Wouldn’t taking down the Christmas tree be a better way to spend Sunday afternoon than watching the Steelers?
Steelers fans did not get all they wanted for Christmas, because the Steelers won’t be in the playoffs this season. The Steelers’ season finale Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field will be the first game in six years the Steelers play without any chance of making the playoffs.
Even in 2006, the Steelers played spoiler by beating the Bengals in Cincinnati to knock them out of the playoffs. There also was the subplot of Bill Cowher’s last game as Steelers coach.
The Steelers (7-8) don’t even have that much to play for on Sunday. They can avoid a losing season by beating the Browns (5-10) and they can avoid being swept by the Browns for the first time since 1988.
The Steelers haven’t played a game this empty of meaning since 2003, the year before Ben Roethlisberger arrived.
So what’s the point of watching Sunday?
Well, in 2003 a rookie named Troy Polamalu looked like he might be good someday. Fans loyal enough to keep watching throughout that 6-10 season weren’t asking “Troy who?” when Polamalu let his hair down and became a star in 2004.
Fans who bothered to watch the 2006 finale saw the season end with a rookie named Santonio Holmes catching a short pass over the middle from Ben Roethlisberger in overtime and turning it into a game-winning, 67-yard touchdown.
It wouldn’t be Holmes’ last big catch for the Steelers.
Sunday’s season finale could offer a sneak peek into the Steelers’ future.
With so many starters banged up, several younger players might see a lot of action. If the Steelers are going to get back to the playoffs, they’ll need at least a couple of these players to make significant contributions in the years to come.
- Cortez Allen, CB: Allen has been a solid contributor in nickel packages since being drafted in the fourth round in 2011, and he established himself as a player to watch with his two interceptions Sunday against the Bengals. He became the first Steeler with two interceptions in a game since Troy Polamalu on Dec. 12, 2010. Six of Allen’s 10 passes defensed this season have come since Ike Taylor’s injury. The Steelers are hoping Taylor and Keenan Lewis are fully healthy next season, but Allen is starting to look like he’ll be ready to step in as a starter if Taylor’s skills decline.
- Josh Victorian, CB: Victorian was exposed more than a Victoria’s Secret model two weeks ago in Dallas. The 24-year-old practice squad journeyman wasn’t quite as bad last week against the Bengals. He had two passes defensed and deflected a pass that Cortez Allen intercepted. The Steelers should play the hobbled Keenan Lewis sparingly on Sunday if they plan to spend money to keep him around next season. That will give Victorian a chance to show he can move ahead of injured Curtis Brown on the depth chart.
- Robert Golden, S: An undrafted rookie, Golden saw his first action on defense in Week 14 against San Diego. He made three tackles the following week in Dallas. Golden can play both cornerback and safety, which gives him a leg up on other defensive backs on cutdown day. It’s unclear how much playing time Golden will get Sunday. Josh Victorian and free agent pickup Justin King appear to be the understudies at cornerback. At safety, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark both have been beat up this year and it’s hard to see both of them getting a ton of action. Golden should get the nod ahead of Ryan Mundy, since he probably has more of a future in Pittsburgh than Mundy.
- David Paulson, TE: Paulson might be the easiest player to watch Sunday and the most important. A rookie drafted in the seventh round, Paulson has moved ahead of Leonard Pope and is likely to start Sunday. Keep an eye on his blocking, because he also could be the opening-day starter next season if Heath Miller hasn’t completed his recovery from knee surgery. Paulson has seven catches this season. Some of those catches have prompted a mistaken “HEEEAAATH” chant at Heinz Field. Unfortunately, everyone waving a Terrible Towel will know that’s not Miller on the field Sunday. It will be interesting to see how well Paulson can fill the team MVP’s shoes.
- Steve McLendon, NT: McLendon will be difficult to track because he plays in the trenches. It might be worth it to try to get a look at him, though, because he could be the Steelers’ starting nose tackle next season. Casey Hampton will be 36 in 2013 but hasn’t showed any signs of a decline. The Steelers are second in the NFL against the run, according to NFL.com, allowing 87.5 yards per game. Hampton has been a big reason for that, so to speak. Unfortunately, the Steelers will be in a salary cap mess in 2013 and might not be able to afford Hampton, who will be a free agent. McLendon made some splash plays in the preseason. If he can make a splash play or two on Sunday, it might give Steelers fans some much-needed hope heading into the offseason.
- Cameron Heyward, DE: Like McLendon, Heyward’s performance might be hard to quantify because he’s hard to see amid the line-of-scrimmage congestion. When possible, watch for any signs of progress from the 2011 first-round draft pick. Brett Keisel won’t be around forever. He’ll be 35 next season. Heyward needs to show signs that he’s ready to eventually take over as a starter.
If those six reasons aren’t enough to watch Sunday’s game, then how about the fact that it will be more than eight months before the Steelers play another game that counts. The draft and minicamp are nice and give Steeler Addicts something to look forward to, but it’s just not the same as real football.
Steelers fans can wait another day or two to add their Christmas tree to the dozens of bare trees already on the sidewalk. It’s a depressing January scene that seems even more depressing when the Steelers aren’t in the playoffs.