Stretch run for Steelers will help shape future

Injuries have taken a toll on a second consecutive season for the Steelers. They also have prompted some individual subplots that could have far-reaching effects.

The most significant is the emergence of linebacker Jason Worilds after a calf injury to LaMarr Woodley, but it does not end there. The loss of center Fernando Velasco to an Achilles injury, the continued foot problem that keeps out defensive end Brett Keisel and even an early minor injury to cornerback Cortez Allen could affect jobs and shape the roster for 2014.

Start with Worilds:

He had the best game of his career in Thursday night's 22-20 loss at Baltimore. He had 2 sacks, 10 tackles, 3 quarterback hurries and 1 forced fumble. He has five sacks in the past five games and leads the team with six, one more than Woodley.

Worilds has done some of his best work from the left side filling in for Woodley, who has missed the past three games with a calf injury. With rookie Jarvis Jones drafted in the first round to play the right side, Worilds is making his case for the Steelers to re-sign him or for him to go elsewhere to be a starter when he becomes an unrestricted free agent in March.

If the Steelers do go hard after Worilds, they almost surely would have to move Woodley one way or another. He will be 30 next year and is set to make $8 million in salary and count for $13.5 million against the salary cap.

Velasco's injury is devastating for him now and for landing a fat free-agent contract. It will hurt the Steelers' cause now but could help them next season. He was a godsend for them after three-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season with a knee injury on the opening series of the season against Tennessee.

Velasco also has a one-year contract with the Steelers and was working on finding his fortune as a free agent in March after playing so well. But now he is damaged goods and it's unlikely another team will throw good money at him, hoping he would recover quickly enough and return to form for 2014.

Velasco's best course of action could be to sign another one-year contract with the Steelers and serve as their top backup at center and guard for 2014, then try his luck as a free agent in 2015. He would be a luxury the Steelers did not have this season, a strong backup to the three inside line positions.

Keisel left Thursday's game because of his planter fasciitis foot injury that kept him out of the two previous games. Keisel turns 36 near the start of next season and his contract is up in March. This probably was going to be his final season anyway, but the foot injury may confirm that for the Steelers, who made no attempt to extend his contract this year.

If Keisel goes, who takes his place? Cameron Heyward would start, but would the Steelers try to re-sign Ziggy Hood, who also can become an unrestricted free agent in March? Would they go with Al Woods at defensive end or rookie Nick Williams, a seventh-round draft choice on injured reserve? Rookie Brian Arnfelt also has been on their practice squad all season.

Like Hood and Worilds, cornerback Keenan Lewis received no offer for an extension from the Steelers nor one before he became an unrestricted free agent in March, so he signed with New Orleans. The Steelers did not try to keep him because they thought Allen was more than an adequate replacement as their starting left cornerback.

Allen started the opener, missed the next two games with an injury, returned to start two more games and then lost his starting job to William Gay, who was re-signed to play in their substitution pass defenses.

They have deemed Gay the better cornerback and he is signed for the next two years. Allen has one more year to go on his rookie contract, a time when they often extend contracts for good, young players. But Allen finds himself in the same category as Lewis in 2011, playing in sub-packages. Coincidentally, Lewis that season also played behind Gay and moved up in 2012 to start after Gay signed with Arizona as a free agent (after receiving no offer from the Steelers).

So while the Steelers' playoff hopes have dimmed considerably, there remains intrigue in the final quarter of the season and beyond.

Ed Bouchette: and Twitter @EdBouchette.

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