For the first time in his six-year head coaching career, Mike Tomlin will go into a game with his team already eliminated from playoff contention.
Tomlin insists he isn’t going to treat the week of preparation any differently.
A day after his Pittsburgh Steelers were knocked out of the postseason race with a loss to Cincinnati, Tomlin vowed that injuries would be the only factor dictating lineup changes for the regular-season finale Sunday.
Don’t look for an abundance of younger players auditioning for 2013 jobs.
“This is an opportunity to play and play to win, to get this sour taste out of our mouth,” Tomlin said. “I am not going to approach it with that (look-ahead to 2013) mentality.”
Among those who won’t play for the Steelers (7-8) against the Cleveland Browns (5-10) is tight end Heath Miller, who sustained multiple torn ligaments in his right knee during the loss to the Bengals.
Miller, a prime candidate for the Pro Bowl and team MVP, has torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments as well as a possible tear in his posterior cruciate ligament.
Typical recovery time would extend well into next season’s training camp. Just this past year, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, offensive tackle Max Starks and nose tackle Casey Hampton began camp on the physically unable to perform list after sustaining torn ACLs over the first eight days of January.
“I think we need to let the dust settle to know exactly what it is we’re dealing with before we start framing his recovery or his rate of recovery,” Tomlin said.
“He’s been rock-solid for us, and we really appreciate his efforts.”
Miller, of course, faces surgery. Reserve running back Baron Batch had surgery to repair a broken forearm on Monday morning. Tomlin said roster moves will be made to replace those two so that the Steelers are not carrying any “dead weight” for Sunday’s game.
Starting cornerback Ike Taylor (ankle fracture) is getting closer to being cleared to play after missing the past three games. But Tomlin indicated there isn’t any reason to rush him back.
Receiver Mike Wallace (hip strain), rookie guard David DeCastro (left hamstring) and cornerback Curtis Brown (left ankle) also were injured during the Bengals game and will be evaluated throughout the week. Cornerback Keenan Lewis also was noticeably hobbled Sunday.
Tomlin acknowledged that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is “less than 100 percent,” but refused to attribute his struggles over the past three games to the effects of a shoulder and rib injury that sidelined him in the previous three contests.
Roethlisberger had 17 touchdowns and four interceptions in nine games before being knocked out against Kansas City Nov. 12. He has had four interceptions in the three games — all losses — since coming back.
Roethlisberger’s 58.6 passer rating Sunday was his third worst for a game since Nov. 3, 2008, when he was knocked out of a win at Washington with a shoulder injury.
“You can attribute it to whatever you want to,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, the play is what it is. It hasn’t been consistently good enough for us to win.”
The same can be said for the Steelers as a whole. Impressive wins at the New York Giants and Baltimore this season were overshadowed by head-scratching losses at Tennessee and Oakland, each on a last-second field goal after Pittsburgh blew a fourth-quarter lead, then failed to win it with a scoring drive later.
“We’ve been in a lot of close football games and we just consistently haven’t made the necessary plays to win those games,” Tomlin said.
“We’re 3-5 in games decided by three points or less; that’s just not good enough in the NFL. A lot of games unfold in that manner. You have to make the critical plays down the stretch in those games if you want to be a consistent winner. We haven’t done that, and that’s why we sit here in the position we are in.”