CLEVELAND — It’s harder to find a more clear message that a team doesn’t really care about winning a football game than voluntary electing to keep its starting quarterback, most experienced offensive lineman and top two defensive players at home on the couch.
That’s what the Steelers did before Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Cleveland Browns, with Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey, Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt watching the game in sweatpants back in Pittsburgh.
But for the 53 players that did suit up in black and gold on Sunday, winning was very clearly at the forefront of their minds.
“We weren’t in rest mode,” head coach Mike Tomlin said after the game. “The guys that we wanted to rest, we left at home. The guys that got on the bus to come over here were ready to play.”
Twice, the Steelers fell behind the rival Browns by multiple scores, and both times, the Steelers nearly came all the way back. Cleveland started out with a 10-0 lead before three true field goals from practice squad kicker Matthew Wright brought the team back to a one-point deficit at 10-9.
Once again, Cleveland pulled ahead, 24-9, but backup quarterback Mason Rudolph led to the team to two late touchdowns, surrounded by a fourth-down defensive stop. The comeback ultimately fell short, with Rudolph misfiring on a two-point conversion try to Chase Claypool and the Browns able to gain the one first down they needed to run the clock out.
In the end, the result mattered about as much to the Steelers as it did when the team waived goodbye to its starts back in Pittsburgh.
But the resiliency showed by the team’s backups has them feeling pretty good about the prospect of facing the same Browns with a full Steelers roster at Heinz Field next Sunday night.
“Whoever takes the field, we have to take the field no matter who the guys are,” veteran reserve linebacker Jayrone Elliott said. “We knew we were going to have a workload today, and that is what we asked for. …
“I think it gives confidence for the younger guys who got a chance to finally get on the field and show their talents to the NFL. All of us getting more reps, it will just continue to help us build as a team.”
Elliott recorded his first sack since 2016 and added four tackles, one for a loss and a quarterback hit, showing that he can still be a presence on defense as well as his usual special teams role.
Without Watt, fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith got plenty of attention from the Cleveland pass blockers, but the rookie had one of his best games, coming up with a team-high nine tackles, one for a loss, a sack and a quarterback hit.
Tomlin called Rudolph’s fill-in performance “gritty” and backup center J.C. Hassenauer praised Rudolph’s leadership.
Elliott, Hassenauer and Rudolph are likely to return to backup duties this Sunday in Pittsburgh. Highsmith will be “the other guy” in the Pittsburgh pass rush. But the toughness and dependability showed by the Steelers’ depth in Cleveland can still provide a boost.
“I think us fighting and clawing in that game shows the resiliency of this team,” Highsmith said. “We are a fighting team. We are going to fight to the end of the game. That is what I am excited about with going to the playoffs. We just have to fight, and we have seen that. It is just going to be awesome to see this team work at the challenge ahead.”