Keep Eye On These Nine Players

Bengals in playoff drive, while end-of-season performances will determine fate of some Steelers.

The Cincinnati Bengals (9-4) can clinch the AFC North Division with a win tonight at Heinz Field over the Steelers (5-8) and a loss by the Baltimore Ravens.

Otherwise the Bengals are a shoe-in for the playoffs, while the Steelers, according to, have a 1 percent

chance of making the playoffs. Even if the Steelers win their remaining three games, they have a 7 percent chance. So it's become a time for players such as Kelvin Beachum, to cement jobs, or even new contracts, and a time for some to lose jobs and/or contracts in these final three games.

Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said it best when he was asked about Beachum's chances of becoming this team's answer at left tackle into next season.

"I think that's why we're playing the games," Haley said.

Beachum is one player who'll draw attention these final three games. The 6-3, 303-pound seventh-round pick last year has pulled ahead of Mike Adams, the 6-7, 323-pound second-round pick last season, even though Adams returned to the position last week and didn't allow a sack.

Beachum is back from his knee injury after not having given up a sack in his previous three games. In his last four starts, Beachum has allowed one sack, one additional hit on the quarterback, and three pressures.

Of course, there are a handful of other Steelers who'll be watched more closely than others due to any number of circumstances:

* Ryan Clark -- A step slower this season and cursed by a poor run defense that has caused him to bite on too many play-action fakes, Clark's contract expires at the end of the season. Will the Steelers offer the free safety an inexpensive contract because of his experience? It's unlikely, unless he makes a stronger case for himself in these next three games.

* Troy Polamalu -- He's running much better forward than backward these days, which makes his move to inside linebacker in the "quarters" defense more palatable. But can he still get back and cover? This Pittsburgh icon is due $8.25 million in the final year of his contract next season.

* Ike Taylor -- Under seige from fans all season, Taylor wasn't asked to cover the No. 1 receiver last week, which softened expectations, and he performed well. Can he still help as the No. 2 cornerback? And how much of his $7 million salary next season (final year of contract) should be shaved?

* LaMarr Woodley -- The aforementioned three defensive backs will all be at least 33 years old at the start of next season. Woodley, who was off to a strong start this season, just turned 29 in November but has missed 12 games (27 percent) the last three seasons with various leg injuries. He has three years left on his contract, and the Steelers would lose $580,000 against the cap (but gain $8 million in real money) if they were to cut him before June 1.

* Jason Worilds -- Since rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones will man one OLB position next season, Worilds, whose contract will expire in March, is the only threat to Woodley's job. Will he continue to play well this season and draw a big offer from the team before he hits free agency? Worilds not only leads the team with seven sacks but he's greatly improved his run defense.

* Ziggy Hood -- Another free agent in March, Hood won't have near the leverage Worilds will have, but the Steelers may need Hood because the contracts of 34-year-old Brett Keisel and reserve DE Al Woods will also expire. Hood could play himself into an inexpensive offer should he fare well enough during Keisel's recovery.

* Vince Williams -- The sixth-round rookie was thrust into the complex playcalling role at buck linebacker soon after the opening-day injury to Larry Foote. An impressive, intelligent young player off the field, Williams has improved on it weekly. But the Steelers must decide in these final three games if he's worth consideration as the future at the position.

* Ben Roethlisberger -- At the end of the season he'll have two years left on his contract, and that's the right time to extend a quarterback's contract. Will he continue his exceptional play of the last four games? It's not only that. Off the field Roethlisberger has provided leadership that both the coaching staff and his teammates have needed.

This is thse time they all can show their mettle. It's really all these Steelers have left.

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