To find the most fitting soundtrack for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2012 season finale, you’d have to go back to a song released in 1991, Chuck Noll’s final season as coach.
“Here we are now. Entertain us.”
Those lyrics from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” summed up my feeling about Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.
I expected nothing more than to be entertained.
There was nothing on the line. The Steelers are out of the playoffs. Still, I watched the game because it’s going to be another eight months before the next real Steelers game. Mock drafts and minicamps just aren’t the same.
Even though the Steelers defeated the Browns 24-10 to finish 8-8 and avoid their first losing season since 2003, it took a while before this game became, well, entertaining.
Sure, there were a couple of Steelers highlights in the first three and a half quarters. Troy Polamalu finally intercepted a pass and Antonio Brown finally made an impact on special teams. Unfortunately, Brown’s special teams contribution was a tackle after the Browns’ Raymond Ventrone gained 35 yards on a fake punt.
Other than that, it seemed the Browns and Steelers were trying to take advantage of the NHL lockout and attract fight-starved hockey fans. They shoved each other around on just about every other play.
The Steelers won on the testosterone scoreboard. The Browns’ Phil Taylor knocked Kelvin Beachum out of the game with a cheap shot, and the Steelers repeatedly ganged up on him and forced the Browns to pull him from the game.
In terms of action between the whistles, however, this was shaping up as the least entertaining Steelers game of the year.
That’s because most of the game’s drama and highlights were packed into the final seven minutes.
First came the momentary suspense of wondering whether Polamalu would get up after he went to the ground.
The play was innocuous enough. The Steelers clung to a 17-10 lead with under seven minutes left when Browns quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, promoted from the practice squad, attempted a deep pass to Greg Little. Polamalu broke up the pass and hit the turf. A couple of seconds later he got up. Nothing to worry about, but considering his injury history, don’t we all worry about Polamalu now as if he’s our kid and we’re afraid he’s going to get a boo-boo?
Cortez Allen gave the Browns a boo-boo on the next play when he stripped the ball from Browns receiver Travis Benjamin, recovered the fumble and returned it to the Browns’ 27 with 6:40 left in the game.
A second-year cornerback, Allen gives Steelers fans something to look forward to next season. He also forced a fumble in the second quarter that Lawrence Timmons recovered to set up a 1-yard touchdown pass to Leonard Pope and a 10-3 Steelers lead.
Allen adds his performance Sunday to his two-interception day last week.
The Steelers’ four forced turnovers Sunday were their most in a game since they beat the Chiefs in Week 12 last season. Even if it’s too-little too-late, their seven takeaways in the past two games are more than a third of their 20 takeaways this season. It’s the first time the Steelers have forced seven turnovers in a two-game span since they forced seven in a win at Tennessee in Week 2 of the 2010 season.
Would it be too much to ask for the Steelers defense to carry that ball-hawking momentum into next season?
It’s hard to tell if 35-year-old Plaxico Burress will be around next season, but he took advantage of the short field from Allen’s fumble recovery and caught a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to give the Steelers a 24-10 lead with 3:25 left.
Roethlisberger’s three touchdown passes were caught by the eclectic trio of Brown, Pope and Burress. Who could have imaged that in October?
It was Burress’ only touchdown during this tour of duty in Pittsburgh, and he used his touchdown celebration to take a couple of bows. If this turns out to be only a cameo appearance, at least Burress got a second chance to go out on more of a positive note than he did eight years ago, when the Steelers lost the AFC Championship Game at home to the Patriots.
One player who is expected back for several seasons to come is Timmons. He’ll be needed to help the Steelers regain their footing as an elite NFL franchise.
On Sunday, the best Timmons could do was put an exclamation point on this dud of a season by sacking two different quarterbacks on two consecutive plays. First he sacked Lewis and knocked him out of the game. Then he sacked Josh Johnson on the same type of play and knocked the ball loose. Ziggy Hood recovered the fumble to snuff out any Browns comeback hopes with 1:22 left.
It was an entertaining (and, yes, a stat-padding) ending. But the Steelers have a lot of work to do to get back to the playoffs. They’re a long way from nirvana.