The Steelers will not make the playoffs for some obvious reasons -- late-game interceptions, too few sacks, too few takeaways, too many dropped passes, too many fumbles and an offense that never lived up to expectations. • What cost the Steelers most dearly in 2012 trumps all that -- injuries, even though no self-respecting player or coach will use them as an excuse for their 7-8 record.
• • • •
Nevertheless, the facts are the Steelers will have lost 78 starts, because another starter has joined the sidelined for what may be his final Steelers game, Mike Wallace today against Cleveland. That's an average of nearly five starters lost per game.
They weren't just any players either. They affected some of their best, including two former NFL defensive players of the year. Troy Polamalu missed nine games with an Achilles injury that held him back in other games he did play. James Harrison missed the first three games with a knee injury and hasn't been right most of the season because of it.
They are on their third offensive right tackle, rookie Kelvin Beachum, a seventh-round draft pick. LaMarr Woodley missed four games and he too hasn't been the same in many he has played. Ike Taylor will miss his fourth game because of a hairline fracture of his ankle.
The 78 lost starts affect 15 players.
Dick LeBeau has played and coached in the NFL for more than 50 years, and he acknowledged the number of injuries to starters this season are high.
"I think it's been an unusual year for that," LeBeau said. "Injuries are part of the game, and I think you have to persevere through those. I think our guys fought through them. We needed to win a few of those close games. It has been an unusual year in that respect."
The season started with Harrison and Rashard Mendenhall out with injuries, and Ryan Clark on the sideline because of Denver's high altitude. Rookie David DeCastro looked like the next Alan Faneca, then was knocked out with a severe knee injury in the third preseason game. It was a constant wave of injuries, one of the few consistent things to happen to the Steelers all season.
They went through five different line combinations in five consecutive games because of them. They lost Ben Roethlisberger for three games because of arm and rib injuries, and he wasn't the same when he returned.
Running backs shuffled in and out of the lineup because of injuries, and none had time to be consistent.
Taylor had his streak of playing in 135 consecutive games, longest by an active cornerback in the NFL, end when his ankle was injured at Baltimore Dec. 2.
"It's probably the first time since I've been here the team has been hit like this to a lot of key guys," said Taylor, whose 10th season ended when he went on injured reserve the past week.
"Injuries are the next man's game. We have lot of young guys who got an opportunity to play. A lot of veteran guys who have been through a lot of situations weren't able to play all together at once through the season."
The cornerback situation
Much attention was given to Mike Wallace's contract negotiations and his time away from the team before he signed his restricted free-agent tender. Little was paid to the contract status of Lewis, who quietly signed his one-year tender, reported on time in the spring and predicted he would make the Pro Bowl.
Lewis did not make the Pro Bowl -- he was a first-year starter with no interceptions -- but he is about to make some money as an unrestricted free agent. His play was Pro Bowl quality, and he leads the NFL in passes defensed (28) by his coaches' count.
If the Steelers do not re-sign him before March, Lewis will be an attractive free agent. He should command at least the kind of contract Taylor signed in 2011 that averages $7 million annually including a $7 1/4 million signing bonus.
The Steelers will be into Taylor for nearly a $9.5 million cap hit that includes a $6 million salary in 2013. They might not want to pay two cornerbacks that much. If they won't, Lewis could be out the door and with another team before Wallace. Either way, there's a big contract in his future.
If they do let Lewis walk, Cortez Allen would move up to start at left cornerback.
Starks' future up in the air
And what of offensive tackle Max Starks? He too will become an unrestricted free agent in March if the Steelers do not sign him.
The way the Steelers look at Starks has always been a mystery. While the front office kept throwing money at him in transition tags and long-term contracts, the coaching staff was demoting him.
The Steelers signed him to a four-year, $26 million contract in 2009, then cut him after two seasons. Desperate when they discovered they had no one to play left tackle, they signed him again Oct. 5, 2011.
Starks had ACL surgery late last January, became a free agent and no one wanted him until the Steelers signed him in July. He is the only player to play every snap this season and has allowed only 3 1/2 sacks.
They have two young tackles, each rookies of the year the past two seasons in Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams. They might not want to commit to starting both in 2013.
A not-so-good record on the line
Jonathan Dwyer must run for 40 yards today or hold a dubious Steelers record through no fault of his own.
Since the NFL merger in 1970s and not counting the strike that shortened the 1982 season to nine games, the Steelers leading rusher with the fewest yards in a season was Merril Hoge with 610 in 1991.
Dwyer leads the Steelers with 571 yards rushing.
Time to say goodbye?
Today could be the final game for several Steelers, including free agents to be like Lewis, Wallace and Starks. The Steelers also could shed some veterans as they did last March. Inside linebacker Larry Foote has acknowledged that potential move.
Nose tackle Casey Hampton also is in his final season under contract and noted that backup Steve McLendon is "the guy who's going to push me out of here."
McLendon had a powerful preseason, but played less and less as the regular season wore on and Hampton overcame his ACL injury from January.
"I'm not going to be the guy to run him out of here," McLendon said. "Casey's not going anywhere. He's just talking. Casey's playing great football right now. He has 2-3 good years left."
First Published December 30, 2012 5:00 AM