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Labriola on the 53-man roster

Posted Aug 31, 2013

There are 16 new faces, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they got a lot younger because there still are 11 thirtysomethings on this season-opening roster. And just because this is their opening 53-man roster of the 2013 season doesn’t necessarily mean it even will be the 53-man roster they take into Sunday’s opener against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.

There are 16 new faces, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they got a lot younger because there still are 11 thirtysomethings on this season-opening roster. And just because this is their opening 53-man roster of the 2013 season doesn’t necessarily mean it even will be the 53-man roster they take into Sunday’s opener against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.

But as Ike Taylor might say, the roster is the roster. And so what follows is a position-by-position look at the 53 players – listed alphabetically – who right now represent the Pittsburgh Steelers.

QUARTERBACKS (3): Landry Jones, Bruce Gradkowski, Ben Roethlisberger
There was a conscious effort made by the Steelers during the past offseason to get younger at the position behind Ben Roethlisberger, and that precipitated the cutting of ties with Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich and the signing of Bruce Gradkowski. Both General Manager Kevin Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin have gone on record as being in favor of carrying three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, and so the only real preseason drama here was in the battle for the third spot. Once John Parker Wilson was waived during the roster cut to 75, the depth chart at quarterback was set.

The idea is for Roethlisberger to start all 16 games during the regular season, and if Gradkowski is pressed into action, can he do it without falling down and injuring himself, or do it without needing a couple of weeks to get re-acclimated?

RUNNING BACKS (5): Le’Veon Bell, Will Johnson, Felix Jones, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling
Why cut Jonathan Dwyer?

The answer to that question is based on whether Tomlin believed he had a better alternative, and it’s likely that was answered in the affirmative once he got an up-close look at Felix Jones. Tomlin said he was impressed with what Jones was able to do in the preseason game vs. Kansas City with just one walk-through in a hotel ballroom as preparation following the trade with the Eagles. Then Jones acquitted himself well in the preseason finale against the Panthers, and Tomlin had himself an alternative to Dwyer, who always seemed to be sabotaging himself by being out of shape, or taking himself out of games, or by fumbling, or with his ability to be a punctual professional.

Until Le’Veon Bell is healthy enough to return from his mid-foot sprain, the division of labor will be divided among Isaac Redman, Jones, and LaRod Stephens-Howling. It would make sense for Redman and Jones to share the bulk of the carries from scrimmage, while Stephens-Howling is used in situations that take advantage of his quickness and receiving ability. Too much pounding on his 5-foot-7 body ultimately would limit his effectiveness over the course of a 17-week season.

Johnson is the only fullback on the roster, but he can be much more than just a blocker. This guy can catch the football.

TIGHT ENDS (5): David Johnson, Heath Miller, Michael Palmer, David Paulson, Matt Spaeth
Even after David Johnson showed himself to be healthy enough to play in the last two preseason games, healthy enough to practice consistently after being activated from the physically unable to perform list, and even after Kelvin Beachum did a capable job of lining up as an in-line blocker at the tight end position, the Steelers still ended up keeping a lot more players at this position than they’ll be able to use.

Miller coming off PUP means he can begin practicing immediately and then play in games whenever he’s ready, as opposed to having to miss the first six weeks of the regular season before being permitted to return to practice. This means the Steelers believe he can be ready before the middle of October, but it doesn’t mean he is ready now.

Without Miller, and without Matt Spaeth for a still undetermined time following surgery on his foot, the Steelers open this season with three tight ends who are ready to play now. David Paulson’s forte is in the passing game; Michael Palmer’s is as an in-line blocker; and Johnson’s is as the ‘move’ tight end. Palmer also had a couple of tackles on special teams this preseason.

If the Steelers need a roster spot to add a player at another position, they may look at tight end, where they could cut someone or possibly decide to put Spaeth on that IR-designated-to-return list.

WIDE RECEIVERS (5): Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Derek Moye, Emmanuel Sanders, Markus Wheaton
As the preseason wound to a close, the only issue at this position was whether the Steelers were going to keep more than four. The guys who made up the four had been obvious for weeks – starters Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, plus Jerricho Cotchery and rookie Markus Wheaton.

Moye made a couple of plays as a receiver in the second half vs. Kansas City, but going into the finale the question about him still was whether he was one of the best 53 or just the No. 5 receiver. His hustle to save a touchdown on an interception return by Carolina cornerback Josh Norman certainly didn’t hurt his cause.

OFFENSIVE LINE (8): Mike Adams, Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, John Malecki, Maurkice Pouncey, Guy Whimper
Offensive line depth is an issue for every team in the league, and it’s a sure thing the Steelers have scanned, and will continue to scan, the waiver wire on the chance they find a name there they like better than the ones they have.

The backups are Kelvin Beachum, who figures to enter the regular season as the primary backup at every offensive line position, with the only possible exception being left tackle. But that will become clear once Tomlin sets his game day roster for the opener. If John Malecki is active, that would mean Beachum is the primary backup at every position except center; and if Guy Whimper is active instead, that would indicate Beachum is the primary backup at every position except left tackle.

DEFENSIVE LINE (6): Hebron Fangupo, Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon, Al Woods
It didn’t take Woods long into the training camp process to show himself to be an active and versatile defensive lineman, and once that happened the final battle for a roster spot came down to the two nose tackles – Hebron Fangupo and Alameda Ta’amu.

Ta’amu began training camp on the PUP list, and whether that was a factor or not, Fangupo quickly established himself as the better player and continued to separate himself as the preseason progressed. Woods’ ability to play both end and nose should get him a helmet on game day.

LINEBACKERS (8): Chris Carter, Larry Foote, Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Kion Wilson, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds
Chris Carter seemed to be the obvious choice as the No. 4 outside linebacker following the trade of Adrian Robinson to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for Felix Jones. But then Carter recorded two sacks in the preseason finale to cement his spot.

The backup spots at inside linebacker might have been the closest calls that had to be made by Tomlin and Colbert. Kion Wilson quickly established himself as a core special teams player, and he was on the punt, punt return, kickoff, and kickoff return units in each preseason game, and he also had eight tackles on defense plus a couple of sacks. Vince Williams was another guy who looked to have potential as an inside linebacker, and he also was utilized extensively on special teams. The difference for Williams might just have been the promise he showed in coverage throughout the three weeks of training camp.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (10): Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Ryan Clark, DaMon Cromartie-Smith, William Gay, Robert Golden, Isaiah Green, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Shamarko Thomas
These 10 break down into five cornerbacks and five safeties, with the final couple of spots here certainly being determined by contributions on special teams.

William Gay is the No. 3 cornerback, and the sixth defensive back into the game in passing situations figures to be rookie safety Shamarko Thomas, who also was among the leading tacklers on special teams during the preseason. Thomas’ abilities in coverage may have been a factor in the team keeping a fifth safety instead of a sixth cornerback. Keeping a fifth safety obviously benefited DaMon Cromartie-Smith, who will have to be an asset on special teams to hold onto his spot.

At cornerback, Curtis Brown just might be the best gunner the Steelers have for their punt team, and so the final spot probably came down to a decision between Isaiah Green and Josh Victorian. When Victorian missed the tackle on the 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Kansas City’s Knile Davis, that might have sealed his fate.

SPECIALISTS (3): Drew Butler, Shaun Suisham, Greg Warren
The only real competition here came at punter, where second-year pro Drew Butler was the incumbent vs. three-time Pro Bowl selection Brian Moorman.

Butler had the stronger – and younger – leg, but Moorman’s hang-time and placement were much better as training camp opened. But come the end of the preseason, Moorman’s leg strength had worsened considerably. In the finale against the Panthers, Moorman averaged 40.0 yards on four punts, but the one kick that got him there was a 55-yarder that turned into a touchback.

The Steelers undoubtedly want Butler to improve his hang-time and placement, but Moorman’s 37-year-old leg just didn’t look like it was going to be up to the task of a full NFL season.

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