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Host of Steelers veterans look toward career survival mode

| Monday, Dec. 9, 2013, 10:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Dolphins running back Daniel Thomas carries for 55 yards past Steelers safety Ryan Clark during the fourth quarter Sunday. The 34-28 loss shows that it may be time to part ways with veteran defensive stalwarts such as Clark.

There is much for these Pittsburgh Steelers to play for in the final three weeks of a season that got away from them at the very start and was never recaptured.

The results might not necessarily show up in the standings. But rather on their pay stubs.

For some of the aging Steelers, the focus shifts from playoff survival to career survival.

“Obviously, we're all independent contractors,” safety Ryan Clark said. “So once you're out of the playoff picture, you know guys are still playing for their jobs, playing for their livelihood, their careers. It just means so much more to play for each other, to play for a team goal. It keeps you up in the locker room, it keeps you together.

One thing seems certain about a 5-8 team that is one loss away from the Steelers' first losing season in 10 years: These Steelers won't be together much longer.

History shows that. After the Steelers went 6-10 during a 2003 season that was much like this one — offensive line injuries, questions about the playing-calling, defensive secondary breakdowns — they underwent an extensive overhaul in 2004.

Both coordinators changed. Six starters on defense changed. Troy Polamalu and Larry Foote were among those who moved into the lineup. The quarterback changed. And the record changed — to 15-1.

Such a turnaround might seem improbable for a team that started 0-4 this season and is 7-13 since the middle of last season, but here are a half-dozen players who have much to play for the rest of December:

• Troy Polamalu. If the Steelers had a better record, he might be talked about as the comeback player of the year. He's among the NFL's highest-ranked safeties. And while he has a huge salary cap hit ($10.9 million) in 2014, there is no dead money against his deal, so the Steelers could let him go and clear an estimated $8,250,000 worth of cap space. The question is whether they risk going into 2014 with two new safeties because ...

• Clark will be 35 next year and his performance has slipped appreciably. He is ranked No. 52 among safeties by Pro Football Focus, down from No. 9 last season. The Steelers didn't trade a draft pick to choose Shamarko Thomas, then sit him.

• Ike Taylor. The Steelers made a big deal about going younger in the quarterbacks' room this season. Next season it could be in the secondary's room. However, the Steelers recently reworked Taylor's contract, meaning he's more likely to return next year. They'd save approximately $7 million by letting him go, but they'd take a nearly $5 million hit for dead money.

• Cortez Allen. He'll be back next season, but as a starter? The Steelers expected him to be the next Keenan Lewis, a player who thrives after serving an apprenticeship. Instead, he's consistently lost coverage, and his job, to William Gay. Allen has allowed 130 yards in catches the last two weeks. “I've got to make more plays,” Allen said. “I've got to be better.”

•Jason Worilds. No Steelers player will be watched more closely the rest of the way — by opposing teams. He's likely made millions with his seven sacks and 17 QB hits over the last six games. But who will be paying? Possibly not the Steelers.

•Emmanuel Sanders. The next three weeks could set his market value. He's caught 17 of 23 passes thrown his way the last three games, but seems to make an important drop every game. And he ranks far below teammates Antonio Brown and Jerricho Cotchery in overall offensive efficiency. And Cotchery? Nine of his 41 catches are for touchdowns, and he's unsigned for 2014, too.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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