Published December 27, 2011
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin believes injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and center Maurkice Pouncey both have "a shot" to play in Sunday's regular season finale at Cleveland.
"It is our intention right now that if those guys are healthy enough to practice and prepare, then we will play them," Tomlin said Tuesday.
Given the way backups Charlie Batch and Trai Essex handled themselves in a 27-0 win over St. Louis last Saturday, the Steelers (11-4) may not need Roethlisberger or Pouncey to hurry back from their badly sprained left ankles to keep the team's hopes of an AFC North title alive.
Batch played effectively against the Rams, passing for 208 yards while showing there's still some life in his 37-year-old legs. He extended plays with his mobility and even threw the ball downfield, hitting Mike Wallace for a 46-yard gain in the fourth quarter that set up the clinching touchdown.
"I thought he did some really good things," Tomlin said of Batch. "(But) his performance has no bearing on how we go about making the decisions that are right for us this week. A lot of the decisions center around Roethlisberger's health. But I like the way Batch played, not only the way he performed but the way he led and communicated."
It's what Batch has done with consistency while subbing for Roethlisberger through the years. The Pittsburgh native is 5-2 when starting in relief and had the Heinz Field crowd chanting "Charlie! Charlie!" after a handful of plays.
The moment wasn't lost on Batch.
"I think that they have appreciated what I have done, and what I am doing to help this team win," he said. "I embraced it."
And he'll embrace trying to do it on the road against the Browns (4-11) if necessary.
Pittsburgh can win the division with a victory in Cleveland and a loss by Baltimore in Cincinnati. It can even gain the top overall seed in the AFC with a win and losses by both the Ravens and Patriots.
It's why Tomlin isn't quite ready to rule out Roethlisberger. The coach isn't sure if Roethlisberger will be able to practice this week, but even if the quarterback doesn't, Tomlin expects to wait until the last minute before making a decision.
"There are some scenarios that can unfold, where we can improve our playoff position," Tomlin said. "We are aware of that. We are also aware that all of those scenarios include us winning this football game. We are going to do what we deem necessary for us to put ourselves in position to do that."
And even Batch understands that when relatively healthy few quarterbacks can do what Roethlisberger can do.
"This is Ben's team," Batch said. "This team moves with him and to see him do everything in his power to get back on the field is really something special to watch."
Pouncey sat out the last two games and backup Doug Legursky went out early against the Rams with a left shoulder injury. Enter Essex, who hadn't taken a snap at center all season. He performed admirably, helping the Steelers gash St. Louis for 169 yards on the ground.
"It was under unusual circumstances," Tomlin said. "To have a guy come in and deliver the way he delivered for us, not only in terms of snapping the football but declaring fronts and blocking people in the run game, it was just a special afternoon for him."
Legursky is out for Sunday, and if Pouncey can't play Essex will get the call again, though Tomlin sounded optimistic Pouncey will be ready.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley (strained left hamstring), and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders (right foot) could also play in Cleveland.
Tomlin will not rest players just to rest them, but could modify the amount of playing time depending on how things shake out elsewhere, particularly if Baltimore gets up big on Cincinnati and the Steelers know they'll have to start the playoffs on the road the weekend of Jan. 7-8.
"Those are the easy decisions I can make as the game and situations unfold," Tomlin said. "Some of them are obvious. ... That's not rocket science as far as we're concerned."