By Daniel Benjamin
With one game remaining, the Pittsburgh Steelers have already assured themselves that this regular season will go down as one of their best this decade.
The Steelers (12-3) wrapped up the AFC North for the second straight season and third time in the last four years a few weeks ago. The Steelers also secured a first round bye with their victory over the Houston Texans on Christmas Day. Still, they have some decisions to make as they prepare for the upcoming game against the Cleveland Browns.
The biggest decision, which coach Mike Tomlin said would be a topic of discussion this week, is whether to sit some of his key players against the Browns. The more important question might be, if they do decide to sit players, which ones will be inactive?
This will not be an easy decision for Tomlin to make, as Sunday’s finale is not meaningless. The Steelers need to defeat the Browns, something they have accomplished in five straight meetings, in order to have any chance of home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The problem is that Pittsburgh does not control their own destiny. Not only must the Steelers win, but the New England Patriots (12-3) must also lose to the New York Jets for the Steelers to take over the top spot.
How important is home field advantage?
It is very important, at least in the AFC. The team that ended up with home field advantage throughout the playoffs has been the AFC Super Bowl representative in each of the last four years and five of the past six years.
The Steelers were not the No. 1 seed the last two times that they went to the Super Bowl (2008 and 2010). In fact, they were the No. 2 seed in each of those two years. However, they did get to host the AFC Championship games in both 2008 and 2010 as the top seed was upset in the divisional round.
What the Steelers should/will likely do is play Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and JuJu Smith-Schuster as well as their key defensive players—Cam Heyward, Stephen Tuitt, Vince Williams, etc.—until they either have the game in hand, are getting beat badly or seeing that the Patriots have no shot/ likely won’t lose (the Patriots are playing at the same time as the Steelers on Sunday). When any of those three things occur, they need to pull those players out of the game.
The Steelers should not play cornerback Joe Haden or tight end Vance McDonald. Both players are very valuable and have had severe injuries recently.
James Harrison signs with the Patriots
Harrison, the team’s all-time leader in sacks, signed with New England on Tuesday. The Steelers released Harrison on Saturday to make room on the 53-man roster for Marcus Gilbert. Gilbert was previously on the suspended/inactive list as a result of his four-game suspension.
The Patriots are the third organization the 39-year-old outside linebacker has played for. Harrison had spent 14 years of his 15-year career with the Steelers with the 2013 campaign being the lone season he did not suit up for the Black and Gold, as he was with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Harrison had been been used sparsely by the Steelers this season, seeing action in just five games. He totaled three tackles and a sack while being on the field for 38 defensive snaps.
Three players miss the week’s first practice
The Steelers issued their first injury report list on Wednesday and it was good news. Three players did not practice on the initial practice day of the week, including Antonio Brown. Brown, of course, is out with a calf injury and his status remains unclear for the playoffs. Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey were the other two players who did not participate, but neither sat out due to injuries.
Left guard Ramon Foster and cornerback Coty Sensabaugh were back in practice after missing last week’s win over Houston. Both players were listed as questionable last week before being deactivated. Foster had not been a full practice participant since entering the NFL concussion protocol. In the meantime, Sensabaugh is dealing with a shoulder injury.