LATROBE, Pa. — The Pittsburgh Steelers released their second depth chart prior to the second preseason game Monday night at Washington, and there were several alterations and a few outright changes to it.
On offense, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be backed up by Bruce Gradkowski, which is no surprise, while draft pick Landry Jones and fourth-year player John Parker Wilson are battling for the No. 3 role.
The starting O-line remained intact, so it appears that Mike Adams will be at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert on the right. With Isaac Redman and rookie Le’Veon Bell listed as co-starters at running back, whomever is healthy and gets hot likely will get the most carries. Starting a game isn’t that significant. It was most telling that LaRod Stephens-Howling has gotten more reps ahead of Jonathan Dwyer, though completely understandable, while Baron Batch and Dwyer trail the pack in carries. Batch’s special teams work should make the difference there. Fullback Will Johnson is a lock.
The second team offensive line got a big shuffle with guard Justin Cheadle’s “significant” hamstring injury. I thought he had the team made, but now his status is up in the air. Rookie Chris Hubbard is still listed as a backup guard, while veteran Guy Whimper moved from backup left tackle to a guard spot. Kelvin Beachum is the backup right tackle, but he also is a backup guard and center. John Malecki probably would replace Maurkice Pouncey in a game if necessary. Veteran D’Anthony Batiste and Joe Long are backups at left tackle.
It’s pretty thin on the O-line once you get past the top seven — the starting five, Malecki and Beachum — since the next two best players are both injured. I believed that Cheadle (out indefinitely) and Nik Embernate (on IR with a knee injury) would have helped the Steelers if called upon this season.
Matt Spaeth is still listed as the starting tight end, but he won’t be healthy to open the season. A Lisfranc injury generally has a 6-8 week recovery period. I’ll talk about him Heath Miller a little later in this space. David Paulson is the only healthy tight end, so he is the starter, while Jamie McCoy — if he can stay healthy — is next. A third tight end will be chosen from newcomers Nathan Overbay (Lyle Overbay’s nephew), Michael Palmer and Peter Tuitupou. Overbay has the best hands, while Palmer is a better blocker. The other guy isn’t good.
The top three wideouts are set with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery. The Steelers only use three on a regular basis, at most, and they occasionally go to four. That guy is rookie Markus Wheaton, a special player who will make an impact sometime soon this season as a wideout or kick returner. David Gilreath, Justin Brown and Derek Moye are battling for possibly the final roster or practice squad spots.
Defensively, the front line has not changed with Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel up front from left to right. Cameron Heyward and Al Woods are next in line, due to Woods’ versatility. If the Steelers keep six D-linemen, Alameda Ta’amu and Hebron (Loni) Fangupo should battle for the final spot, while end Nick Williams, a seventh-round pick, is a practice squad contender.
The linebacking corps is an interesting group. From left to right, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons and Jason Worilds are in, but Jarvis Jones will push Worilds. Jones has been a playmaker so far, while Worilds has played well but had his usual odd camp injury (sprained big toe). That’s five out of what could be nine backers that the Steelers will keep.
The remaining four spots will be taken by either Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, Marshall McFadden or rookies Alan Baxter and Vince Williams. This is a talented group, so the extra linebacker could be an option.
The Steelers primarily have kept 10 defensive backs, including six corners and four safeties. The safeties are easy with Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark joined by Shamarko Thomas and Robert Golden. Damon Cromartie-Smith does not have the position flexibility of the other two backups. The starting cornerbacks are expected to be Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen, but the latter has not practiced since the first day. That injury and subsequent surgery have put his status up in the air. He could return as early as next week, but there is no public timetable.
Will Gay has Allen’s starting spot, and Curtis Brown was the next corner off the bench when he wasn’t injured. However, he had two injuries in the first two weeks of camp to continue his streak that began as a rookie. He will be injured again at some point and eventually be surpassed, if he hasn’t already, by Josh Victorian. Rookie Terry Hawthorne and Isaiah Green are in the mix as well.
Shaun Suisham and Greg Warren are solidified as the Steelers place-kicker and long-snapper, respectively, but second-year player Drew Butler — last year’s starting punter — is being pushed by co-starter Brian Moorman in his 13th NFL season. Antonio Brown and Sanders are still listed as the top punt and kickoff returners, respectively, but the Steelers hope to find others for those roles.
A Numbers Game
The top players up for free agency next season include Ryan Clark, Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Stevenson Sylvester, Emmanuel Sanders, Jason Worilds, Ziggy Hood and Brett Keisel. Plaxico Burress also will be a free agent, but his status is in question at this point due to his shoulder injury and surgery. It was previously reported that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski will be a free agent, but that’s not the case since he signed a three-year contract.
The Steelers are expected to keep three quarterbacks, either all three on the 53-man or two and one on the practice squad. The second scenario is unlikely, however, because either Jones or JPW would be available to other teams. The Steelers probably won’t take that risk with Jones, a fourth-round pick.
While a timetable was never officially given for Spaeth’s recovery, he’s a likely candidate for injured reserve with a possibility to return, which was instituted last season and the Steelers used for David DeCastro. That player must miss six weeks (not games) can practice for 21 days before the team must activate him, but he can play after eight weeks if ready.
If linebacker Sean Spence returns at midseason like he suggested in the spring, he likely will open the campaign on the Reserve-Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List and have to miss the opening six weeks. Tight end David Johnson also should fall into that category. The other player currently on the PUP List, tight end Heath Miller, likely will begin the season on the 53-man roster, but he probably won’t play for several weeks just like Rashard Mendenhall did last season. MIller is approaching eight months of rehab, so a target date for his return could be after the bye week (Game 5) Oct. 13 at the New York Jets.