PITTSBURGH — Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger might get his wish to spend the meaningless regular season finale in sweats, watching backup Landry Jones go to work against the Cleveland Browns.
With the AFC North title in hand and the third seed in the AFC already secured, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown could get the day off too.
Coach Mike Tomlin, however, has a message for the rest of his team: you better be ready to work.
“If they have a helmet on, they need to be prepared to play,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
Pittsburgh (10-5) wrapped up the fifth division title of Tomlin’s 10-year tenure with a thrilling last-second 31-27 win over Baltimore on Sunday, the game-deciding play coming on Antonio Brown’s stretch across the goal line with 9 seconds to go. The Steelers are assured of the third seed when the playoffs begin on Jan. 7 regardless of what happens against the Browns (1-14). Roethlisberger said he hopes Tomlin uses the finale as a chance to allow some of his banged up teammates to heal up.
Tomlin is open to the idea, but only to a certain point.
“People like to liken to preseason game or an exhibition,” he said. “The (roster) numbers are much different. It’s business as usual for those that are dressed.”
It’s likely Tomlin will sit all three of his offensive stars along with center Maurkice Pouncey. Roethlisberger’s season included surgery on his left knee in October. Bell has averaged more than 25 touches a game during Pittsburgh’s six-game winning streak and missed each of Pittsburgh’s last two playoff appearances due to knee injuries while Brown was forced to sit out a divisional-round loss to Denver last January with a concussion.
Pouncey didn’t play a snap when it mattered in 2015 after injuring his ankle in the preseason.
“I’ve been in a Super Bowl without Maurkice Pouncey,” Tomlin said. “It’s more fun to do with Maurkice Pouncey.”
Tight end Ladarius Green will miss a second straight game due to a concussion. Tomlin said Green, who did not practice at all last week, remains in the protocol. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt and his sprained left knee spent Tuesday undergoing treatment but it’s unlikely Pittsburgh would rush Tuitt back to face Cleveland, which hasn’t won in Pittsburgh since 2003 regardless of who is on the field for the Steelers.
Tomlin has taken different tacks the previous two times Pittsburgh headed into Week 17 with nothing on the line. He sat Roethlisberger in the 2007 finale against Baltimore. The Steelers were upset at home by Jacksonville the following week in the wild card round. The following year Roethlisberger started against the 3-12 Browns but left with an injury late in the second quarter of what became a 31-0 romp. He returned in time for the divisional round as Pittsburgh went on to win its sixth Super Bowl.
The coach downplayed the idea of potentially ruining his team’s momentum. The expectations against the Browns will be the same as always.
“Our game is football,” Tomlin said. “Our business is to win.”
Notes: WR Sammie Coates (hamstring) could play on Sunday. Coates tweaked the hamstring in practice last week, giving rookie Demarcus Ayers a chance to make his NFL debut. Ayers caught a pass for nine yards and drew a 35-yard pass interference penalty that led to a touchdown. … Asked about whether Brown was supposed to run his route into the end zone against the Ravens instead of making a shallower cross — a move that required Brown to dangerously extend the ball to cross the goal line — Tomlin laughed and said “he was supposed to score, which is what he did.”