Next men up

They closed out the Colts.

Now the Steelers' defense gets one last regular-season chance to go to work, even if a number of its key figures from earlier in the season won't be on the field.

Sunday's regular-season finale in Cleveland will play out without two defensive starters from the last time these two teams met: inside linebacker Devin Bush and outside linebacker Bud Dupree (both are on the Reserve/Injured list and finished for the season).

Some other regulars may, likewise, get the day off or see their snaps drastically reduced due to the relatively meaningless nature of the game for the Steelers (12-3), who clinched the AFC North Division championship with last Sunday's 28-24, come-from-behind victory over Indianapolis and cannot catch Kansas City for the AFC's No. 1 postseason seed.

Head coach Mike Tomlin announced on Tuesday that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger won't be playing. Then on Saturday afternoon, the team announced that defensive tackle Cam Heyward, center Maurkice Pouncey and linebacker T.J. Watt would not make the trip to Cleveland, and that cornerback Joe Haden, tight end Eric Ebron and linebacker Cassius Marsh were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 List.

The Browns (10-5) can clinch a trip to the postseason with a victory.

"We're not going to let them walk into the playoffs," Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler maintained.

Even without Bush, Dupree, Watt, Haden and, potentially, others.

Bush was lost during the Steelers' 38-7 victory over the Browns on Oct. 18 at Heinz Field.

Dupree went down during a 19-14 win over Baltimore on Dec. 2, also at Heinz Field.

The victory over the Colts was the first the Steelers were able to achieve in Dupree's absence

How they fare in Cleveland, how they work around lineup alterations either by necessity or design, will shed more light on their ability to perform under such circumstances in the upcoming postseason, should it come to that.

It'll also reflect on the Steelers' ability to prepare.

"I don't think the people we play are going to worry about who we've got hurt and who we don't other than the fact that they're going to try to dadgum attack them, maybe," Butler said. "The thing we've got to do is make sure our guys, give them every chance that we can to do well against the people we are playing and make sure they understand what we are trying to get done and all of the defenses.

"Practice is big-time important. How we practice, what's going on in practice, who we give the reps to, is big for us. We have a competitive period with our offense which always helps when we go into these games."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns

It took inside linebacker Vince Williams playing 100 percent of the defensive snaps in his first game back following a two-game stint on the Reserve/COVID-19 list to get past Indianapolis. It took 11 defensive snaps from Marsh in his Steelers debut (Marsh was activated to the 53-man roster on Dec. 14). It took linebacker Tegray Scales playing his first three defensive snaps of the season.

The defense found enough to hold the Colts to three points in the second half.

Both sides of the ball will have a similar opportunity to succeed in Cleveland despite lineup limitations.

"All of us around the league, it's just not us," Butler maintained. "A lot of other people have had to play with different guys. That is a tribute to our assistant coaches. They do a good job of the next guy up and teaching him and trying to get him in position where his teammates can depend on him being where he needs to be when he is supposed to be there. That is probably the biggest thing for us. (Head Coach) Mike (Tomlin) talks about it all of the time in terms of next man up. It truly is.

"It truly has been this year."

And that makes what happens in Cleveland significant beyond its effect on the Steelers' playoff seeding.

"The thing that we have to do is keep going," Butler said. "We are in the playoffs. We have to play well Sunday. We don't want the Browns beating us and stuff like that. I know we won the AFC North, but we are going to be very competitive.

"We have to be ready for this game and kick us over into the playoffs."

No matter who is or isn't playing.