By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — After extensive research and thought, Inside Pittsburgh Sports Friday examined the offensive players on the Pittsburgh Steelers roster and discussed which ones would and should make the club’s final 53-man roster.
Today, we look at the defensive side of the ball. Both sides could change if there are some surprises during the preseason games, which begin tonight when the Steelers face the Detroit Lions at 7:30 p.m. at Heinz Field, but these choices should be pretty close when the roster is set in three weeks.
“We have a lot of talented defensive players, veterans and young guys,” newly-minted Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau said. “We have a lot of work to do over the next few weeks to get this roster finalized, but I enjoy every minute of it. I enjoy the teaching we have to do and the young men that I have to teach.”
Let’s begin with the defensive line. The Steelers kept seven last year, and Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke and Ziggy Hood are locks to make it. Nick Eason, Doug Worthington and Sunny Harris are battling for the final two spots.
I believe Worthington and Harris should be in, and Eason out. Scott Paxton and Steve McLendon don’t have much of a chance.
Eight players comprised the linebacking corps last season with starters James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in for sure. Keyaron Fox and Larry Foote are backups inside, and Jason Worilds — the second-round pick — are in as well.
Thaddeus Gibson, the fourth-rounder, should get the final spot ahead of Stevenson Sylvester, Renauld Williams, Patrick Bailey and Brandon Renkart are on the outside looking in. Bailey made the roster for special teams the past couple seasons, but the younger guys should get their shot now.
“The thing about Ohio State, where Doug Worthington and Thaddeus Gibson went to school, they play a scheme that’s very similar to ours,” Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said.
“And defensive linemen for that scheme usually are very hard to find. But Doug has the physical characteristics we’re looking for and experience in that scheme.
“So, when he was available in the seventh round that was a pretty easy pick for us. He had a good spring, and now he’s fighting for a job in camp. The same thing with Thaddeus. He’s another guy who’s working hard in camp, like all the guys, but we’ll see how they do in the preseason games. This first game (with the Lions tonight) is very important for the young guys”
The Steelers kept 10 defensive backs last season, six cornerbacks and four safeties, but that could change this year with one less corner and maybe an extra player at another position. Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden are the top four, but the other spots are up for grabs.
The safeties are Will Allen, Ryan Mundy and Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith, while Joe Burnett, William Gay, Keenan Lewis, Anthony Madison, David Pittman, Crezdon Butler and Justin Thornton are the corners.
Allen and Mundy likely are the final two safeties, while Gay, Lewis, Burnett and Madison should be the final corners. Madison, a special teams hot-shot, is out if only five corners are chosen.
The secondary play will be crucial to the Steelers’ success this season. Bryant McFadden should be an upgrade at one corner spot, so William Gay can move to the slot in the nickel scheme. That’s his best role, but everybody should be better with Polamalu back this year. Clark certainly should benefit as well.
And, ultimately, the Steelers will be better when their secondary plays well.
The three specialists are place-kicker Jeff Reed, punter Daniel Sepulveda and long-snapper Greg Warren. Sepulveda is competing with Reed for the kickoff duties, but he hasn’t been consistent enough yet to earn the role.