From a record and playoff standpoint, there is nothing to be gained for the Pittsburgh Steelers in their final regular season game of the 2016 season. For the first time in three seasons, the Steelers could be going into the playoffs with their big offensive trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown all healthy.
That’s why Mike Tomlin is saying that he will rest some of the starters. But while some people have said that it’s nothing more than a preseason game, it also holds opportunities. Imagine a scenario that Roethlisberger or Bell does go down injured – wouldn’t it be better to have Landry Jones or DeAngelo Williams come in with another victory under their belts? What if Mike Mitchell or Ross Cockrell suffer an injury? Wouldn’t you want rookies Artie Burns or Sean Davis to get more experience?
The Cleveland game isn’t just a chance to rest some key players.
It’s a chance for some key backups and squad players to gain confidence and experience – but only if the Steelers win.
This is the starting team, and back-ups that Mike Tomlin should employ for the game on Sunday.
QUARTERBACK: LANDRY JONES
There are a lot of things that are at stake at the quarterback position. Ben Roethlisberger gets hurt often, and has already expressed a desire to get a rest at this stage of the season. That would be the best thing for everybody. He should be scratched to avoid the temptation of putting him in later.
Jones is the clear cut backup to Roethlisberger. If anything happens to Big Ben in the playoffs, Jones will be called upon. It would be huge for his confidence to go into that scenario having lead the Steelers to another win. Plus, for Landry Jones, this is essentially an audition to be Ben’s backup for next season. Jones will be out of contract at the end of the year. His game-time exposure has obviously been limited because of Roethlisberger, but Jones has displayed some growth between his games last season and this season. If Jones can show poise and further development at home against the Browns, then he could earn another deal.
I would be tempted to get Zach Mettenberger some snaps though, to figure out what the Steelers have in the former Titans quarterback.
Scratch: Ben Roethlisberger
RUNNING-BACK: DEANGELO WILLIAMS
For the last two post-seasons, the Steelers have been forced to go without Le’Veon Bell. It’s had a damaging effect on their chances, and it could be argued that with Bell – they would have at least beaten the Ravens in 2014; and the Broncos last year.
Williams hasn’t played much since Bell returned this year, so getting him back up to speed should be a priority. That said, Williams was injured after Bell got hurt last year too. So Williams should be placed on a snap-count to minimise his risk of injury, and Fitzgerald Toussaint deserves some carries.
But Bell should be as far away from the field as possible.
Scratch: Le’Veon Bell
WIDE RECEIVERS: ELI ROGERS, DEMARCUS AYERS, COBI HAMILTON.
The Steelers cast of wide receivers have all had their moments this season and done well. Each of Eli Rogers, DeMarcus Ayers, and Cobi Hamilton have earned playing time – whether in a meaningless game or not. Each of the three should be rewarded with a start in this game.
Rogers could thrive in the WR1 role, which would help his confidence for when he’s making plays in the post-season. With Sammie Coates fighting to come back from a hamstring injury, he should be told to take the week off to rest it.
That leaves Darrius Heyward-Bey and Antonio Brown as the other two wide receivers to dress for this game. Brown isn’t as injury prone as Roethlisberger or Bell. And you can’t scratch everyone. Besides, Brown’s also ten yards short of breaking an NFL record for the most yards in a four season stretch. Dress him, get him the record, and limit his snaps. If things are going badly in the game, you’ll be glad there is some insurance there, and Landry Jones will benefit from Brown’s presence. (Note: Tomlin has indicated that Brown likely won’t play Sunday)
Scratch: Sammie Coates
TIGHT-END: XAVIER GRIMBLE
Ladarius Green’s concussion is worrying. There was the question about his concussion history when he signed, and the fact that he hasn’t passed the protocol is deeply concerning. Even if he is fit and ready to go, the Steelers should take a leaf out of the Panthers book and sit him just like Luke Kuechly is being sat. Green has reported back to limited training, but there’s no way he should play.
Jesse James would be another candidate to sit, but again, only seven players can be scratched. He’ll have to dress, but allow David Johnson and Xavier Grimble to take the majority of the snaps.
Scratch: Ladarius Green
OFFENSIVE-LINE: ALEJANDRO VILLANEUVA, RAMON FOSTER, B.J. FINNEY, DAVID DECASTRO, CHRIS HUBBARD.
Already when the subject of sitting players came up, the offensive line has expressed an interest to keep the flow going. They want to play. So let them.
But at the same time, B.J. Finney and Chris Hubbard have been impressive in their appearances so far this year. I can foresee them starting with the first choice offensive line for the first series. Then it would make sense to substitute in Finney and Hubbard for a different starter on each series.
There is a need to reward Hubbard and Finney for their great seasons, and keep them in rhythm just as much as the starting line. Oh, and Brian Mihilak should get some snaps to see what he can do too.
DEFENSIVE-LINE: JOHNNY MAXEY, JAVON HARGRAVE, L.T. WALTON
Injuries force the Steelers hand a little on the defensive line. The biggest priority is to get Stephon Tuitt as ready as possible for the playoffs. His knee sprain is healed with rest, so why bother risking him at all?
Unfortunately, the depth is a little thin – especially with Ricardo Mathews not practicing on Wednesday with an ankle injury. That forces L.T. Walton and Johnny Maxey to be the two defensive ends.
Scratch: Stephon Tuitt.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS: VINCE WILLIAMS, TYLER MATAKEVICH
Ryan Shazier is both the most important player on the Steelers’ defense, and the most injury prone. If he’s not already wrapped in cotton wool, then someone should be fired (joke). Vince Williams is a quality player that hasn’t been getting enough snaps lately, and should be asked to be the leader of the defense on Sunday.
Tyler Matakevich gets first crack, with L.J. Fort getting some snaps too. Lawrence Timmons will have to dress, but in a “break glass in case of emergency” situation.
Scratch: Ryan Shazier
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS: ARTHUR MOATS, JARVIS JONES
Over the last few weeks, Bud Dupree and James Harrison have played all but one snap. They should be managed. Dupree hasn’t a lot of tread on his tires after an early injury, while Harrison may want to stay in rhythm – that’s the only reason why I’d dress either, but their snaps need to be limited.
With Anthony Chickillo ending up on the injury report, that could stop him from getting an increased role his play this season deserves. For Jarvis Jones, this could be the final audition for a new contract, be it in Pittsburgh or somewhere else.
CORNERBACKS: ARTIE BURNS, WILLIAM GAY.
Ross Cockrell has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the season. His play shutting down some top receivers has been really good, to the point where the Steelers secondary would look much less convincing without him against top sides.
The Cleveland Browns aren’t a top side. That said, the more snaps Burns plays, the better he will be. He’s still learning to read the play, and the benefit he’ll get from playing rather than being saved is worth it.
The other spot will be filled by William Gay, with Justin Gilbert set to see more snaps against his old team. Cockrell will have to play, because the seven scratches will already have been filled.
SAFETIES: SEAN DAVIS, JORDAN DANGERFIELD
What a year Sean Davis is having. Arguably the Steelers best rookie, Davis has cemented himself as a starter at safety, and we’ve even seen Mike Mitchell improve beside him.
What would be great for Davis though, is if he was thrust into the senior role, and forced to help Jordan Dangerfield through a game. It would be huge for Davis’ development, and give us another glimpse of Dangerfield.
With Robert Golden injured again, Mitchell will have to dress.
Scratch: Robert Golden (injured)
To be scratched: Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Ladarius Green, Sammie Coates, Stephon Tuitt, Ryan Shazier, Robert Golden.