Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dreams of glory have faded, as have words to describe the disappointment; but the Steelers have right to hold hope for one final point of light amidst the dark reality of their 2012 season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention after losing to the Cincinnati Bengals in week 16, but they still have one final game to play. While the game carries zero consequence towards post-season aspirations, the Steelers still have plenty to play for.
Ben Roethlisberger has plenty to make up for, as his hesitant decision making and poor throws have resulted in untimely interceptions that directly resulted in losses. While his return from a freak injury against the Chiefs in week 10 was hoped to carry messianic salvation, Roethlisberger looked severly out of sync with the rest of the offense and the coaching staff. He will be looking to use this final game as a statement that while the injury has had its effect on his performance and ability to practice, he will return to championship form as he continues to heal and stay healthy.
Rashard Mendenhall will be looking to expound on an impressive return of his own, as he outgained current starter, Johathan Dwyer. Mendenhall can re-establish his market value, as his contract prepares to expire, with a strong performance against the Browns; even if it is as a backup once again. Dwyer will seek to maintain his standing with the coaching staff that took years to build up. Isaac Redman needs to make the most of each opportunity there is to be had, as his age makes him an unlikely target for re-sign in the offseason. Even though Baron Batch will not be able to participate, he and Chris Rainey are expected to reprise their roles through 2013 and beyond, leaving little room for Redman if both Mendenhall, and Dwyer receive contract offers from the Steelers.
Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, and Emmanuel Sanders will receive one final chance to prove that they are all deserving of the "Money" they have deemed themselves worthy of. While each has shown flashes, none of exhibited the persistence toward consistency necessary to excel in today's NFL. A positional group once thought of as possibly the best in the league together, will need to remind people why they felt that way in the first place; especially when considering 2 of those 3 will see their respective deals expire this offseason, as well.
After tearing his ACL against the Bengals in week 16, Heath Miller will be out of action until sometime next season. As the rest of the offense dealt with their own shortcomings, Miller had become the one pillar to carry the weight. Without their blue-collar brute of a tight end, the Steelers will have a rare opportunity to find out what they have behind him in veteran Leonard Pope, and rookie David Paulson. Paulson has performed admirably on special teams, and eventually moved up to the second TE spot on the depth chart, displacing Pope. While Paulson is expected to hold that same position next year, he will be the one replacing the legendary Miller. Paulson will be out to prove that he can do just that, as Pope will be pleading his case to stay on the roster in 2013.
Offensive linemen also have statements to make. Max Starks will be auditioning for a new contract, as will Ramon Foster. Rookies David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum will once again hold down the right side of the line, attempting to prove that they are viable parts of the line's future. Mike Adams, who has been sidelined for several weeks with knee issues, returned to limited action in practice last week. While the chances of the Steelers rushing him back for an inconsequential matchup are slim, he will be working to get one more game's worth of experience under his belt in addition to his resume, as he tries to land a starting spot next year. Even longsnapper Greg Warren will be making amends for a poor snap that cost his team three points, in a three point loss to the Bengals.
The defense will be looking to continue their successes from the Bengals game. A unit that was deemed incapable of pressuring passers or forcing turnovers, did both outstandingly. The Steelers had hopes of getting Ike Taylor back from a broken leg in time for the playoffs, but now that they are out of reach, Taylor is expected to miss the final game of the season. Cortez Allen and Keenan Lewis will continue to star in his absence. The younger members of the secondary will also look to show that they have continued to improve. Josh Victorian, Curtis Brown, and Robert Golden have years past this one left on their contracts, but none of their jobs are etched in stone. They need to prove that they belong here.
Elder stars that would normally skip a meaningless game in other situations, will suit up to prove that the heart of a champion never quits beating. Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, and LaMarr Woodley will all play in support of the league's best defense, despite each dealing with respective injuries that forced missed playing time. As the team's cap situation becomes curiouser, and curiouser, some veterans will be playing to avoid becoming cap casualties.
Special teamers Shaun Suisham and Drew Butler have their own points to prove, too. Suisham will be clinging to his job after missing two 53 yarders, and one poorly snapped 24 yarder. Despite his accuracy under all other conditions, he could be seen as replaceable. Butler, an undrafted rookie who beat out Jeremy Kapinos in the battle to replace Daniel Sepulveda, has developed a negative connotation for several poor kicks, despite his respectable level of consistency and flashes of punting brilliance.
The coaches should need little outside inspiration to motivate their team for this final game. The Steelers will seek to exonerate themselves of their 7 turnover performance against the Browns in the first matchup; a game that sent ripples like shockwaves throughout the locker room.
A win would put the Steelers final 2012 record at 8-8. As the hard-fought wins negate unfortunate losses, and frustrating failures negate dominant exhibitions, the Steelers will accept the draw as a clean slate as they look forward to next season.
However, the only thing the Steelers will seek to draw on Sunday, will be the blood of the Cleveland Browns. Heinz Field will see its warriors stand up one more time, to represent a city, a people, and a way of life. The Steelers may be going down, but they will not go quietly. There is too much yet left unsaid.