Steelers coach Mike Tomlin finally acknowledged something Monday that has been a topic of discussion about his team for several years: His players are old.
And because they are old, they need their rest more than the young Carolina Panthers. In fact, he said, the Panthers will have an advantage over the Pittsburgh Geezers Thursday night at Heinz Field because of their youth.
"It's a quick turnaround, particularly for a veteran football team," Tomlin said. "We're going to be very conscious about how we prepare this week. We've got to prepare as smart as we can."
In a study at the start of the season, the Steelers had the seventh-oldest team in the league with an average age of 27.5 years. The Carolina Panthers had the fourth-youngest team with an average of 26.39.
- Game: Carolina Panthers vs. Steelers, 8:20 p.m.
- Where: Heinz Field.
- TV: NFL Network/KDKA.
Can that 1.11 year make a difference in a short week? Tomlin may have been trying to plant some psychological nugget in his players' minds, but he was on a roll with it Monday in his news conference.
"We've got to preserve our guys in as many ways as we can because, quite honestly, working on this kind of week, you've got to acknowledge that it's an advantage for the Carolina Panthers," Tomlin said. "They're a younger team than we are. Physically they're capable of bouncing back faster, no question, so we've got to prepare extremely smart and put our veteran outfit in the best position we can to play effective football Thursday night."
Young or old, it would seem no match between the Steelers and Panthers, who won only their second game of the season Sunday, beating Arizona to go 2-12.
Carolina starts a rookie quarterback, Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, who threw his first two touchdown passes Sunday. He has seven interceptions to go with those two touchdowns and has the worst passer rating in the league at 59.1. Clausen is their third starting quarterback, including former Steelers backup Brian St. Pierre. Carolina's passing offense is last in the league.
The Panthers' strength is their ground game with Jonathan Stewart (668 yards) and Mike Goodson (435), and that plays right into the Steelers' strength. They have the best rush defense by far in the league, allowing just 63.4 yards per game. Carolina has the league's 12th-most productive running game with an average of 116.8 yards per game.
Tomlin does not like how the Steelers qualified for the playoffs after losing to the Jets. But they can take care of that and also take away some of the pain of losing Sunday by clinching the division title and the No. 2 seed this week.
"I don't like how it unfolded," Tomlin said. "I feel like you're crawling in on your belly."
The Steelers will win the AFC North Division and clinch the conference's No. 2 seed and the bye that goes with it if they beat the Carolina Panthers Thursday night and the Baltimore Ravens lose Sunday in Cleveland.
If those two outcomes occur, the Steelers would win a tiebreaker against Baltimore for the division title even if they tie at the end of the season. They also would win the tiebreaker for the No. 2 seed against Kansas City, which would be the only other team capable of finishing with the same record as the Steelers. That tiebreaker would be best record against AFC teams and the Chiefs, at 5-5, cannot catch the Steelers, who are 8-3 with one game left against an AFC team, the Browns.
The Steelers and Ravens are tied at 10-4 atop the AFC North Division. The Steelers are 4-1 in the division; the Ravens are 2-2 with two division games left.
"All of the goals we set out for ourselves are still attainable," Tomlin said. "We've got to play ball this week. I still think a division title is in our sights if we handle our business, but it starts with playing good, winning football Thursday night."
Tight end Heath Miller, who has missed the past two games with post-concussion syndrome, should return to the lineup against Carolina.
"We anticipate Heath being fine," Tomlin said.
Tomlin had no update on the status of safety Troy Polamalu's injury to his calf/Achilles. Defensive end Aaron Smith, who has been out since his triceps was torn Oct. 24, will be fitted with a shoulder brace this week, Tomlin said, but he would not predict when he might practice.
Jonathan Scott might have lost his starting job at left tackle to Trai Essex.
"We're still in the process of evaluating [Sunday's] performance and putting together a formula for success this week," Tomlin said. "A lot of things are involved in that. Personnel matchups are part of that. We'll address that at the appropriate time. I'm just not ready to have that kind of discussion at this juncture."
After Scott missed a block on New York's Jason Taylor that resulted in a safety, Essex replaced him at left tackle for the Steelers final, long, ultimately unsuccessful drive of the game.
The Steelers announced that Scott had a "stinger," but Tomlin did not mention him among his injured players.
"He was less than 100 percent from a physical standpoint and we felt like Trai gave us the best opportunity to navigate the ball downfield," Tomlin said.
If the switch is made, Essex would be the third different starting left tackle this season. Max Starks went on injured reserve after the game Nov. 8 against Cincinnati. It also would be the sixth different line combination this season and the second demotion. The other also involved Essex, demoted from starting right guard in favor of Ramon Foster on Nov. 21.
Only rookie center Maurkice Pouncey and right tackle Flozell Adams, 35, have started every game among the linemen.