By Matthew Marczi
As is often the case with most teams thanks to an assortment of injuries, the Pittsburgh Steelers currently have a plethora of young, inexperienced players on the roster that they don’t know much about. They are heading into their last opportunity of the regular season to show what they can do…the only problem is that the season finale with the Cleveland Browns is far from meaningless.
Can the Steelers afford their young talent some playing time today without jeopardizing their chances of actually winning the game? In some cases, they may not really have much of a choice.
With both wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and outside linebacker Jason Worilds listed as questionable to play, it’s likely that the depth will be utilized at these two positions even if they do play. Mike Tomlin has already said that Chris Carter and Stevenson Sylvester will both likely play some.
Meanwhile, Markus Wheaton, the team’s third-round rookie wide receiver, could be in for some increased playing time, although he further injured his hand that forced him to miss time earlier this season.
After five straight weeks—and six out of seven weeks—of playing just three or four snaps, Wheaton saw the field 29 times last week against the Green Bay Packers, or 48.3 percent of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps. His 49 snaps against the Detroit Lions at 62 percent of the total offensive snaps is the only time Wheaton saw the field as frequently.
Wheaton has only been targeted 12 times, catching six for 64 yards, and has played a total of 153 snaps, so it would be good to get him some work in what will most likely be the last game of the season. Likewise with Derek Moye and his 42 total offensive snaps, who has two receptions on four targets and one touchdown, with one drop.
The Steelers already have three rookies in the starting lineup, those being obviously Le’Veon Bell at running back and both Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams at linebacker. The first two should see the majority of the snaps, while Williams is often taken off the field in the frequently used quarters package.
There are other young players that it would be nice to see take a few snaps though, such as the undrafted rookie defensive end Brian Arnfelt. He was promoted from the practice squad a couple weeks ago, but saw just two snaps against the Cincinnati Bengals and none against the Packers.
Realistically, either he or fellow young player needing snaps Hebron Fangupo will be a game day inactive, if not both. With Brett Keisel back and Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood, and Al Woods all more experienced and part of a solid rotation, the Steelers don’t need to dress six linemen, let alone seven.
Meanwhile, rookie safety Shamarko Thomas hasn’t seen a snap on defense since he was injured on his fourth play against the Buffalo Bills in Week 10. The Steelers drafted him in the fourth round with high hopes, having traded away their 2014 third round pick to select him, but he’s been replaced with veteran Will Allen for the past seven weeks, and that doesn’t seem likely to change in the season finale. Still, he’s played nearly 200 snaps as a rookie, which is nothing to sneeze at.
If the Steelers are able to jump out to an early lead and more or less put the game away early, perhaps some of these young players will get an opportunity to state their case for the future in a game situation, but barring that, don’t expect to see them on the field too often today.