The Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their final pre-season contest of the year (Thursday Night 7:30 at Carolina), a lot of questions have been cleared up over the last month of training camp and the three previous warm up games. But a few question marks remain.
Tim Benz takes an inside look….position by position…. at where the Steelers roster and line-up stands now as opposed to the beginning of camp in Latrobe back on July 31st.
QUARTERBACK: Ben Roethlisberger managed to avoid major injury and legal distraction up until now. Although it is clear Big Ben’s Achilles injury at the end of camp was a scare and cost him a pre-season tune up opportunity against Washington.
Roethlisberger still claims the injury isn’t 100% and says he took a hit on it in the Buffalo game as well. But the injury “watch and wait game” is something we are all familiar with playing when it comes to #7.
And Mike Tomlin did admit this week that Ben’s legal status was enough of a distraction that it prevented him from giving Michael Vick serious consideration on the open market.
What’s obvious from that statement is Tomlin feels an upgrade is possible at back up QB.
Charlie Batch was rusty early in Latrobe and the pre-season. But he was very sharp against the Bills. And he’s still better than Dennis Dixon, whether or not the team or the fans want to admit it.
Dixon’s shoulder injury is a concern. But a far greater concern would be if Dixon ever actually had to play for an extended period of time. He’s still not ready. And the second-year man from Oregon may have just been a really good college QB and not a pro prospect.
As for Mike Riley, he showed enough that the Steelers will keep his number handy in an emergency.
WIDE RECEIVER: Starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes had spotty participation in camp and games this year. But expect their production to be at the same level as 2008.
Obviously, the greater focus this month has been on the race for the third spot to replace Nate Washington.
The organization wants Limas Sweed to get that job. And to start 2009, that will probably happen.

But don’t expect that slot experiment to surface for him again in the regular season. And don’t expect Sweed to hold that job if he fails to become consistent. Sweed’s pattern of two nice catches per game and one drop per game will become too maddening for Mike Tomlin to take by week three if it continues.
Should Sweed falter, my guess is Shaun McDonald will graduate from the fourth receiver spot to the third if Sweed doesn’t improve.
And third round pick Mike Wallace will make the team and likely dress on game days. He’s fast. He’s off to a decent start in his career. And Wallace can play special teams, especially kick returner.
RUNNING BACK: So much for Willie Parker’s off season conditioning routine of yoga and Pilates. He’s spent a lot of this summer sidelined with shoulder and hamstring injuries. But Parker will still be the #1 back in a season which will likely be his swansong in black and gold.
The team would like Rashard Mendenhall to make that decision easier with Parker facing free agency.
But Mendenhall has yet to distinguish himself as a good second stringer, let alone a starter. In his second pro season, the Illinois product is clearly more decisive and confident. But he still seems to loathe contact and hasn’t shown anything dynamic to his game.
Mewelde Moore is an excellent 3rd down back and maybe the most under-rated value on this team.
I can’t see the Steelers entering 2010 without a fullback. So Carey Davis looks safe their. Gary Russell’s old roster spot may be filled by return ace Stefan Logan who has worked extensively at wide receiver.
I bet the Steelers try to sneak both Frank Summers and Isaac Redman through to the practice squad. So if red zone rushing offense is going to get better, it’s going to have to be the result of better offensive line play.
TIGHT ENDS: Recently signed Heath Miller could have a monster year if the Steelers feel the need to throw him the ball enough to justify his hefty salary extension.
And he continues to be their fourth wide receiver in a lot of looks too. Matt Spaeth will continue to back him up.
Sean McHugh’s injury may open a spot for rookie David Johnson. Like McHugh, Johnson can play H-Back. He did so at Arkansas State. I think the Steelers want to keep McHugh around. I don’t think they plan on placing him on injured reserve. They would’ve on Monday if that was the thinking.
Johnson struggled a lot in training camp but showed improvement late. Johnson was destined for the practice squad until McHugh got hurt. But he may actually see game action now.
OFFENSIVE LINE: With Darnell Stapleton hurt, the offensive line picture clears up for the starters, but it gets muddy after that. Willie Colon has gotten better this off-season and may improve at right tackle.
Max Starks got a big contract and played better than expected when he filled in for a now retired Marvel Smith at left tackle in ’09. But his pre-season hasn’t been great this year.
Justin Hartwig appears to be healthy at center after an off-season toe injury. Chris Kemoeatu will never be Alan Faneca at left guard, but he may still get better.
And Pittsburgh has no choice but to sink or swim with Trai Essex at right guard for now.
But the question becomes, who fills the Esssex role as the Tackle/Guard swing guy on game day? Jeremy Parquet, Jason Capizzi, and Tony Hills are the candidates. None stand out. But I think Capizzi had the best camp.
Undrafted rookie Ramon Foster may have the highest ceiling. But he’s been working at guard. And the Steelers aren’t likely to scrap Kraig Urbik, their second pick in the draft this year. Urbik may make the club, but may “never get a hat” on Sundays. Plus Doug Legursky has apparently done enough to earn the center/guard Swing role on game days.
Throw in A.Q. Shipley at center and the Steelers have a lot of parts but not a lot of answers when it comes to O-line depth…. again.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Casey Hampton (for at least one more year) and Chris Hoke will be the nose tackles again. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are your starting ends.
First round pick Ziggy Hood has shown enough that he can suit up on game days. He should dress to start the year.
That means either Travis Kirschke or Nick Eason may have to go. Eason may not play much unless Hood struggles. But he made some plays and showed some improvement in 2008. And he’s flashed on a few plays in this pre-season. Kirschke has been his typical, solid, dependable self. But with a bad back and 12 years under his belt, Hood’s selection may spell the end of Kirschke’s stay here.
If Kirschke does stay, it’ll be even harder to keep Scott Paxson. Sadly, the team may lose its comic relief should Paxson be cut. No more naked soccer in the locker room. Ra’Shon Harris has looked fairly good since getting healthy midway through camp. He’ll be on the practice squad.
LINEBACKER: Things really get murky here and the numbers get muddled between backers and DB’s. Obviously, Harrison, Timmons, Woodley, Farrior, and Fox will be back in their normal roles from last year.
Fox will take on an increased role as he is being called upon already to back up Timmons at Larry Foote’s former inside linebacker position (MAC) next to Farrior.
He was already Farrior’s back-up and one of the team’s top special team’s performers. Fox was excellent in August and could be more of a contributor this year if needed. He has already been elevated to first team red-zone defensive status.
Team rookie of the year Patrick Bailey will be back based solely on special teams reasons and the appreciation he has gathered from his coaches. And Donovan Woods is likely to stick around for similar reasons.
Andre Frazier is not only going be back for kick coverage. But with Timmons moving inside, he’ll make the roster as the top OLB back-up.
Bruce Davis’ lack of development is sore spot with the team, but the front office isn’t likely to cut the chord. And Arnold Harrison is injury prone but well liked. Look for those guys to find a spot somewhere on the team. But Andy Schantz and Tom Korte are likely gone.
DEFENSIVE BACK: Once again, let’s start with the obvious. Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are your starters at safety. Ike Taylor, William Gay, and Deshea Townsend will get most of the snaps at corner.
I still think Deshea should start at corner instead of Gay and move into the slot in sub-packages. But the team seems to disagree.
Some are saying you’ll see more than ten DB’s make the team. I can’t see how that’s possible. Ryan Mundy is the one making it complicated.
It looks like he may be the top choice to replace Lawrence Timmons in passing situations if Timmons is hurt. With Timmons on a gimpy ankle and already and questionable for the opener on 9/10, Mundy is likely to make the team and play early in nickel and quarter defense siuations.
So that’s six. Rookies Joe Burnett and Keenan Lewis probably both make the team unless they try to sneak them through to the practice squad. So that’s eight. And if Ty Carter and Anthony Madison are both kept for experience and special teams that would be ten.
That may be too many already, and we haven’t even gotten to Roy Lewis or Keiwan Ratliff yet. At least one or two familiar names from this group will be gone.
SPECIALISTS: We mentioned Logan already. I think he’s in. And Reed (PK), Warren (LS), and Sepulveda (P) will all be back too.
So there you have it… somehow, the field of 53 has to be chosen from that list. The drama basically comes at back up positions at tackle, safety, defensive end, and special teams linebackers. Not exactly drama to be sure. But enough to maybe keep you watching until the end of the Carolina game Thursday night.
Well, maybe. If you are related to Keiwan Ratliff or Jason Capizzi.