Panthers vs. Steelers: Pittsburgh's Biggest Winners & Losers from Week 4
The Pittsburgh Steelers have completed their preseason slate with a 17-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field. The final game is always the prelude to the final round of roster cuts. Several players tonight were jockeying for position. Some made quite an impression. Others did not.
Here’s a look at the final week of the preseason’s winners and losers.
Winner: Charlie Batch, QB
Batch’s value to the Steelers goes well beyond whatever numbers he puts up on the field. He has long been viewed as a coach in uniform and a valuable tutor for Ben Roethlisberger. That has likely kept him in Pittsburgh, his hometown, much longer than his play.
On Thursday night, his play was as good as his coaching. Batch solidified himself as a viable third quarterback. The question now will be whether or not the Steelers can afford to keep three quarterbacks on the active roster. If they cannot, I’m not sure how the team will approach Batch’s situation.
Loser: Terrence Frederick, CB
Tonight’s biggest loser had to have been the rookie seventh-round pick. Frederick was badly destroyed on a late, long touchdown pass from Jimmy Clausen. He simply had to push or pull the receiver out of bounds. Instead, he couldn’t get a hand on him.
Two wrongs never make a right and Frederick committed another bonehead mistake on his next play. On the two-point conversion attempt following the touchdown, Frederick immediately grabbed the receiver and practically threw him out of the play.
In a game that was as poorly officiated as could be, that call was simple. Frederick has all but booted himself off the roster the last few weeks. This game was another disappointment.
Winner: Casey Hampton, NT
Just getting back on the field less than 10 months removed from ACL surgery is quite the accomplishment. Consider that Hampton is also in his mid-30s and is a very heavy player and it’s miraculous that he made such a fast return.
Hampton went into a game that was very light on starters and made a nice tackle in the first quarter before leaving. Seeing him on the field was great, but seeing him in excellent shape and looking healthy and ready to go was even more of a boost.
It remains to be seen how the Steve McLendon/Casey Hampton rotation will work out, but the Steelers seem to have three viable players at the position (including Alameda Ta’amu) and two starters. They have to feel pretty good about the depth.
Loser: Sean Spence, ILB
Injuries are part of football. Any coach or player will tell you that. But seeing a rising rookie go down for what may be a season-ending injury is a real shame for the player, the team and the fans.
Spence wasn’t having his best game on this night, but he had made some good plays and was getting a lot of valuable time on the field subbing in at inside linebacker for most of the game.
Everything turned for the worst in the second half when Spence had to be carted off the field after injuring what looked like his knee. He came up grabbing at it and then stayed down. The Steelers have made no statement, but Spence’s season could be over.
Winner: Emmanuel Sanders, WR
In the absence of Mike Wallace, Sanders has been a very bright spot for this team. He has proven his health for the time being and also proven his ability as a starting wide receiver.
With Wallace’s return, Sanders will shift to the slot, a role which should be an excellent fit for him. He seems poised for a big season and potentially a nice payday at the end of it. With him, the Steelers truly have three starting wideouts and the most dynamic and dangerous corps of receivers in the NFL.
Sanders has enough talent to be a starter in the NFL. For now, he’ll be third on this team’s depth chart. He does provide peace of mind if the Steelers decide they cannot afford Mike Wallace once this season is over.
Loser: Damon Cromartie-Smith, S
When you are battling for a roster spot, the things you do define you. The things you do not do also define you. Sometimes, the play of others defines you too. All three played into Smith’s night.
Smith didn’t make any really notable plays either as a safety or on special teams. Meanwhile, Robert Golden, an undrafted rookie, has put together a nice campaign punctuated by some timely plays against Carolina.
Smith was someone I had placed on the roster ahead of Will Allen and Golden. At this point, I’d take Golden over either player because he has the potential to develop into a nice piece. Smith has been around awhile. That just hasn’t ever really worked out.
Winner: Will Johnson, FB
I’ve gone back and forth on the debate over keeping a true fullback on this roster. Todd Haley’s offense doesn’t necessarily require it, although it does seem to benefit the rejuvenated rushing attack.
Against the Panthers, Johnson sold me completely that this team needs him. He had been a great lead blocker all year and he can definitely play the upback role in short yardage. On Thursday night, he also proved he can provide some splash.
Johnson took a nice pass from Charlie Batch that ended up setting the Steelers up deep in Carolina territory. It was a nice play and not an easy catch. If Johnson can be a threat in the passing game occasionally, he is definitely a good choice. He has Dan Kreider written all over him.
Loser: Marquis Maze, WR
Maze had a nice catch late in the game, but I don’t think he did enough to make this roster. The work of David Gilreath and Derrick Williams will earn them the shot at being the fifth receiver. Maze just didn’t provide what people expected.
Coming into this preseason, the Steelers thought Maze would be a possibility in the return game and maybe even a big-play threat for the offense. Instead, he proved to be only serviceable at each spot while primarily facing other backups and rookies.
If you can’t shine against backups and rookies, you can’t shine against the big boys. Maze will have to try to catch on somewhere else or possibly take a spot on the Pittsburgh practice squad if the team thinks they can still develop him.
Winner: Jonathan Dwyer, RB
I got the distinct impression during this game that the Steelers believe Jonathan Dwyer can be a major part of the offense if needed. Against the Panthers, he looked like the player the Steelers expected when he was drafted.
I feel completely confident in this rushing attack with or without Rashard Mendenhall involved. Isaac Redman, who didn’t play against the Panthers, has looked strong. Baron Batch has been effective and should be part of the third-down plans. Chris Rainey has been a screen-pass demon.
Then there’s Dwyer, who seems good enough to start, but is stuck behind Redman for now. He’ll get some carries. I would be surprised if this doesn’t become a running back by committee very quickly. Everyone can be kept fresh.
Loser: Rashard Mendenhall, RB
I’m not saying it will happen or that it should happen. Please understand that. But the Steelers could cut Mendenhall right now and not miss a beat. That’s not because Mendenhall isn’t a good back or because he isn’t recovered from his ACL injury.
It is because the Steelers have found out this preseason that they probably have too many running backs that can contribute in the NFL. Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer can start. Baron Batch is also useful. Chris Rainey is also good enough to be in the rotation.
Mendenhall hasn’t played this preseason and the Steelers have run the ball better than they have in the past two years. Some of that might be the level of competition with backups subbing in for large parts of games, but the reality is that Mendenhall is now under a lot of pressure.
If he comes back and struggles, he’s not only hurting his chances of a good deal at the end of the year, he’s also jeopardizing any interest the Steelers have in bringing him back. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprise if he’s not even tendered an offer here.