Here's a longshot Steeler to watch in these final three games:
Brian Arnfelt, a big-bodied defensive end, was promoted from the practice squad to bolster a position that's not nearly as thin now as it will be in March.
With the contracts of Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood and Al Woods expiring after the season, and this year's seventh-round draft pick, Nick Williams, still using a crutch to get around on a leg injury, the Steelers could be down to only one defensive end in March -- Cameron Heyward.
Arnfelt now has a chance to show why the Steelers kept him on their practice squad all season, and are now protecting his rights at the expense of linebacker Kion Wilson, who was released Saturday.
A defensive tackle and captain at Northwestern last season, Arnfelt had three sacks, and then measured a tick over 6-4 and weighed 303 at the combine, where he ran a 4.81 40 with 38 bench reps.
An undrafted free agent, Arnfelt was the Steelers' second-team left defensive end throughout spring drills and training camp while the Steelers gave Woods work as a backup nose tackle.
SANDERS' BEST SEASON?
It's not difficult to gauge the status of wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. If he plays poorly, he'll be replaced next season by current rookie Markus Wheaton. If he plays well, he'll receive a commensurate contract offer from someone else in free agency and be replaced by current rookie Markus Wheaton.
Sanders isn't in the good graces of many anyway due to his drop of the two-point conversion that would've sent the Baltimore Ravens into overtime on Thanksgiving, and because his third-down drop last week led to the infamous gamble on fourth-and-10.
Still, Sanders has a career-high 58 receptions for a career-high 661 receiving yards, so offensive coordinator Todd Haley was asked if Sanders is having his best season.
"I think he is getting to play more," Haley said. "He is a number-two (receiver) as opposed to being a three or four. Whenever you’re in there getting more snaps, and more pass plays are called while you are in there, I think generally you should be more productive. But he’s done a good job. He is working hard. Obviously there are some that he’d like to have back, as most of these guys would, but I think there’s been good progress made there. He’s shown he can play in this league at a high level."
But most likely, for somebody else.
Haley on what's allowed left tackle Kelvin Beachum to succeed as a seventh-round pick:
"I think he has a great mindset. I think that he carries a chip on his shoulder. We were just actually talking about this. I’ve seen guys like Curtis Martin carry a chip on their shoulder all the way to the Hall of Fame, getting drafted where they got drafted, whatever you can use to motivate yourself. But he’s that type of kid. He is mentally tough. He carries a chip on his shoulder. He’s been told he’s not good enough to do a lot of different things. And yet he tries to prove everybody wrong, and he has to this point. I just love having him on our side. He’s a great guy to work with."
Over the last four games, against teams with a composite won-loss record of .481 and a combined defensive average that would rank 12th in yardage allowed and 13th in points allowed, the Steelers have turned the ball over once, been sacked four times, and averaged 28 points per game.
What turned around what had been an offensive mess?
"This question has been asked so many times but I understand it," Haley said. "I felt in training camp we had made significant progress as an offense. Unfortunately -- and they are not excuses, they are facts -- we had a lot of disruption at key positions throughout the season. The encouraging thing is that we’ve continued to improve and overcome some of those things but there were adjustments that had to be made. We were watching the tape of playing Cincinnati in our last game. David Paulson was lining up as the point-of-attack tight end. Our starting left tackle now, Beachum, was a backup tight end. Fernando Velasco was playing center, and we didn’t know how to pronounce his name yet. You didn’t see number 26, Le’Veon Bell, anywhere on tape. So a lot of different obstacles the guys have overcome. Again, what’s encouraging to me is that everybody has continued to work and get better, and I think that it’s shown. It has shown to anybody that watches the games. We are doing better in most areas and are playing at a level that gives us a chance to win."
BIG PLAY MALADY
Last season, the Steelers allowed only one run and two passes of 40 yards or longer. Through 13 games this season, they've allowed five runs and 12 passes of 40 yards or longer.
"The biggest malady that we have experienced this year is significant, big-yardage plays, which we have to eliminate," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "I definitely don’t think that the defense needs rebuilding. Maybe their coach is getting a little old. I think the players can still get it done. I do."
LeBeau, who said he will return next season, added that "I don’t believe the problems that we’re experiencing there are age related. I really don’t. They’re positional, sometimes communicative, all things that we can handle and should handle."
LeBeau was asked if he's been frustrated, confounded, disappointed, or all of the above this season.
"None of that is what this is about," he said. "This is about getting better every week, putting up enough wins to get in the playoffs and trying to get better every day that we come out here. If a coach is applying his profession steadfastly, he won’t have time to even think about that kind of question that you asked. I just work on what I see and trying to get us better. What can I do better? What can I help our players do better? And we’ve been plenty busy doing that."
LeBeau on what kind of reception James Harrison should get at Heinz Field tonight:
"I know what he’ll get from me. He’s one of the great Steelers’ defenders. I’m not going to wish him success in the game, but I do love the man."