As roster cutdowns and the beginning of the regular season loom, Steeler Nation holds its collective breath: whom among the new young talent will make the roster, who will get cut, and, more importantly, how much might we come to regret any roster moves?
At this point, rampant speculation runs wild from grizzled news vets to devoted sports bloggers and even fans on Steelers forums. "Redman is a lock for a RB spot." Or is it "Redman is destined for the practice squad?"
All the rookies and some of the second- and third-year players are the subject of similar rumors. Will rookie TE Johnson unseat McHugh for the third TE spot? Will Logan make the team as a return man, and will he take a WR or RB spot if he does? Practically everyone on the team, from Mike Wallace to Willie Colon, has a shot at being the No. 3 wide receiver. If you believe everything you read on the Internet, that position battle is so wide open.
But more importantly, there are subtle messages leaking out from the Steeler organization that hint at what the real roster situation is shaping up to look like. And that leads me to ask: What are the coaches really seeing that fans aren't?
Primarily, my head is spinning around the running back situation. Obviously, Willie Parker isn't going anywhere. He's earned the No. 1 spot, and the fact that he's playing for a new contract means he's likely to play harder than ever and have a great year, barring injuries.
Whether he'll be back next year probably has a lot to do with how Mendenhall looks. Mewelde Moore is still serviceable as a situational third-down back as either a runner or receiver out of the backfield. Cary Davis is a veteran who, although he wasn't exceptional last year, certainly wasn't bad either. After that the depth chart gets downright murky for me, between Summers, Redman, Vincent and Logan.
For one thing, RB Rashard Mendenhall has been downright terrible so far in the preseason. Granted, we haven't seen a lot of the running game in the first two preseason games, but that in itself is somewhat worrisome. I'm not rushing to throw the baby out with the bathwater and call Mendenhall a bust, but to me, his lackluster showing thus far means you have to start asking the hard questions about the depth chart for the long term—is he really the future franchise back?
Carey Davis returns as a part-time fullback/part-time tailback, proving he's never going to be a feature back in this league. Fifth-rounder Frank "The Tank" Summers is currently plagued with an injury that kept him out of the Washington game, as well as rumors that he runs too vertically and doesn't use his size and power well to hit the hole and move the pile.
Justin Vincent seems to be the only running back I've noticed handling the ball with any regularity during the preseason games, yet the absolute lack of any news about him out of camp leads me to believe that he's not surviving the cut. Stefan Logan was superb in Washington running back kicks, and just might take a RB spot while only featuring on special teams, but probably will never see an offensive down on the field in any capacity. And then there's camp phenom Isaac Redman.
The name that stands out most for me is Carey Davis. He appears to be all but a lock at this point, leaving many fans wondering why, considering all the praise that's been heaped upon the undrafted Isaac Redman. Redman put up three TDs on the first-team defense in goal-line drills (need I remind anyone how awful the Steelers were in that situation last year?) in one practice. Yet he's not seen significant touches in live play. Carey Davis seems to be coasting entirely on his veteran status, but is that really enough?
The hope for me is that this seeming neglect of the running game so far in the preseason is purposefully deliberate on the part of the coaches, though for the life of me, I can't guess why they'd choose to focus on such unbalanced playcalling in favor of the passing game. It's nice to get Dennis Dixon some reps, but the downside of that was evidenced by the shoulder injury Dixon suffered late in the game against the Redskins.
On the other hand, Tomlin's message was pretty clear—they didn't do any game-planning for the first two games, and the objective was more about taking a look at the young talent than winning meaningless games. If that's the case, though, why not take a longer look at the running game, especially with the fairly deep pool of talent at the position, and some hard choices to make in the very near future?
I can only conclude that the coaches are seeing things that the fans are not. Granted, most fans weren't there for all of training camp, and aren't there at the closed practices. I base my own opinions on what I've seen in the first two games and what I've read second-hand out of camp. It just strikes me as odd that if you read between the lines, some of the highly-praised guys seem to be the ones on the verge of being cut in favor of guys that haven't done much to impress, at least in the news.
For instance, going back to Redman, based on everything from comments from Tomlin to journalists covering training camp to reports from fans who've been at camp, he has been doing all the right things—getting the tough yards in short-yardage situations, catching the ball out of the backfield, blocking...
But I can't shake the growing feeling that he'll be relegated to the practice squad, or worse, lost to another team.
The only justification I seem to find is that, for some reason (and all apologies to Carey Davis, nothing personal against him), we can't do without the services of Carey Davis. I can only wonder what it is that Carey Davis is showing coaches that we fans don't see, that makes him so indispensable, given that there hasn't been a scrap of news out of camp this summer that Davis has been setting the practice fields on fire with his running prowess.
I think back in horror at the thought that, had the staff had the same mindset in the approach to Willie Parker, where would we be now? What if Cowher had said that Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley, Amos Zeroue, Verron Haynes and Dan Kreider were the five running backs for the roster, and put the unknown, undrafted Willie Parker on waivers (or never picked him up in the first place)?
Then again, I have to wonder if I'm not overreacting based on a few weeks of half-speed practices and two meaningless preseason games—a very real possibility. I can only hope that we get to see some more of the Steeler running game against the Bills, and in the process, see a real pecking order established among the running backs.
In the end, you wish first for your team to make the best decisions for the team, then you genuinely want to see those good guys who fall victim to the necessary evil of the roster cuts go on to make it somewhere else (though not be so great that you'll live to regret letting a future Hall of Famer get away). When it comes down to it, I'd hope that whoever makes the roster is the best guy for the job all around. I also hope that the decision is based on actual demonstration of ability.