It is difficult to tell if Ben Roethlisberger is struggling because of his injured left ankle or because he has just been inefficient. He has produced just two touchdowns in 10 quarters -- only one against the Browns -- since his ankle was injured Dec. 8. But, on a windy day, he managed to pass for 221 yards and, more important, avoid an interception. He also made a big pass to Antonio Brown to set up a field goal near the end of the half.
RUNNING BACKS C
Two big fumbles by Isaac Redman in the fourth quarter soiled what was a good performance after replacing injured Rashard Mendenhall. Redman finished with 92 yards on 19 carries and scored on a 7-yard run, but each of his fumbles occurred in opposing territory and allowed the Browns to hang in the game. Mendenhall had 38 yards on eight carries before his right knee was injured at the end of the first quarter.
WIDE RECEIVERS C+
Antonio Brown led the way with six catches for 90 yards, none bigger than his 40-yarder to set up a field goal at the end of the first half. But the day belonged to Hines Ward, who had five catches to reach 1,000 in his career. Mike Wallace was targeted five times but managed just one catch for 11 yards -- not the kind of production expected from the team's No. 1 receiver.
OFFENSIVE LINE B
The Steelers rushed for 161 yards -- their fourth-highest total of the season -- and averaged 4.5 yards per attempt. And all the yards were split among three backs. Granted, the Browns had the 30th-ranked rush defense in the league, but at least the Steelers exploited the advantage, much like they did last week against the St. Louis Rams. A shout-out to TE Heath Miller for a big block on Redman's TD run.
DEFENSIVE LINE B
The Browns rushed for 72 yards, the lowest by an opponent in seven games, but QB Seneca Wallace's scrambles of 27 and 20 yards each resulted in a field goal. Peyton Hillis, who had 211 yards in his past two games, was held to 30 yards on 10 carries. DE Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel each batted passes, and NT Casey Hampton clogged the middle well enough to keep Hillis from getting started.
The defense did not allow a touchdown in four of the final six games, despite managing just one takeaway in the final three. The Steelers also had just three sacks against Wallace, but only one by a linebacker, Lawrence Timmons, who had also had a hurry and a pass defensed. Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas always seems to shut down James Harrison, who got nowhere near Wallace. The Steelers need LaMarr Woodley in the postseason.
DEFENSIVE BACKS A+
It was the 11th time this season and sixth in the past seven games that the No. 1-ranked pass defense did not allow a 200-yard passing game. Give CB Ike Taylor big props for shutting out top receiver Greg Little. S Troy Polamalu came up with a big interception that led to the first touchdown. He also had three passes defensed and one of those time-the-snap-count sacks for which he is noted.
SPECIAL TEAMS B
The most important aspect is that the Steelers did not allow Joshua Cribbs a return longer than 15 yards on two kickoffs and three punts, good coverage from a unit without its top two players, Curtis Brown and Arnaz Battle. But it didn't get any juice from its own return game, either. P Jeremy Kapinos had a punt downed at the Browns 4 and K Shaun Suisham had FGs of 19 and 29 yards after a 45-yard miss into the wind.
Mike Tomlin played to win, not wanting to take any chances and hoping the Steelers could sneak into a first-round bye. So he kept his veterans in until the end, even though the outcome proved to be meaningless. But, like so many other games this season, the Steelers found a way to win, even with more injuries to their offense. And they put together back-to-back 12-win seasons for only the second time in franchise history.
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org ; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published January 2, 2012 5:00 AM