Grading the Pittsburgh Steelers' Final 53-Man Roster
While there were no earth-shattering moves, it was mildly surprising that veterans Chris Carter and Guy Whimper did not make the cut. This leaves the Steelers thin and inexperienced at two important positions.
Inexperience will be a theme for Pittsburgh this year as six of the nine draft choices made the team. Fifth-round choice Shaquille Richardson and seventh-round choice Rob Blanchflower were released and signed to the practice squad, while Jordan Zumwalt was placed on the reserve/injured list, per Steelers.com.
Besides the specific players kept and released, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made some interesting decisions when it came to personnel groupings. They decided to keep six wide receivers and 11 defensive backs, making these two of the deepest areas of the roster. By comparison, they will only carry four running backs and three tight ends.
Although the roster is far from “final,” the Steelers have a roster that they believe is ready to compete Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns. Here is an evaluation of what Colbert and Tomlin have assembled for the start of the season.
Starter: Ben Roethlisberger
Depth: Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones
Ben Roethlisberger picked up right from where he left off last season and looked very comfortable running the no-huddle offense. His performance should only improve, as the new additions to the offense get comfortable in Todd Haley’s system.
Behind Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski provides the Steelers with a competent backup.
Gradkowski will not take command of the no-huddle offense, but instead he will help the Steelers with his mobility and gusty playing style. They will need him to utilize his legs to make plays because of his accuracy issues. Gradkowski is only a career 52.9 percent passer.
Despite having one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a viable backup, much of the focus this preseason was on third-string quarterback Landry Jones.
Jones had a poor preseason, completing 27 of 44 passes for 224 yards and an abysmal 5.1 yards per attempt. He had no touchdown passes, one interception, was sacked six times and completed only 15.9 percent of his passes for first downs.
Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (subscription required) reported that the Steelers would keep Jones because “they fear losing him.”
Although this position could be upgraded, it is not enough to downgrade the overall quarterback grade for the Steelers. Roethlisberger remains at the top of his game and would get an “A+” grade if assessed by himself. Since that is not the case, Gradkowski’s ability to keep the Steelers in contention for a win if called upon only slightly lowers the overall grade for the position.
Starter: Le’Veon Bell
Depth: LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer, Will Johnson (fullback)
Despite only having two true running backs on the roster, the Steelers are loaded with talent at the position. Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount form a talented one-two punch, while Dri Archer adds an element of speed and versatility.
Bell is a well-rounded running back who came into training camp in incredible shape. With added speed and no lost power, he is poised to be even better as dual-threat back in his second season. His ability as a receiver will fit in well with Pittsburgh’s passing attack, but he will need to improve his production on the ground. He only averaged 3.3 yards per carry on 18 attempts this preseason.
Blount is at his best when he gets at least 10 carries, but as the backup, his action will be limited. Rather than carry the load, he will get plenty of attempts in short-yardage situations and at the goal line. He could also easily step in as the starter if Bell misses any time to injury.
One of the X-factors on offense will be Archer. His role as a pure runner will be limited and, instead, will be used in reverses and for passes out of the backfield and in the slot. He was very impressive when given space during the preseason and finished with eight receptions for 108 yards—including two receptions for 40 yards or more.
Johnson rounds out the backfield as a fullback, though he may see more time at tight end. He has solid hands and good speed, but is limited as a runner. However, he did get a chance to carry the ball once and picked up six yards.
The Steelers will be in trouble if there is an injury due to the lack of depth, but there are few positions on the team that can match the talent that they have at running back.
Starters: Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton
Depth: Lance Moore, Justin Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Martavis Bryant
The Steelers have a talented, but inexperienced wide receiver corps that has the potential to do great things this year if the unit develops as anticipated.
Antonio Brown is a superstar and once again looked the part during the preseason with seven receptions—with six going for first downs—for 173 yards and a 76-yard touchdown. He should once again be on track for a 100-plus reception year.
The Steelers will need a big year from Markus Wheaton as he replaces Emmanuel Sanders in the starting lineup. He has good deep speed, but he has been inconsistent so far in his second year. That has not stopped Roethlisberger from heaping praise on his young target, via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
“He’s a young guy people don’t know about yet. He hasn’t earned that respect, which is probably rightfully so, because he hasn’t done much. But I’m excited for him because I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Lance Moore will handle the slot duties, while Darrius Heyward-Bey will provide another big-play threat after earning a spot on the roster with a strong preseason.
Rounding out the receiving corps are Justin Brown and Martavis Bryant.
Brown had a stellar camp but was unable to produce in the preseason. However, he provides a big body that can work out of the slot and step in if there is an injury. Meanwhile, Bryant is raw and needs time to develop before he can be counted on. When he is on the field, he is a dangerous deep threat, consistently running past defensive backs in camp.
As talented as this group is, it must prove itself to earn the full trust of its quarterback and coaching staff.
Starter: Heath Miller
Depth: Matt Spaeth, Michael Palmer
Outside of Miller, the Steelers do not have much talent at the tight end position.
Miller is on the back end of his career, but he still offers plenty as a receiver and a blocker. He is now over a year removed from his return to the field after returning from an ACL injury and is in position to establish himself as one of Roethlisberger’s top options—especially in the red zone.
Veteran Matt Spaeth will take on the blocking duties as the second tight end. They can occasionally take advantage of his 6’7” frame on passing plays.
Michael Palmer beat out David Paulson for the final roster spot because he is a capable blocker and has the ability to play on special teams.
Starters: Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Marcus Gilbert
Depth: Mike Adams, Cody Wallace, Wesley Johnson, Chris Hubbard
Mike Munchak is a great offensive line coach, but you cannot expect instant results from a group that has a history of struggling.
The play of the offensive line will have a huge impact on the offense's overall performance. Expect Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro to lead the way from the interior. These two are extremely mobile and need to play to their potential.
Ramon Foster has always been a dependable presence on the line, and the Steelers will hope that tackles Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert can match this consistency. Roethlisberger getting rid of the ball quickly should only help the tackles in pass protection.
An area of concern is the run blocking. The Steelers ranked 32nd in the league with 269 yards in the preseason and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry.
Though the starting five appear to be in good shape, the depth along the line is worrisome and downgrades the unit as a whole. Mike Adams is the most talented backup and will be the top backup at both tackle positions.
Cody Wallace will be the backup at center and guard, though Chris Hubbard or Wesley Johnson could step in on the interior as well. However, it would be best if the two young linemen had an additional year of development before seeing a significant amount of playing time.
Starters: Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon, Stephon Tuitt
Depth: Brett Keisel, Cam Thomas, Daniel McCullers
Once a strength of the defense, the defensive line has struggled as of late. Those struggles have continued this preseason as the Steelers have allowed 603 yards on the ground, good enough for third-worst in the entire league.
Cameron Heyward had a disappointing preseason after he was one of the best defenders last season. That is a concern given all of the new faces on the defensive line.
Rookie Stephon Tuitt is currently listed as the starter at right defensive end on the Steelers’ depth chart, but he may not be in the starting lineup come time for the opener. That job may go to free-agent signee Cam Thomas or longtime starter Brett Keisel.
Ideally, Tuitt lives up to his potential early and takes command of the starting job so Thomas can be used as a backup at defensive end and nose tackle, and Keisel can play limited snaps as a rotational defensive end.
Nose tackle is a position of weakness for the Steelers as Steve McLendon cannot play the role of a traditional plugger in the 3-4 defense. He has the ability to penetrate the line when rushing the quarterback, but this hurts the defense when defending against the run.
Many will want to see the massive Daniel McCullers take his place, but he has a lot of technique that he has to work on before getting a significant number of snaps.
Starters: Jason Worilds, Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons, Jarvis Jones
Depth: Arthur Moats, Sean Spence, Vince Williams, Terence Garvin
There is a ton of untapped potential at linebacker, but until they can prove their worth on the field, this is an area of concern.
Lawrence Timmons is the veteran leader of the group and is easily the most productive player. His experience will be important as he helps guide the development of Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones.
Maybe no player is more important than Jones, who was drafted in 2013 to develop into a top pass-rusher and playmaker from right outside linebacker. He has made some plays during the preseason, but has not demonstrated that he can be a dominant defender.
That is what Jason Worilds demonstrated last year for a half a season. Now he must show that not only can he produce for a full season, but also stay healthy for 16 games—he already left a preseason game with an injured knee.
Jason Worilds injured his right knee. He will not return. It happened on his sack of Mark Sanchez.
— Bob Labriola (@BobLabriola) August 22, 2014
Though the injury was not significant, he does have an injury history that is a concern, particularly with the lack of depth on the outside. Arthur Moats is the only pure backup at the position, with Terence Garvin serving as a backup at both inside and outside linebacker.
There may be a lack of depth on the outside, but the Steelers are loaded with talent on the inside. Besides Timmons, the Steelers have two quality backups in Vince Williams and Sean Spence and could have a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year in Shazier.
Shazier was the most dominating defensive player on the field in his debut and has a chance to explode onto the scene once he gets comfortable in the defense.
Starters: Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Mike Mitchell, Troy Polamalu
Depth: William Gay, Antwon Blake, Brice McCain, B.W. Webb, Will Allen, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden
Cornerbacks were a weakness entering the offseason and are still a weakness as the regular season approaches.
Ike Taylor has played better than he did during his low points last year, but he may struggle with the emphasis on illegal contact by defensive backs. He is a physical cornerback who likes to use his hands and needs to adjust if the officials continue to call the game tight.
Cortez Allen once had the look of not just a future No. 1 cornerback but also a playmaker at the position. Now he may not even be a part of the Steelers’ long-term plans as he has yet to receive a contract extension. He still hasn’t taken that “next step” that we have been waiting for over the past couple of years.
William Gay is probably the best cornerback playing out of the nickel and performed well there throughout the preseason. Behind him, the Steelers are relatively weak with Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and B.W. Webb.
The Steelers are in much better shape at safety with Troy Polamalu leading the way. Even though he is a year older, he has not lost a step and has been one of their best playmakers.
It was thought that Mike Mitchell would be an additional playmaker at safety, but he has done nothing but disappoint. After missing part of training camp with a groin injury, he has had a slow start, which has been plagued by missed tackles and dumb penalties.
Shamarko Thomas should push Mitchell for playing time if his poor play continues. He was stellar during the preseason and looked a lot like Polamalu as he flew all over the field to make plays.
Besides Thomas, Will Allen and Robert Golden provide quality depth at both safety positions.
Starters: Shaun Suisham, Brad Wing, Greg Warren
It was not a preseason to remember for the special teams unit.
Shaun Suisham converted only five of seven field-goal attempts and missed an extra point when the NFL was experimenting with the longer attempt equivalent of a 38-yard field goal. Given his recent track record, odds are that he bounces back to form and continues to be a dependable kicker.
Suisham was not the only player who struggled. Punter Brad Wing ranked 41st out of 46 punters this preseason with an average of 40.2 yards per punt. He was the only punter to take reps in training camp and the preseason, but he will be on a short leash unless his performance improves
The Steelers most dependable specialist during the preseason, Greg Warren, had a meniscus tear in his knee, but he made the final roster and will be ready for the start of the season.