The last hurrah?
Well, maybe and maybe not.
The Steelers (7-8) finish their season today against the Cleveland Browns (5-10) at Heinz Field, where fans will certainly relish those players who just might be playing their final game for the home team.
Of the five current players who’ve started all three of the most recent Super Bowls, Casey Hampton’s contract will expire after the game.
Of the three others who’ve started two Super Bowls and played as a reserve in the third, Larry Foote’s contract will expire after the game.
And of the three others who’ve been active for two Super Bowls and on IR in a third, the contracts of Charlie Batch, Greg Warren and two-time (winning) Super Bowl starter Max Starks will expire after the game.
Nothing stays the same in the NFL, of course, particularly after a non-playoff season.
But while a win would be a graceful way for some of these old Steelers to bow out, one might also represent a springboard for those sticking around.
“I think it’s very important,” said first-year offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “It’s not a game you want to be in, but like I said to the guys, unless you win the Super Bowl, you never get many chances in the playoffs to end the season on a winning note. We have to take advantage of that. I’ve been places where I really believed it carries over. It changes your mindset and overall mood going into the next few months, and you come back. I think a win in the last game or the last two games, whatever opportunity you have, has a springboard effect for you. That’s what we need to do, get this going in a positive direction to finish the season.”
Already, positive vibes have come from the primary part of the offense. Ben Roethlisberger this week had all the right answers for a media searching for a fracture in his relationship with Haley.
“We need to continue to grow,” Roethlisberger said when asked about the Haley offense. “We need to get better every week. I know in the offseason it’s not like every week is a game week but we need to continue to get better and grow in all aspects – our run game, our pass game, and every position needs to get a little bit better.”
Is Roethlisberger happy with the offensive system?
“Yeah, I think it works for us,” he said. “When we’re executing I think it works.”
“Change is difficult,” said Haley. “It’s not always the easiest thing, because it’s not always comfortable and you have to adjust. That goes for all parties involved. This case, for me, the players and coaches, it’s not easy but that doesn’t mean it’s not right. Coach [Mike] Tomlin made a change. I was fortunate enough to be the guy that was chosen. You want to make your boss right, and I believe we will. A year of experience working together, all of us, I think is priceless.”
The defense, on the other hand, has plenty of experience together. The old gang – represented by the earliest building block, Hampton – will continue its makeover, only because it’s been the Steelers’ way for so long.
Hampton is 35, his contract is up, and the time might be nigh to play his backup, Steve McLendon.
“But Casey,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said in making a case to keep Hampton, “for two months now we’ve seen him make an awful lot of plays. Probably the one statistic we‘ve come the furthest in was the run advantage in yards allowed per rush. We know Casey is always going to be a big part of that.”
The Steelers’ improved run defense coincided with Hampton recovering from elbow and knee injuries “probably about midseason,” Hampton estimated.
The stats back him up. In the first eight games, against teams that currently rank an average of 15th in offensive yards per carry, the Steelers allowed 4.0 per carry.
In the last seven games, against teams that now rank an average of 19th in offensive yards per carry, the Steelers allowed 3.2 per carry.
Today, the Steelers go up against a Browns team that will be without Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks Brandon Weeden and Colt McCoy, and starting running back Trent Richardson.
The Steelers rank second in the NFL in rush defense, and against the depleted Browns could make up the 57-yard differential with top-ranked Tampa Bay (vs. Atlanta) and become the first NFL team since the 1991 Philadelphia Eagles to lead the NFL in total, passing and rushing (yards per game) defense.
But the stat these Steelers are chasing is 8-8, and an avoidance of their first losing season since 2003 (6-10).
“I was hurt in ’03,” said Keisel, “so I’ve been here 11 years and I’ve always been playing for something at the end. So it’s very different. We want to win this last game and go out on a positive note, so it’s very important to us.
“We just want to prove to ourselves we can win. It’s been a tough stretch and we just want to finish this season out strong in the way we feel we’re capable of doing.”