Start, Keep, Cut for Every Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Position
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Fixing that offense will involve a lot of personnel decisions. NFL teams must reduce their roster to 75 players by Aug. 27, according to Pro Football Talk, and 53 by Aug. 31.
The Steelers will evaluate each player on the roster and either start, keep or cut him. When it's all sorted out, this is what the offensive side of the Steelers roster will look like.
Start: Ben Roethlisberger
Roethlisberger starts as long as he gets through the preseason in one piece.
Keep: Bruce Gradkowski
Gradkowski is 6-14 in his career as a starter, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Unless Roethlisberger can play 16 games for the first time since 2008, the Steelers will need him to improve that record in 2013.
Keep: Landry Jones
Jones hasn't performed well in camp, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and he made the blooper reel in his first play in a Steelers uniform. He tried to hand the ball off to Baron Batch, but bumped into him and fumbled in the end zone before falling on it for a safety in the preseason opener against the New York Giants. Jones did complete five of nine passes, and the Steelers will be patient with him after spending a fourth-round draft pick on him. They only need him to be their No. 3 quarterback early in his career.
Cut: John Parker Wilson
Wilson completed four of five passes in Saturday's preseason opener, but barring an injury, he's not making the roster. He was with the Atlanta Falcons from 2009 to 2011, spending most of that time on the practice squad. Wilson was on the Jacksonville Jaguars' active roster for "a couple of days" last season, according to Pro Football Talk. He's never played in a regular-season game, and he'll turn 28 in October.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Start: Le'Veon Bell
Even though he's just a rookie, Bell already is getting the star treatment in terms of injury precaution.
He earned the start in the Steelers' preseason opener because of his impressive training camp, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. However, he was kept out of the game because of a sore knee.
Bell returned to practice this week but re-injured the knee Thursday, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required). He needed to be evaluated, but the vibe around camp suggested that the injury wasn't serious.
The Steelers drafted Bell in the second round after he led the Big Ten with 1,793 rushing yards in 2012. He's expected to revive a running game that ranked 26th in the NFL last season with 96.1 yards per game.
Keep: Isaac Redman
Redman is firmly entrenched as the Steelers' short-yardage back. He's also shown he can put up big numbers in spots, running for a career-high 147 yards in a win over the Giants last season and 121 yards in the Steelers' 2011 playoff loss in Denver.
Keep: Jonathan Dwyer
After dealing with weight problems in the spring, Dwyer has worked his way into shape.
He told Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he's lost "25-30 pounds" and that "Some people have given me double-takes because they don't know who I was."
The Steelers' leading rusher last season (with 623 yards) didn't exactly fill up the stat sheet Saturday night. He gained just 15 yards on six carries, but he did have an 11-yard gain.
If he stays in shape he could give Bell a breather every now and then.
Keep: LaRod Stephens-Howling
Stephens-Howling took advantage of Bell's absence and led the Steelers with 40 yards on seven carries against the Giants.
The Steelers signed the former University of Pittsburgh running back as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals. The 5'7", 185-pounder has the speed and pass-catching ability to be a third-down back. He's also a candidate to return kickoffs.
Keep: Will Johnson
Johnson is back for a second year as the Steelers' fullback.
The 6'2", 238-pounder caught two passes for 18 yards in the preseason opener. Last season, Johnson complemented his blocking duties by hauling in 15 passes for 137 yards and a touchdown. Expect those numbers to rise this season, especially if Heath Miller misses the first few games.
Batch gained just four yards on five carries in the Steelers' preseason opener against the Giants. He averaged less than two yards a carry last season with 49 yards on 25 attempts.
For Batch to make the team, he'll have to knock the socks off of Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith. He'll have to compete with wide receivers, linebackers and defensive backs who also are trying to earn a roster spot with their special teams play.
Alexander gained nine yards on four carries against the Giants. There's no room on the roster for him.
Start: Mike Adams
More specifically, start Mike Adams at left tackle.
Adams entered training camp as the right tackle with Marcus Gilbert at left tackle, but the Steelers swapped them, and that's the way it should stay.
He still has a lot to learn, but Adams is the Steelers' best option for protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side. Adams played into the second quarter in Saturday's preseason opener and only had one noticeably bad play. Steelers quarterbacks were sacked just once with Adams on the field, and that sack wasn't on him.
Start: Ramon Foster
Foster was responsible for the one sack Roethlisberger took against the Giants, but the left guard also was the lead blocker for Jonathan Dwyer's 11-yard gain, according to Steel City Insider (subscription required).
Foster started all 16 games for the Steelers last year and gave up just two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus via ESPN.com.
Start: Maurkice Pouncey
Pouncey has had nothing but Pro Bowl seasons in his three-year career. He'll start at center.
Start: David DeCastro
Because of a preseason injury, DeCastro only played in the final four games of his rookie season. That might have been enough to work out the growing pains. DeCastro looked mean enough as a fresh-faced rookie. The right guard looks even meaner this year, and he helped open holes for Steelers running backs to gain 61 yards on 13 carries (4.7 yards per carry) in the preseason opener.
Start: Marcus Gilbert
Gilbert played the same number of snaps as DeCastro and also deserves his share of credit for the Steelers' ability to run the ball in the first half against the Giants. He and DeCastro can form a powerful run-blocking tandem on the right side of the offensive line.
Keep: Kelvin Beachum
Beachum played right tackle in the preseason opener, and according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the Steelers are grooming Beachum to be a backup at every position. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette says he'll see action at center in the Steelers' second preseason game Monday night at Washington.
Keep: Guy Whimper
The Steelers signed Whimper after the Jacksonville Jaguars released him during the offseason. The 30-year-old Whimper ranked 72nd among all tackles last season in pass-blocking efficiency, according to Pro Football Focus via CBSSports.com. Nonetheless, the Steelers need a backup left tackle and Max Starks isn't around to rescue them, as he's now a Charger.
Keep: John Malecki
The third-year man who played his college ball at Pittsburgh fills the void left by Doug Legursky as the Steelers' backup center. However, guard is his natural position.
Cut: Joe Long
The brother of four-time Pro Bowler Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins was on the Steelers' practice squad for the last five weeks of the 2012 season, and he'll be there again this season. The Steelers don't have nine offensive linemen worthy of the 53-man roster, so they'll keep eight and stash an extra body at another position.
Cut: Justin Cheadle
Cut: Chris Hubbard
The undrafted free agent guard got away with a hold on Bruce Gradkowski's 9-yard run in the second quarter against the Giants.
Cut: Mike Golic
The son of the former Oilers, Eagles and Dolphins defensive lineman struggled at tackle in the spring but improved when the Steelers moved him to guard in training camp, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The undrafted rookie is a candidate for the practice squad.
Cut: D'Anthony Batiste
The Steelers signed Batiste earlier this month when undrafted rookie Nik Embernate went down with a knee injury, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Embernate, who's on injured reserve, would have made the team. The 31-year-old Batiste won't.
Cut: Joe Madsen
There's no room for this undrafted rookie center from West Virginia, with Malecki and Beachum in line to back up Pouncey.
Cut: Mike Farrell
The undrafted rookie tackle from Penn State hasn't made much of an impression.
Start: Antonio Brown
With Mike Wallace gone, Brown is the Steelers' top receiver. After taking a small step back last season, he'll need to regain the form that made him team MVP in 2011.
Start: Emmanuel Sanders
Sanders caught three passes for 27 yards on a field-goal drive in the first quarter of the Steelers' preseason opener against the New York Giants. He caught 44 passes for 626 yards last season, both career highs. It's a contract year, so look for big things from Sanders this season.
Keep: Markus Wheaton
The third-round draft pick got off to a decent start in the preseason opener. He caught an 8-yard pass over the middle on fourth-and-2 and gained 10 yards on a reverse. He also made a couple of rookie mistakes, committing a false-start penalty and injuring teammate Stevenson Sylvester while throwing his body around on punt coverage. Wheaton will work his way into the No. 3 receiver spot.
Keep: Jerricho Cotchery
The 31-year-old Cotchery caught 41 passes in 2010, his last year with the Jets. He's caught 33 passes in his two years with the Steelers. Without Heath Miller to throw to, Ben Roethlisberger might look Cotchery's way more often early in the season.
Keep: Justin Brown
The Steelers used a sixth-round draft pick on Brown, so he'll get every chance to make this team. He was the Steelers' leading receiver with four catches for 32 yards in his preseason debut. Brown was 12th in the nation last year with a 13.6-yard punt-return average, according to PennLive.com. If he makes any kind of impression as a punt returner, he'll have a roster spot locked up. At 6'3", he'd also provide Roethlisberger with the tall receiver he's always wanted.
Keep: Reggie Dunn
Dunn returned four kickoffs 100 yards last year at Utah and ran a 4.25 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, according to CBSSports.com. The undrafted rookie fielded two touchbacks and didn't get a chance to show his stuff in the preseason opener. When the weather cools and kicks don't sail as much, he'll be more dangerous. The Steelers will keep six receivers to make room for Dunn as a kick-return specialist.
Cut: J.D. Woods
The Steelers won't have a spot for Woods on their 53-man roster, but if no other team picks him up, they'll stash him on the practice squad. Woods showed how badly he wants to make the team by returning a kickoff from nine yards deep in the end zone for 27 yards. He also hung onto the ball for a 12-yard reception after getting flipped 360 degrees by Giants defensive back Laron Scott. Top top it off, he kept his feet inbounds like a veteran for a 9-yard catch. Woods might not survive cut-down day, but he'll make his mark in the league.
Cut: Kashif Moore
Moore returned a kickoff 30 yards and caught a pass for four yards against the Giants, but the Steelers have enough 5'10" receivers.
Cut: David Gilreath
Gilreath muffed a punt in the preseason opener. He needs to make up for that and then some.
Cut: Derek Moye
Like Brown, Moye played at Penn State. Unfortunately for the 6'5" Moye, Brown satisfies Roethlisberger's height requirement at wide receiver.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport
Start: Heath Miller
Miller will start as soon as he's healthy. The problem is, no one knows when that will be. Miller tore multiple ligaments in his knee last December and remains on the physically unable to perform list. If he's still on the PUP list when the regular season begins, he wouldn't occupy a spot on the 53-man roster, but he'd be required to sit out the first six weeks of the regular season, according to SportsMedia101.com.
If Miller comes off the PUP list, he'd count on the 53-man roster.
The Steelers likely will try to get their team MVP and leading pass catcher back before Week 6. He'll enter the season on the 53-man roster, even if he's not ready to go in Week 1.
Start: David Paulson
Until Miller returns, Paulson will be the go-to tight end. A seventh-round draft pick in 2012, Paulson has had a strong training camp as a pass-catching tight end according Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider. He caught a pass for 13 yards in the preseason opener and was active as a blocker.
Keep: Matt Spaeth
The Steelers brought back Spaeth for a second tour of duty to hold down the tight end fort until Miller returned. However, Spaeth suffered a foot injury in camp that will probably sideline him for eight to 10 weeks, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider told me on Black N Gold Central that the Steelers could put Spaeth on the modified injured reserve list. That would allow them to bring him back after eight weeks. The caveat, as Wexell pointed out on Steel City Insider (subscription required), is that they would have to put Spaeth on their original 53-man roster before putting him on IR. That means they'll have to cut someone and hope that another team doesn't pick him up before they bring him back.
Keep: David Johnson
Johnson, who missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, is also on the physically unable to perform list. However, he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that his goal is to play in a preseason game. If he can come off the PUP list, his three years of service will give him a leg up on the rest of the bodies the Steelers have brought in this summer to bolster their depleted tight end unit.
Cut: Jamie McCoy
McCoy had his cup of coffee with the Steelers when he was activated for the 2012 season finale against the Browns. If he plays in another NFL game, it likely will be in another uniform. McCoy has been on the Steelers' practice squad for three years and has used up his practice squad eligibility.
Cut: Peter Tuitupou
Tuitupou had a combined 14 receptions in 2011 and 2012 at San Jose State.
Cut: Michael Palmer
Palmer played in 43 games in three years with the Falcons, catching 21 passes. He's bounced around since the end of last season, going from the Falcons to the New York Giants to the Seattle Seahawks to the Steelers, according to Rotoworld.
Cut: Nathan Overbay