With the Steelers eliminated from postseason contention, several players have alreayd gone on IR, including starters Heath Miller, Ike Taylor, Mike Wallace, and Marcus Gilbert. Ever the guys with marginal injuries (Mike Wallace) are being held out because there's simply no reason for them to play. The Steelers stand to gain nothing and the individual players need not risk further injury.
In that respect, there are a lot more players who don't need to see the field on Sunday. Even if it's possibly his last game as a Steeler
, Casey Hampton doesn't have to go out and give it his all against Cleveland on Sunday. Brett Keisel and Troy Polamalu have nothing to prove. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison aren't going to do anything for themselves or for the Steelers. There's just no need to play these guys.
I'd say the same of Ben Roethlisberger, but the other option would be starting Charlie Batch. Everyone loves Charlie Batch, but in this situation neither quarterback is going to lead to any progress for the organization. It's a time like this that we wish the Steelers still had a younger backup that could benefit from taking some regular season snaps. Obviously, that isn't an option. So Ben Roethlisberger will likely be the guy on Sunday.
If I were writing the lineup for this game (and I'm about to!), I would start:
Starks-Foster-Pouncey-DeCastro-Beachum on the offensive line. David DeCastro is the future, and he is going to need a lot of practice time and a lot of game time to become the guard he's destined to be. And the game experience certainly won't hurt Beachum either. The good news here is that those are basically the only healthy linemen we have. Doug Legursky will come in for Maurkice Pouncey when he goes down with his usual one-a-game late-season knee injury and misses a series or two.
The receiver depth after Brown and Sanders is the "old guy" duo of Plaxico Burress and Jerricho Cotchery. They'll likely all see time on the field. At running back, the coaches appear to have given up on Rashard Mendenhall in favor of Jonathan Dwyer up the middle for 1.5 yards on every play. That one, I can't explain, but with Mendenhall almost assuredly on his way out of town, he's in the same position Mike Wallace is: Neither side has anything to gain from playing him. We can expect David Paulson to fill in for Heath Miller, and by "fill in" we of course mean "not do anything remotely on the level that Heath can do it."
On the defensive side, this is a golden opportunity for a lot of young players. If I were coaching, I'd start Hood-McLendon-Heyward most of the day and rotate in Alameda Ta'amu, Al Woods, and newcomer Hebron Fangupo (waivers, Seattle) as needed. No need for over-30s Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel to put their aging bodies on the line.
Speaking of aging or ineffective players, how about the linebackers? James Harrison will never be his 2008 self again. He's 34, and it's going downhill from here. I actually wouldn't be surprised to see the Steelers part ways with him this offseason, but the fact of the matter is that he won't gain anything by playing on Sunday. LaMarr Woodley's chronic injury problems also suggest that an early start on the offseason may not be such a bad thing and perhaps he can return to form next fall. Instead of them, what about playing Jason Worilds to see if they can get anything out of him after his disappointing career so far? The practice squad is littered with LBs, and tomorrow is a nice chance to see one at full speed if he's ready for the big show. There's no reason not to give Larry Foote a break and see what Stevenson Sylvester can do.
The DBs, unfortunately, don't have the luxury of letting the young guys get experience because almost all of them are injured already. My only suggestion would be to get Troy Polamalu out of harm's way and see if Robert Golden or Damon Cromartie-Smith can play. It's a preseason game; what have they got to lose?
If you're concerned with the final score of the game, and you shouldn't be, there are two schools of thought. The first is that losing this weekend nets the Steelers a higher draft pick; potentially a player who can make an impact next year. The other way of looking at it is that no team should ever tank it just to get a better draft position and football players don't even think that way.
I fall into the former category. If you aren't gunning for a championship, then winning games can only hurt you in the long run. I'd like to see the Steelers get a pass-rushing threat for a top-tier safety if one is available for a decent value at pick 13 or 14.
However, if you think the Steelers should still try their hardest to win on Sunday and let the fans leave Heinz Field with a sweeter taste in their mouths, then fear not. The Steelers will still have Ben Roethlisberger and most of the starting offense. The Browns, meanwhile, are starting Thaddeus Lewis at quarterback.
I would guess the Steelers can still win handily.