee injury. On offense, only Foster, tackle Max Starks, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and fullback Will Johnson played in every game. On defense, it was Keisel, Hood, Lewis, nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Larry Foote. Stars such as Roethlisberger, safety Troy Polamalu, linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Harrison and wide receiver Antonio Brown all missed significant time.
Not to make excuses for a lame 8-8 record.
"Injuries aren't what killed us," Hampton said. "Losing games to people we shouldn't have lost to killed us. You have to win those early games that you're supposed to win in this league. Guys get beat up and it's harder to win games late. That's why you've got to win early. We weren't good enough doing that."
With that, Hampton was gone, perhaps for the final time from the Steelers locker room as a free agent-to-be, off into the cold late-afternoon darkness. He wasn't limping. He was going home.
Keisel should have been so lucky.
Clark should have been so lucky.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.