Steelers muddled through a season of injuries
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We probably should have suspected 2012 would be a dud of a year in Steelers history when they had to change the name of one of the weekly pregame shows to Countdown to Limpoff.
By the time it ended with another flaccid performance Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, no one inside nor outside their locker room was even marginally disappointed to see it fade to black.
No one who watched as the Steelers ran its ratty string of consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher to eight.
No one who calculated that not a single Steelers pass-catcher Sunday managed as many as 30 yards.
No one who studied as the former Ben Roethlisberger threw for 134 yards, his lamest total in a full game in more than four years, that on top of his 58.6 passer rating performance in a must-win game at home against Cincinnati, and all that on top of the fact that someone named Thad Lewis, in his first professional start, out-passed Big Ben by some 70 yards.
Roethlisberger said afterward that, should he be designated, he didn't know if he was healthy enough to go to the Pro Bowl.
Not even as a fan?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, minutes after his battered team cobbled together a 24-10 victory that allowed him to side-step his only losing season in six, verily scoffed at the notion that the events Sunday could be conjured into anything resembling momentum.
"No, because this year is this year and next year is next year," Tomlin said. "But it is good to finish on a positive note and to finish with the arrow pointed up."
You might see that arrow pointing up, but only if you turn your head way, way to the left, like a penniless driver staring at a flattening fuel gauge hoping there's still an ounce of liquid in an 18-gallon tank.
Forty minutes into a game that featured Cleveland's third-string quarterback and a Browns secondary missing 75 percent of its starters, these Steelers had managed a 10-10 tie. They wound up turning two Cleveland turnovers into 14 second-half points, but all that got them was a season in which they split with the Browns, split with the Baltimore Ravens, split with the Cincinnati Bengals and thus a split in the AFC North Division. Outside the AFC North, of course, they split.
Still, the 2012 edition did not suffer from a split personality; on the contrary, it had a single source of robust consistency -- the ability to get hurt.
Halfway through the third quarter, four more starters had gone to the sideline for good: cornerback Keenan Lewis, guard David DeCastro, defensive end Brett Keisel and offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum.
I'm listing them all as doubtful for next week.
"It was a cheap hit on Kelvin [by Browns defensive tackle Phil Taylor]," Max Starks said. "He tried to hit me earlier in the game, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye and kind of slowed down. The Kelvin [hit] was a blatantly cheap play. Rash[ard] Mendenhall was actually on the ground. [Taylor] blind-sided Kelvin late. That's something we just don't go for. It's uncalled for; it's classless."
It sent the Steelers' third right tackle of the season to the bench and an appointment with the concussion protocols, but this team will have to do a lot more than just stay healthy if it's ever going to resemble the back-to-back 12-4 Tomlin teams that immediately preceded it.
As the only person who played every offensive snap, Starks not only offered some of the keenest insight of the Todd Haley offense all season, he re-emphasized it Sunday.
"You can't have as much uncertainty going into a week, being more definitive about who your starter is [at running back], who is that main guy, and who are your auxiliary and situation guys," said Starks, whose own status as a potentially unrestricted free agent is itself uncertain. "Early on we didn't have that. It was kind of like, by committee. I think next year there have to be clearer, defined roles, right after training camp. If there's battles there has to be a clear-cut winner.
"We have to have consistent better production from all of us and we have to have fewer injuries. We have to be more flexible as a team. We might need some yoga and pilates classes, we've had so many injuries. But we have the talent. We have the personnel to do it, we just have to be more definitive, more cohesive."
That's the plain truth, but the plainer truth is that this team's money players -- Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace -- were all diminished versions of themselves this season, and the expected rebounds are not guaranteed.
Wallace won't likely return, but said on the way out the door he still doesn't appreciate not knowing his role. I mean, besides dropping passes.
"My role has always been the same since I've been here, but this year I didn't know how it was going to change, but it did change," Wallace said. "Next year I'll have a positive attitude going into it and I'll make the best of the situation."
First Published December 31, 2012 12:00 am