After a 13-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday (which this author was present at and admittedly disappointed by), the Pittsburgh Steelers will be absent from the NFL playoffs for the first time since 2009 and for just the second time under head coach Mike Tomlin (head coach for six years).
With a record that stands at 7-8, the game this week against the rival Cleveland Browns would seem to have little meaning outside a show of pride. But it could, in fact, be interesting for a number of reasons.
The main reason Steelers fans should be watching Sunday's season finale at Heinz Field is because of the new and young players they'll get a chance to see. Wednesday, the team placed three players on injured reserve, including tight end Heath Miller, who will be undergoing surgery to repair tears to both his ACL and MCL.
Miller's injury, although frightening and sad to see, opens to the door for rookie David Paulson to see his first real action of the season.
Paulson was selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2012 draft (240th overall) out of the University of Oregon. With the Ducks, Paulson caught 67 passes for 1041 yards and 10 touchdowns in a three-year span.
The 6'3", 245-lb tight end has appeared in all 15 games for the Steelers this season and has picked up four starts, according to ProFootballReference.com. But Paulson has never really seen the extensive game time for the Steelers to get a good look at him. He's caught seven passes for 51 yards in his rookie season.
Paulson's development is important to the Steelers.
As of right now, there's no timetable for the return of unsung hero Heath Miller. The rookie has done enough to show the coaches that he belongs on the field, but they'll get their first real look at the young man on Sunday.
Another group of guys who will be getting some much-needed experience on Sunday afternoon is a slew of inexperienced cornerbacks the Steelers have used this season. That group includes Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian.
To say Allen has done an good job with the time he's had on the field would be the understatement of understatements. Allen has done a beautiful job in the slot all season and got his first start of his career in last week's game.
He didn't disappoint.
Allen intercepted two passes and did everything he needed to, including recording seven tackles, in helping to hold Andy Dalton to a QBR of just 38.3.
Curtis Brown and Josh Victorian have had different stories to their seasons, however.
Brown, who was taken a round ahead of Allen in the 2011 draft, sure hasn't played like he was drafted ahead of Allen. In two seasons in Pittsburgh, Brown has recorded just 13 total tackles and was benched earlier this year in favor of Josh Victorian when both Allen and Ike Taylor were injured. Brown is currently listed as questionable for Sunday's game after suffering an Achilles strain against the Bengals.
Victorian is a young player and he showed his inexperience in the game against the Dallas Cowboys.
Quarterback Tony Romo targeted the rookie early and often, leading to Miles Austin's big first half. Although he settled in later, Victorian still has to get better if he wants to remain on the team.
With Ike Taylor officially headed to IR and Keenan Lewis becoming a free agent at the end of the season, this is the perfect time for the Steelers to find out what it is they truly have behind their two starters on the outside of the defense. I've got little doubt that Cortez Allen is developing into a serious player in this league, but the jury's still out on Brown and Victorian.
Finally, and most likely needless to say, the Steelers will most certainly look at some young offensive linemen on Sunday against Cleveland. Rookie seventh-rounder Kelvin Beachum has started four games at right tackle after both Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams went down earlier this season. He'll more than likely draw the start at either guard or tackle on Sunday, considering both Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro are ailing.
Outside of the embarrassment of being swept by the Browns and avoiding the team's first losing season since 2003, Sunday's game doesn't appear to have a whole lot of meaning to it. But if you look at any NFL game, you can find meaning.
These young players performances on Sunday have implications that could affect the way the team attacks the re-signing period, free agency and the NFL draft. Keep one eye on the young talent that Pittsburgh will have on the field against Cleveland and hope for a bright future.
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