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Some Steelers players see stretch run of season as opportunity

| Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2013, 8:30 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders beats the Browns' Buster Skrine for a third-quarter touchdown Sunday, Nov. 24, 2013, in Cleveland.

If Emmanuel Sanders wanted, he could just shut it down right now. And that likely would end his Steelers' career.

With two games left in the season, a nagging foot injury Sanders suffered a month ago would provide just cause for self-preservation and ensure a likely lucrative free agency payday.

For Sanders, that's not an option.

“I know if I finish the season healthy, a lot of people are going to come at me,” Sanders said. “You know, I can shut it down right now if I wanted to, but why? I am going to give it my all every time I step out there.”

While the Steelers still have a remote shot of qualifying for the playoffs if they win their final two games, starting Sunday at Green Bay, the final stretch will prove pivotal for a number of soon-to-be free agents.

For Sanders, linebacker Jason Worilds and former first-round pick Ziggy Hood, meaningless games against the Packers and Cleveland Browns aren't meaningless.

For them, the more they “put on tape,” the more valuable they become.

“That has always been my mentality, and that is always to go out there and put your best foot forward,” Worilds said. “You go out there and play to win, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Worilds is a prime example.

It was a slight possibility that Worilds would even make the roster coming out of camp with LaMarr Woodley and rookie first-round pick Jarvis Jones penciled in at starting outside linebackers.

Worilds was inserted into the lineup in Week 7 and has made the most of his opportunities. Worilds leads the team with seven sacks and quarterback hurries/pressures with 18.

He is in the final year of his contract and could force the Steelers to make a difficult decision of choosing between himself and oft-injured Woodley, who signed a $61.5 million deal in 2011.

Whatever the choice, Worilds will get a hefty pay raise in March.

“I've been on a roller-coaster ride,” Worilds said. “Me personally, I can't believe things until I see it. It's good to hear about it, but I will believe it when I see it.”

Hood also finds himself in a unique situation. He was benched midway through the season but has started three of the past four games because of Brett Keisel's foot injury and has played well.

He set a career high in tackles with six against Baltimore and sacked Cincinnati's Andy Dalton last week — the first sack of Dalton in four games.

“I kept pushing and kept doing what I was doing,” Hood said. “I am the same person now that I was then. I kept on working and kept focus, and when my opportunity came, I was there to be able to step up. I am giving it everything I have got.”

Hood isn't sure if he will return next year.

“That's not up to me,” Hood said. “That's up to the front office, and we will see what happens.”

For Sanders, it is up to him.

New England signed Sanders, a restricted free agent last year, to a $2.5 million offer sheet. The Steelers matched the offer and retained Sanders, but it was surely a precursor of the interest he will garner this offseason.

“That will come,” Sanders said. “Once the season is over, I will sit down with my agent and sort things out. I believe in my talents, and I believe that I have Pro Bowl-caliber talent. I expect a lot to happen this offseason, but at the end of the day, I still want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib

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