By Mike Bires
For the past 12 days, the Steelers have been hard at work trying to build the foundation for another championship team. The process continues Thursday with the first of four pre-season games.
Here’s a position-by-position look at how the Steelers shape up at this stage of training camp:
Barring the signing of Michael Vick (very unlikely), everything is set.
Ben Roethlisberger has clearly established himself as an elite QB with two Super Bowl titles in his first five pro seasons.
As far as the battle for the back-up job, it’s still Charlie Batch. That may change pending the performances in the pre-season games. But Dixon has done nothing at camp to threaten Batch’s hold on No. 2.
As far as Vick, who’s shopping for a team after his 23-month prison term for his role in an illegal dog-fighting operation, his name has been linked to the Steelers often in recent weeks. But really, why would the Steelers risk a comfortable situation at QB by bringing in Vick and the media circus that would follow him?
At halfback, the Steelers are solid with Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore.
At fullback, there was some speculation that Carey Davis’ roster spot may be in jeopardy after the Steelers drafted HB/FB Frank “Tank” Summers. But Davis has had a good camp so far and he’s a capable special teams contributor.
If the Steelers keep five running backs as they did last year, it will be either Summers, Justin Vincent, a practice squad player last year, or undrafted rookie free agent Isaac Redman, a big back who’s been impressive at times during camp.
The four locks are obviously Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Limas Sweed and rookie Mike Wallace. If the Steelers keep five wideouts, the top candidates are Shaun McDonald, who caught 79 passes two years ago with the Detroit Lions, or Dallas Baker, a third-year pro who’s spent much of the past two years on the practice squad.
McDonald is in the mix among the candidates to return kickoffs and punts. But it’s hard to imagine him winning either of those jobs. From a pure pass-catching perspective, Baker probably has the edge. But he’s very inconsistent. He had a good practice Monday, but is prone to practice not so well on other days.
Brandon Williams, a sleeper in camp, has also been in the mix but is a major long-shot to make the squad.
There is no reason to believe that the Steelers won’t open the season with the three tight ends they had most of last season – Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth and Sean McHugh, who also can play fullback.
Rookie tight end David Johnson has had a good camp and the Steelers will look to put him on the practice squad.
This remains the position with the most question marks.
Now that Darnell Stapleton is out indefinitely after arthroscopic knee surgery, it’s hard to imagine that Trai Essex won’t be the opening day starter at right guard. How he fares there remains to be seen. Afterall, he’s a natural left tackle.
At center, incumbent Justin Hartwig has yet to take part in any meaningful practice sessions. Stapleton had been running with the first-team offense at center until he got hurt, so for pre-season opener at least, it’s Doug Legursky hiking to Roethlisberger.
The good news is that right tackle Willie Colon, left guard Chris Kemoeatu and left tackle Max Starks are ready to roll.
As far as the back-ups on the O-line, the second-stringer who’s been most impressive is undrafted rookie Ramon Foster, who’s switched from tackle to left guard. It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be on the opening-day roster.
After a shaky start, rookie Kraig Urbik had picked up his game a little but not enough to suggest he’s capable of starting at right guard any time soon.
Speaking of back-ups, it will be interesting to see how Tony Hills fares in the pre-season games. After struggling badly early in camp, he’s picked up his game a bit.
It might be hard for the Steelers to cut Hills because they don’t have many options at tackle. Other tackles on the roster are Jason Capizzi and Jeremy Parquet.
The big news this week was veteran left defensive end Aaron Smith raving about rookie Ziggy Hood. Well, Hood was the Steelers’ first-round draft choice, so he’s expected to make an immediate contribution even though Smith and Brett Keisel return as the starting defensive ends. Hood will get his share of reps on game days.
It will be interesting to see if the Steelers keep seven D-linemen like they did last year. If they keep six, at least one veteran will have to be cut.
Fighting for roster spots are vets Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke and rookie Ra’Shon “Sonny” Harris.
Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke are set at nose tackles.
No team in the league can match the star-studded corps that the Steelers have – James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the outside, James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons on the inside.
The best of the back-ups are Andre Frazier (outside) and Keyaron Fox (inside). Both are reliable special teams performers.
Probably the most disappointing linebacker is Bruce Davis, a third-round draft pick last year. Davis is playing with the third-team defense in camp and may be in jeopardy of losing his roster spot.
Donovan Woods and Patrick Bailey are in the mix to earn a roster spot.
There are seven untouchables: cornerbacks Ike Taylor, Willie Gay, Deshea Townsend, Keenan Lewis and Joe Burnett and safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark. Safety Tyrone Carter is probably a lock, too.
The fact he can play corner and safety helps Roy Lewis’ chances of making the team. Townsend can also play safety in the pinch, so Ryan Mundy is on the bubble.
Keiwan Ratliff and Anthony Madison will battle it out for the last corner spot.
It’s all systems go with kicker Jeff Reed, punter Daniel Sepulveda and long snapper Greg Warren. Both Sepulveda and Warren seem fully recovered from knee injuries.
As far as the return specialists, it’s Wallace’s job to lose on kickoffs.
Burnett, Moore and even Holmes are in the mix.
That doesn’t bode well for Stefan Logan, the ex-Canadian Football League standout. At best, he’s the No. 7 wide receiver. So his only shot at making the roster is if he’s sensational during the pre-season games as a returner.