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Insider Only GAME DAY: Breaking Down Tonight’s 20 Players to Watch

TONIGHT’S PLAYERS TO WATCH by POSITION

Quarterbacks

*Steelers carried 3 quarterbacks (Leftwich, Batch, Dixon) to open last season. Team had a roster exempt with Ben Roethlisberger suspended.
*Steelers expected to carry 3 quarterbacks this season.
What things stand: Ben Roethlisberger is the obvious starter and Byron Leftwich is entrenched as the No. 2 starter and there is no compettion for that spot. The No. 3 quarterback job will come down to Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch. It will mostly come down to preference from the team not performance in camp.
Spots open: 1
Postion Battle: No. 3 Quarterback
Players to watch:
No. 10 Dennis Dixon – Although Dennis Dixon would like to move on to a better opportunity, he has acted professional since signing his tender and now is the time for him to showcase himself.
If he wants to entice another team that he has the ability to be a viable backup quarterback or even a potential starter, he has to start putting something on tape.
Right now he is the favorite to win the No. 3 job over Charlie Batch due to his age and potential but there are some members of the organization who are torn and would like to keep Batch.

Running Backs

*Steelers carried 4 running backs (Mendenhall, Redman, Moore, Dwyer) to open last season.
*Steelers expected to carry 4 running backs to open this season.
*Where things Stand: Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman are the No. 1 and No. 2 backs respectively. The injury to Baron Batch makes Mewelde Moore pretty much a lock to make the team as the Steelers are not expected to look for outside help. Jonathan Dwyer is the front runner for the No. 4 spot.
Spots Open: 1
Position Battle: No. 4 running back spot
Players to Watch
No. 27 Jonathan Dwyer(5-11, 229) 2nd-year RB from Georgia Tech — Dwyer had another rough start this year, but unlike last year he was not injured. He just came to camp in poor shape. However, he appears to be much better conditioned now and is coming on strong. He has looked good in running drills and actually has thrown a good block or two in backs-on-backers. If he does anything in the preseason games, he’ll easily make the club. Few believed he would make it last year, but Tomlin likes him and kept him. Only a sharp, negative turnaround will keep him from making it this year — Dale Grdnic.
No. 38 John Clay (6-1, 248) rookie RB from Wisconsin — Clay needs the preseason games as much as anybody in the backfield. He hasn’t done anything so far. His blocking has been poor, and he hasn’t had any memorable runs, either. He needs to make an impact in game action to have a chance to make the team, as far as I’m concerned. But there is time, of course. — Dale Grdnic

Wide Receivers

*Steelers carried 6 wide receivers to open last season (Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Randle El, Brown, Battle)
*Steelers will carry 5 or 6 receivers to open this season
What things Stand:A possible positional battle for the No. 5 receiver spot between Tyler Grisham and Limas Sweed ended with the signing of Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers top five is solidified with Ward, Wallace, Sanders, Brown and Cotchery.
Arnaz Battle is the front runner to stay as the No. 6 receiver due to the team being very high on his abilities with their coverage teams and special teams coach Al Everest is a strong backer of Battle’s.
Tyler Grisham though has emerged as a receiving threat, showing great route running and chemistry with Ben Roethlisberger. The team could try to keep him around if he can show that he can do Battle’s job.
As for Limas Sweed, things just got even tougher for him as there isn’t a spot for him. Any chance of him making team will be going out out and dominating in the preseason (that remains to be seen as he can’t stay healthy and is still running wrong routes) and becoming the primary gunner (spot he has worked at in camp) on special teams. Sweed is a player to watch if he plays tonight. He was limited all week with a left shoulder sprain.
Spots open: 1?
Position Battle: No. 6 wide receiver spot
Players to Watch
No. 84 Antonio Brown (5-10, 186) – The second year wide receiver has been a star at camp, performing day in and day out. He has the look of a player who continues to grow as a receiver, building off of last season and is practicing with a ton of confidence. Brown will also be a player to watch in the return game. He enters the preseason as the primary kick returner.
No. 11 Terrence McCrae(6-3, 194) rookie WR from Ohio and No. 15 Wes Lyons (6-8, 230) from West Virginia are two players vying for spots on the practice squad. Both are big targets who have shown flashes in camp. McCrae is one those players who has a knack for the end zone.

Tight Ends

*Steelers carried 3 tight ends (Miller, Spaeth, Johnson) to open last season
*Steelers expected to carry 3 tight ends to open this season
Where Things Stand: Heath Miller is the only lock at the tight end position and arguably two spots are up for grabs, although David Johnson is a good bet to hold onto the No. 3 tight end spot. The Steelers continue to covet a No. 2 tight end to replace Matt Spaeth. The team remains in talks with former Bengal Reggie Kelly.
Veteran John Gilmore has shown nothing to be a viable No. 2 tight end.
Weslye Sanders seems destined for the practice squad but has done well in blocking situations and could have a slight chance.
Spots Open: 2
Position Battle:No. 2 tight end and No. 3 tight end
Players to Watch
No. 44 Weslye Saunders(6-5, 270) rookie TE from South Carolina — Saunders has looked pretty good during individual blocking drills, but he hasn’t shown much as a pass-catcher. He has the size that the Steelers covet, and depending how many they keep he could have a chance. It wouldn’t hurt for him to do something memorable during the preseason games, though — Dale Grdnic.
No. 45 Jamie McCoy(6-4, 240) 1st-year TE/FB from Texas A&M — McCoy has done less and really doesn’t have a shot, except that he can play both tight end and fullback. The preseason games are crucial for him to play well. — Dale Grdnic

Offensive Line

*Steelers carried 9 offensive linemen (Adams, Scott, Kemoeatu, Pouncey, Foster, Essex, Legursky, Hills, Starks) to open last season. Chris Scott was added to active roster later in the season.
*Steelers likely to carry 9 linemen again this season, possibly 10
Where Things Stand:The Steelers last season carried four true tackles in Flozell Adams, Max Starks, Jonathan Scott and Tony Hills with the rest of their line mixed in with several vesatile players who could play multiple positions.
Right now the Steelers have three locks at the tackle position, Jonathan Scott, Willie Colon and Marcus Gilbert. Maurkice Pouncey and Doug Legursky at the center position and Chris Kemoeatu, and Ramon Foster at the guard position.
That leaves two spots open if the Steelers go with 9 again and three spots up for grabs if they carry 10.
Chris Scott has emerged as a strong candidate for the starting right guard job and unless he’s nothing more then a practice player, pencil him in for a roster spot.
The final decision figures to come down to 2011 6th round pick Keith Williams and Tony Hills.
The Steelers love Williams nasty streak and he’s had a strong camp. Would be tough to lose him. Hills could be on the outside looking in if the team feels comfortable enough with Marcus Gilbert as a primary backup and Chris Scott, Ramon Foster can also play tackle in a pinch.
Spots Open: 2-3
Position Battle: Starting Right Guard Job
Players to Watch
No. 65 Marcus Gilbert (6-6 330) rookie OT from Florida – After being sidelined with a hamstring injury, Gilbert had an excellent week of practice, working primarily at tackle. He has great athleticism and strength and could emerge as an option this season.
No. 61 Chris Scott ( 6-4 319) 2nd yr pro from Tennessee – A big couple weeks coming up for Scott as the Steelers have yet to see what he can do in game situations. The 6-foot-4, 320-pounder is pushing Ramon Foster for the starting right guard job.
No. 62 Keith Williams(6-5 310) Rookie from Nebraska – Williams took advantage of early opportunites and looks like a player. He has the size and plays with the type of nasty streak that the Steelers covet in guards.
No. 66 Tony Hills — (6-5, 304) The fourth-year Texas product certainly should be in his last season with the Steelers if he does not perform well enough this year. They clearly carried him the past three due to limited depth at offensive tackle. That’s the case again this season, but surely Hills won’t survive unless he picks it up considerably. He’s gone from poor early in his career to average so far in training camp, so this preseason game is critical for him. He’s considered a backup to Jonathan Scott, but rookie second-round pick Marcus Gilbert quickly pushed him once he returned from a first-week injury. Chris Scott, who could beat out Ramon Foster at right guard, could also play tackle. And so could Foster, in a pinch, for that matter. — Dale Grdnic

Defensive Line

*Steelers carried 6 defensive linemen (Smith, Hood, Hampton, Keisel, Hoke, Eason) to open last season.
*Steelers expected to carry 6 defensive linemen to open this season.
Where Things Stand: Aaron Smith (LDE) – Casey Hampton (DT) – Brett Keisel (RDE) are locked in as the starters. Ziggy Hood is the primary backup at left defensive end and 1st round pick Cameron Heyward is the backup at right defensive end. Chris Hoke will be the primary backup to Casey Hampton, rounding out the top-6.
Steve McLendon is the odd-man out at this point.
Spots Open: None, (1 if they carry 7)
Players to Watch
No. 95 Cameron Heyward(6-5 288) Rookie from Ohio State – The Steelers No. 1 pick has had his ups and downs so far in camp.

Linebackers

*Steelers carried 9 Linebackers (Woodley, Harrison, Farrior, Timmons, Foote, Worilds, Sylvester, Gibson, Fox) to begin last season. They ended up releasing Thaddeus Gibson.
*Steelers likely to carry 8-to-9 linebackers to open this season
*Where Things Stand: LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are locked in as the starters at OLB with Jason Worilds the primary backup. James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are the starters at ILB with Stevenson Sylvester and Larry Foote as the main backups.
The fourth outside linebacker spot is up for grabs and another linebacker spot is there for someones taken. Versatility and ability on special teams will be crucial.
Spots Open: Approximately 2
Position Battle: Final OLB, ILB spots.
No. 97 Jason Worilds (6-2 262) 2nd year LB from Virginia Tech – The second year linebacker has bulked up tremendously and has showed excellent pass rushing ability at times in camp. The big thing for Worilds is not taking plays off. He has the look of a player who could be an asset as a situational pass rusher this season, showing superior speed to the outside. Big question is whether team can find him a spot.
No. 55 Stevenson Sylvester(6-2, 231) 2nd-year LB from Utah — Sylvester is a superstar in the making and the heir-apparent to James Farrior, maybe as early as next season. Until then, he will continue to excel on special teams and maybe even replace Larry Foote in goal-line and short-yardage defenses. Sylvester made a couple big hits during the goal-line drill last week to win the series for the defense. He will be a big-time player in this league for a long time.
No. 54 Chris Carter— (6-1, 248) The rookie outside linebacker is deep on a depth chart deep with players battling for playing time. Carter was a fifth-round pick from Fresno State, so he’ll be given a little more consideration initially. But Baraka Atkins, Mortty Ivy, Chris Ellis and Chris McCoy also are in the mix. Ivy can also play inside. Second-year player Jason Worilds is huge this year at 6-2, 262, but he has been slowed a bit by a hamstring injury. He and starters LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are the top three, but the fourth outside backer spot is up for grabs. Atkins has the inside track after two weeks of camp.
No. 47 Baraka Atkins(6-4 271) and No.48 Mortty Ivy (6-1, 240)

Defensive Backs

*Steelers carried 10 defensive backs (Cornerbacks: Taylor, Gay, McFadden, Madison, Butler, Lewis Safeties: Polamalu, Clark, Mundy, Allen ) to open last season.
*Steelers likely to carry 10 defensive backs again this season
Where Things Stand:The cornerback situation is far from settled. Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden are the starters and William Gay is the primary nickle back. However, McFadden and Gay’s position (not roster spot) are up for grabs if a young player can emerge. That remains to be seen.
Rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen are behind due to injuries and tonight is a big preseason game for both Keenan Lewis and Crezdon Butler.
Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark are locked in as the starting safeties and Ryan Mundy is the primary backup, followed by Will Allen.
No. 23 Keenan Lewis (6-0 208) 3rd-year CB – Keenan Lewis has tremendous physical skills and this is a make or break camp for him. Lewis has showed some flashes this camp but there are still concerns about whether he has the football IQ to be a starter in this league. I’m told the Steelers would love for him to emerge as a starter alongside Ike Taylor and move Bryant McFadden down as the primary nickle back, a spot he played well in 2008. “Keenan’s got a lot of talent, and it’s up to us to bring that out of him,” Steelers DB coach Carnell Lake said last week. “But we can only teach him so much. He still has to come out and perform.”
No. 28 Crezdon Butler(6-0, 191) 2nd-year CB from Clemson — Butler has had a nondescript and disappointing camp due to hamstring injuries. He joined veteran Bryant McFadden and rookies Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen as cornerbacks who have been on the sideline much more than on the field during camp. They’ve practiced a combined three days overall, I believe. McFadden will be a starting CB if healthy, but Butler and the two rookie draft picks have a lot to prove. They have shown less than nothing so far. Butler, I believe, will play against the Redskins, but the others won’t. That is a setback. — Dale Grdnic

About The Author

William DePaoli

TIOPS Insider

William DePaoli is the President/Founder of Inside Pittsburgh Sports LLC and can be reached at wdepaoli@insidepittsburghsports.com

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