But Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said he won’t let the fact the No. 1 seed in the AFC is still in play factor into his decision-making on who he will dress for the Browns game.
“I’m undecided as I stand here right now,” Tomlin said Tuesday afternoon at his weekly news conference. “It’s obvious those discussions are in play. We’ll do what’s best for us short-term and long, and we won’t look back.”
The Steelers-Browns game kicks off at 1 p.m., the same time the Patriots-Jets game starts.
There is a scenario where Tomlin and his staff can watch the scoreboard to see if there is a chance the Patriots could be upset, but that would require Tomlin to play his starters for at least one half and perhaps more if that game is close.
“We have no control over that,” Tomlin said. “We better take care of the business in our stadium. We better focus on the challenges in our stadium and take care of the business that’s in our control. That will be my mentality as we prepare this week and as we walk into the stadium.”
Regardless of whether Tomlin chooses to sit or play his stars, the Steelers have a chance to go undefeated in the AFC North for the first time since the 2008 season.
“You can talk a lot about the structure of this week, but the reality is this is a football game,” Tomlin said. “We will play and play to win that football game. Who we choose to employ or utilize or activate, we’re in the process of discussing. But make no mistake about it the expectation will be what it is.
“The people we put on the field, we’ll expect them to play and play winning football. That will be our mentality as we prepare. We don’t try to over-think some of these things. We set out on this thing to dominate the AFC North, and we have an AFC North game this weekend at our place so that will be our mentality.”
Tomlin said there were no significant injuries to come out of the Houston game. He did not have an update on wide receiver Antonio Brown, but he did rule him out for the Browns game.
The Browns will try to avoid becoming the second team in NFL history to go 0-16. The 2008 Detroit Lions are the only team to go an entire season without a win since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Head coach Mike Tomlin pulled a shocker Saturday when he released veteran linebacker James Harrison in order to make room on the 53-man roster for Marcus Gilbert, who was returning from a four-game suspension.
Tomlin said Tuesday the decision to cut Harrison was strictly business.
“We make the decisions we feel give us the very best chance to win,” Tomlin said. “We needed the people we kept. We needed to activate Marcus Gilbert. There’s really nothing more to it than that.”
Harrison only played 40 snaps all season and as the fifth outside linebacker on the roster he certainly was expandable. However, many of Harrison’s teammates said they were shocked by his release and said the decision caught them off guard.
Harrison, the franchise’s all-time sacks leader, might not have been producing on the field this season, but his teammates believed he was still providing leadership in the locker room.
Tomlin acknowledged intangibles were a part of his decision-making process, but he said it wasn’t the overriding factor in this case.
“Intangibles are always part of decisions,” Tomlin said. “There is no cookie cutter in terms of decision making. You better weigh all variables — some of them aren’t intangibles — and we do.”
Cornerback Mike Hilton came out of nowhere this summer not only to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, but to lock down the starting slot corner job. Against the Texans, Hilton had the game of his short career, sacking Texans quarterbacks three times. The Steelers discovered right away that Hilton had a special ability to blitz off the edge of the defense. But that’s only one of his redeeming qualities. He has also shown a strong ability to stay tight with receivers in coverage.
It was the first time a cornerback had three sacks in a game since the sack became an official statistic in 1982.
“It was part of the game plan,” Hilton said. “We felt if we add more people to the mix, we’d be able to get a lot more pressure. We did that. We felt good about it. We felt good about the blitzes we had lined up.”
NOTES: QB Ben Roethlisberger‘s 135 wins as a starting quarterback in regular-season games are the seventh-most in NFL history. He has thrown for 4,251 yards this season, the fifth time he’s thrown for 4,000 yards or more in a season. … RB Le’Veon Bell has 1,291 yards and can set his career-high for a season next week if he rushes for 71 yards or more against the Browns. He can also move into third place on the franchise’s all-time rushing list if he reaches 43 yards on Sunday. He has 5,336 yards in five NFL seasons. … DE Cameron Heyward recorded two sacks and moved into eighth place on the franchise’s all-time sacks list with 37 for his career. If he gets three sacks in the regular-season finale against the Browns, he will set the franchise record for most sacks by a defensive lineman in a season. Keith Willis holds the record with 14.
REPORT CARD VS. TEXANS
—PASSING OFFENSE: B – Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown for the first time all season, but he still managed to be effective throwing the ball. Roethlisberger completed passes to six receivers, completing 20 of 29 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant led the way. Smith-Schuster had a team-high 75 receiving yards and caught a touchdown pass. Bryant added 60 yards. Tight end Vance McDonald, who has battled injuries for much of the season, had four receptions for 52 yards. Justin Hunter, who has been a healthy scratch in most games this season, caught a touchdown pass in the first quarter.
—RUSHING OFFENSE: B-minus – It wasn’t a dominating performance, but the Steelers did get over 100 yards against a Texans defense that entered the game 12th in the league against the run. Le’Veon Bell only had 14 carries for 69 yards, but he will enter the final week of the regular season with a chance at the NFL rushing title. He is 14 yards behind Todd Gurley. Stevan Ridley, who was signed last week after James Conner went on injured reserve, had 28 yards on nine carries.
—PASS DEFENSE: A – Veteran cornerback Joe Haden returned to the lineup, and his presence made an immediate impact. The Steelers allowed just eight completed passes and 51 yards through the air. Of course, much of that had to do with the Texans starting third-string quarterback T.J. Yates, who was intercepted once and lost a fumble. Cornerback Artie Burns recorded the interception, but credit Haden for locking down Texans Pro Bowler DeAndre Hopkins, the league’s second-leading receiver, who managed just four catches for 65 yards.
—RUSH DEFENSE: D – For a game the Steelers dominated from start to finish, the one negative was the run defense, which allowed 176 yards. Alfred Blue had 16 carries for 108 yards, including a 48-yard run when the Steelers lined up in the wrong defense. Communication errors continue to plague the Steelers, who had problems in the same area in the loss to New England the previous week. But that wasn’t only the issue the Steelers had against the Texans. Lamar Miller also had 55 yards on 10 carries. The Steelers will struggle to get off the field if they continue to allow teams to run against them.
—SPECIAL TEAMS: B – The Steelers have received next to nothing from their return teams all season, but Monday provided a glimmer of hope that things could get better in the postseason. Eli Rogers, who took over the punt-return duties from Antonio Brown this season, had 82 punt-return yards, including a season-long 27-yarder in the third quarter. Their previous long punt return of the season was 19 yards. Now only if they can do something about their struggling kickoff-return unit. Pro-Bowl kicker Chris Boswell certainly isn’t struggling. He booted two more field goals and tied the franchise record for most field goals in a single season with 36.
—COACHING: B – Coming off a devastating loss against the Patriots that likely cost the Steelers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, head coach Mike Tomlin had the Steelers ready to play. They jumped out to a 20-0 lead and seized control of the game early. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler dialed up some blitzes, and the Steelers sacked Texans quarterbacks seven times. Slot corner Mike Hilton registered three of those sacks. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley called an efficient game although the red zone continues to be an issue.