By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers have 80 players on their training-camp roster and must trim that to 53 before the regular-season opener with the Atlanta Falcons Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and his staff, who face the Detroit Lions in their preseason-opener Saturday night at 7:30 at Heinz Field, have about three weeks to determine their final roster. But Inside Pittsburgh Sports is going to take an early look at who should stay and who should go.
NFL rosters must be at 75 by Aug. 31 and the final 53 Sept. 4. And eight-man practice squad can be named the next day. Today, we’ll talk about the offense.
The Steelers kept three quarterbacks last season and most assuredly will keep three again this year. Since there are four on the roster, one will have to go. The club gets an exemption for Ben Roethlisberger while he’s suspended. So, he will stay on the roster, and one of the other three will go when he returns.
Byron Leftwich is season-opening starter and eventual backup. Dennis Dixon has shown improvement in his third NFL season, but it’s been minimal.
Charlie Batch, a 13-year pro, was effective when he played. But is injury-prone. Batch also hasn’t had many practice reps, but he lives in the Pittsburgh area and is just a phone call away if needed. So, Batch is out when Roethlisberger returns.
There were five running backs on the final roster, including Stefan Logan, the punt- and kickoff-returner. Logan is a wideout this year, but we’ll discuss that later. Starter Rashard Mendenhall and third-down back Mewelde Moore are locks, but only because Tomlin loves Moore. Mendenhall can be an every-down back if necessary, but it’s doubtful that Moore would be cut.
It’s hard to believe that Isaac Redman wouldn’t make the team this year. He’s the best blocker and a hard runner. Rookie Jonathan Dwyer has too much promise and should prove that against the Lions.
“Guys like (Dwyer) will get an extended look whether they want to or not,” Tomlin said. “That’s the nature of the preseason games, whether it’s in Game 1 and up to Game 4, because of the limited exposure that the starters get.
“(And Redman) is going to get some opportunities as well, because we need more clarity at that position. We can get that during the live action that we’ll get against Detroit Saturday night.”
Justin Vincent, Frank Summers and Dwayne Wright appear to be battling for the final spot. Vincent has done well, but is similar to those on the roster.
Summers and Wright can be fullbacks or halfbacks, so it could be between them. Wright is the hardest runner and gives the club needed power at the position, so Summers would get a shot at the practice squad.
Space is limited at receiver as well with Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antwaan Randle El locked in.
I believe the final two should go to rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Brown can return punts, and Sanders can return kicks. That means Stefan Logan is out, but it didn’t sound like Tomlin felt that way.
“I’ve kind of stifled that development somewhat, because of the many things that we ask him to do,” Tomlin said. “He spent the vast majority of the offseason as a running back, and now he’s working as a receiver to go with his special teams duties. But this is a guy who has a unique skill set.
“(He has) an ability to break people down in open grass. (And) we’ve tried to find him that open space. For a guy who has never played the position, he’s grown by leaps and bounds. He has worked hard, but he’s going to make this team or not make it based on what he does as a kick returner.”
Brandon London, Tyler Grisham and Isaiah Williams have no chance. Veteran Arnaz Battle is on the bubble, but I think he only makes it if six wideouts are kept. And it likely would be just for his strong special teams play and past relationship with Steelers special teams coordinator Al Everest.
The top three tight ends are Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and David Johnson, and that should seal the position. Spaeth is an average blocker and has not been a red-zone threat, although he possibly could be if thrown to more often. But that’s not his role, so I believe another tight end should join Miller and Johnson who can be used as a big-time blocker to open things up for Miller.
The Steelers have Eugene Bright, a converted defensive end, and Sean McHugh, who also could play fullback. McHugh could be a powerful blocker which would allow Miller to be even more involved in the passing game. So, he should join Miller and Johnson. Both McHugh and Johnson are used as up-backs, too.
Finally, there’s the offensive line, where the Steelers kept nine last year.
From left tackle to right, the starting lineup is Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Trai Essex and Flozell Adams. No. 1 pick Maurkice Pouncey is in, so that leaves three players to make the final cut.
They will come from a group that includes Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, Doug Legursky, Tony Hills, Kraig Urbik, Dorian Brooks, Adrian Jones and Kyle Jolley.
Scott should replace Hills as a backup tackle, and Pouncey’s abilities at guard or center could make Legursky expendable, too. I believe that Foster is in as well and possibly Jones, a six-year veteran, as another tackle.
Inside Pittsburgh Sports will take a look at the defense Saturday.