It's been since 2000 that the Pittsburgh Steelers have ended their season with a sub-.500 record and since 1988 that they've been swept by the Cleveland Browns. Though the playoffs aren't in the Steelers' future this year, they at least were able to stave off those two ignominies by defeating the Browns 24-10, closing a season fraught with ups and downs.
Pittsburgh's 2012 season has been pockmarked by coordinator changes, Mike Wallace's summer holdout and of course, injuries on both sides of the ball; and thus the Steelers weren't able to find a consistent rhythm throughout the year.
Ben Roethlisberger's progress in Todd Haley's conservative system seemed to have dropped off after his Week 10 injury and Week 14 return, while Pittsburgh's defense spent much of the season allowing the fewest yards in the league but didn't generate many sacks or turnovers.
This week, at least, the Steelers were able to have a positive turnover differential, with three forced fumbles (all recovered by Pittsburgh) and an interception, without their offense giving the ball away once. It's the single greatest reason why Pittsburgh defeated the Browns this week, as they were otherwise outperformed by Cleveland's injury-ravaged offense that had third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis under center for his first career start.
Roethlisberger did play a sharp game despite having only 134 passing yards. He completed 15 of his 23 pass attempts and threw three touchdown passes, all while his most reliable target, tight end Heath Miller and his big-play receiver, Mike Wallace, both sat on injured reserve to close the season.
The run game, however, didn't pay major dividends, with just 91 rushing yards on 28 team attempts. Jonathan Dwyer, their leading rusher, finished with 52 yards on 11 carries.
In total, the Browns had 320 yards of offense, with 204 passing yards for Lewis and 138 total yards on the ground. However, they managed just 10 points—a Greg Little touchdown catch and a 51-yard Phil Dawson field goal (tied for the second-longest ever kicked in Heinz Field)—thanks to their four turnovers killing drive after drive.
The Steelers scored 14 of their points in the possessions immediately following two of those turnovers—a first-half Josh Gordon fumble recovered by linebacker Lawrence Timmons led to tight end Leonard Pope's one-yard touchdown catch, and a fourth-quarter Cortez Allen strip of Travis Benjamin led to Plaxico Burress' 12-yard score in traffic.
Their other two turnovers were a Troy Polamalu interception of Lewis and a Timmons sack-fumble-recovery on Josh Johnson, who came in late in the game to replace the injured Lewis.
Pressure also kept Lewis on his toes, though he was surprisingly adept at eluding it and throwing quickly considering how much the Steelers defenders were trying to get in his face.
Regardless, Lewis was sacked four times—by Timmons (twice), James Harrison and a split from Cam Heyward and Steve McLendon. Pittsburgh's ability to kill Cleveland drives and Roethlisberger's ability to put up points even in an overall shaky offensive outing (that also saw a spate of injuries to his line) gave them a much-needed win.
Ending the year at .500 isn't what the Steelers were looking for this season, but it's vastly better than being 7-9, especially with so many changes ahead for the team.
There are 25 current Steelers who are set to be either unrestricted or restricted free agents this year—Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall, Wallace, Larry Foote and Keenan Lewis among them—and with their salary-cap situation just as bad (if not worse) than it was last year, there are difficult decisions ahead.
It's more important than ever that the Steelers have their priorities in line, which means keeping the players who make the biggest and best contributions and not just those with the biggest names.
With so much evaluating in the cards for Pittsburgh's immediate future, a win to close their season is at least a way to head into this difficult process on the right foot.