PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin isn’t sure how long of a break he wants to give his star players before the postseason begins.
The Pittsburgh Steelers coach is going to wait to determine how much Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and company play during Sunday’s regular-season finale against winless Cleveland.
The Steelers (12-3) wrapped up their third AFC North title in four years earlier this month and secured a first-round bye by dominating Houston on Christmas night.
A shot at the top seed and home-field advantage in the playoffs remains a possibility, a scenario the relies almost exclusively on the New York Jets beating New England on the road, something the Jets have done only once in the past decade and even that came in 2008 when Tom Brady was out with a knee injury.
“We will play to win that football game,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “Who we choose to employ or utilize or activate — we are in the process of discussing. Make no mistake about it. The expectation will be what it is. The people we put on the field will be expected to play and play winning football.”
The Steelers held out Roethlisberger, Bell and Antonio Brown in their meaningless 2016 finale against the Browns when backup quarterback Landry Jones guided Pittsburgh to a comeback 27-24 victory.
Jones could again get the call or at least play extensively, though Tomlin insists he’s not going to make personnel decisions based on what the scoreboard is telling him about the game in Foxborough.
One decision is already made for Tomlin. Brown will miss a second straight week while recovering from a strained left calf suffered in the first half of a loss to the Patriots on Dec. 17.
Tomlin remained noncommittal about Brown’s availability for the playoffs. Pittsburgh opens the postseason on Jan. 13 or 14. The perennial All-Pro posted video on his Instagram account on Christmas Day of him very gingerly walking up his driveway with a football in his hands.
When asked if there’s any concern about Brown dealing with rust should he return, Tomlin offered nothing but caution.
“I didn’t say that (he will return),” Tomlin said. “So, we’ll see. He hadn’t missed a lot of time over the course of his career here anyway so we don’t have a lot to draw from in that regard.”
The only player in NFL history to have 100 catches in five consecutive seasons has been remarkably durable during his rise to one of the best players in the league. He hasn’t missed multiple games because of injury since 2012.
The Steelers hardly missed Brown while rolling over the reeling Texans. Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster caught six passes for 75 yards and a touchdown, Martavis Bryant added three receptions for 60 yards and Justin Hunter, active for just the sixth time this season, hauled in his first touchdown reception in 13 months.
“The replacement of Antonio Brown, if you will, is a difficult task, but not if everybody simply does their job and makes the necessary plays when the opportunities come their way,” Tomlin said. “That’s what happened throughout the game for us.”
Tomlin anticipates the same “hand in the pile” mentality when Pittsburgh tries to make Cleveland the second team in NFL history to go 0-16 regardless of who is in the lineup.
That lineup will not include linebacker James Harrison. Pittsburgh cut the five-time Pro Bowler over the weekend to make room for right tackle Marcus Gilbert as Gilbert returned from a four-game suspension.
Harrison cleared waivers and wasn’t out of a job for long, signing with New England on Tuesday.
The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year posed for a picture with Brady inside the New England locker room on Tuesday, cracking he’s finally found a teammate who’s been in the league longer than he has. The 39-year-old Harrison played only sporadically this season, but has served as a valuable mentor to a young linebacker group that includes Bud Dupree and rookie T.J. Watt. It wasn’t enough, however, for Pittsburgh to keep Harrison around.