Is the Steelers' 2010 roster too old? Or did the team keep too many rookies on it?
It's somewhat strange when those two opposites both can be argued, but it's also true that the 53-man roster the Steelers will bring to their Sept. 12 opener against Atlanta at Heinz Field will include 17 thirtysomethings and eight of the 10 players they selected in the draft last April.
The issue of age has been something the Steelers have been hearing ever since holding onto fourth quarter leads became a problem in 2009, and an offseason survey found their average age to be 26.78 years, tied with the Cleveland Browns as the second-oldest team in the league. The Washington Redskins, at 27.33 years, was the oldest.
That ranking reflects the attitude the Steelers are taking into this season, but they also understand the concept of preparing for their future..
"Our concern with the 53 guys who end up making the final roster and the 22 starters is can they compete and help us win?" said Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert. "We're interested in winning now. With that being said, we constantly have to be adding players to the group, and we believe we have done that, and hopefully those young players will help us win either now or down the road. But the focus has to be the now. That's all we're worried about – 2010."
The young players the Steelers added to their roster by means of the most recent draft did enough during the training camp/preseason process to get the opportunity to back up Colbert's words. Eight of the 10 made the active roster – Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders, Thaddeus Gibson, Crezdon Butler, Stevenson Sylvester, Jonathan Dwyer and Antonio Brown.
Chris Scott, a tackle from Tennessee who was one of three fifth-round picks, starts out on the physically unable to perform list because of a broken foot sustained in late June while preparing for training camp; and Doug Worthington, a seventh-round defensive end from Ohio State, showed enough promise to be a candidate to be added to the practice squad.
The following is a position-by-position overview of the Steelers' 53-man roster, with the players listed alphabetically at each position:
Charlie Batch, Dennis Dixon, Byron Leftwich
There likely was some discussion about keeping only two quarterbacks, but that became moot when Leftwich was injured in the preseason finale vs. Carolina. Ben Roethlisberger does not count against the roster limit during his suspension.
RUNNING BACKS: (4)
Jonathan Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall,
Mewelde Moore, Isaac Redman
Through the second of four preseason games, there didn't seem to be a spot for Dwyer, who injured a hamstring early in camp, and then a shoulder in the preseason opener. But he rushed for 89 yards, with a 40-yard run, in Denver; and then 86 yards, with a 36-yard run, in the finale against Carolina. In the end, Dwyer's abilities and potential as a running back got picked over Frank Summers' abilities as a lead blocker. The Steelers have used TE David Johnson in that role, and Isaac Redman was lining up as a fullback along with Rashard Mendenhall in the same backfield during the preseason. Doug Legursky also has some ability to perform the role of lead blocker, and his position flexibility as an offensive lineman should have him active on most game days.
TIGHT ENDS: (3)
David Johnson, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth
This area seemed clear-cut throughout. Johnson and Spaeth have to get the job done as blockers, or there will be some criticism about not keeping Summers. Miller is the only legitimate option as a receiver, and he's one of the best at his position in the league.
WIDE RECEIVERS: (6)
Arnaz Battle, Antonio Brown, Antwaan Randle El,
Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, Hines Ward
On the eve of training camp, the general impression was that the Steelers would keep only one of the two rookie receivers, but as the preseason games began Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown had put together a couple of solid weeks of work in pads. By the time the preseason games were over, each rookie had nine catches, with Sanders' going for 149 yards, a 16.6 average and a touchdown; and Brown's good for 121 yards, a 13.4 average and two touchdowns. Brown led the team with an 11.4-yard average on 11 punt returns, and he also had a better kickoff return average (24.7-21.0) than Stefan Logan, who set a team record in kickoff return yards last season. When asked about the two rookies on Aug. 30, Coach Mike Tomlin said, "There were some errors. I think some critical errors. They may have been the cause of an interception or two. Where there's pain there's growth. And they will continue to do that. And I know we will continue to push the envelope with the things we ask those young people to do because we believe they are capable."
OFFENSIVE LINE: (9)
Flozell Adams, Trai Essex, Ramon Foster,
Tony Hills, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky,
Maurkice Pouncey, Jonathan Scott, Max Starks
When camp opened, this unit figured to be made up of nine players for the start of the regular season, and most observers expected that Justin Hartwig would be among the nine and Tony Hills would not. But Hills credited new offensive line coach Sean Kugler with helping to restore his confidence, and he combined that with the athletic ability the team saw in him before making him a third-round pick in 2008 to retain a spot. More than that, Hills left people believing he could become a contributing tackle on a good NFL team. Between the end of 2009 and now, Hills became a finisher, and that's a big reason why he made the roster. Urbik is a player who showed some consistent improvement throughout the preseason, and he could benefit from a year on the practice squad where Kugler would be able to continue working with him. Flozell Adams will start at right tackle, and he is clearly the best option there. In the final two preseason games, his man barely got a sniff, and the nastiness Adams brings to the unit is a plus.
DEFENSIVE LINE: (6)
Nick Eason, Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke,
Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Aaron Smith
The only way for a unit to get younger is for some of the older guys to lose their jobs, but that doesn't happen in the NFL unless someone comes along and takes it from them. That didn't happen here, specifically in the case of Sunny Harris, who simply was not better than Nick Eason, who overcame some serious offseason health issues to retain his roster spot. Just because the young guys here – with the notable exception of Ziggy Hood – couldn't overcome the veterans doesn't mean there aren't a couple of them with some potential. Rookie Doug Worthington and first-year player Steve McLendon both showed enough during the summer that could lead the team to believe a year on the practice squad would put them in better shape to challenge for a roster spot next year at camp. McLendon had no chance to make a push for a spot after an MCL injury early in camp sidelined him through the entire preseason schedule.
James Farrior, Larry Foote, Keyaron Fox,
Thaddeus Gibson, James Harrison, Stevenson Sylvester,
Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds
Somewhat like wide receiver, this also was a position where the focus was on the rookies and how many of them would make the final 53. As a second-round pick, Jason Worilds wasn't going to get cut in his first training camp, and Thaddeus Gibson got off to a strong start in Latrobe despite having to miss the OTAs because of Ohio State's academic schedule. Also, while the Steelers have a pair of Pro Bowl outside linebackers in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, they had nothing in the way of young up-and-comers at what is a very critical spot in their defense. Worilds and Gibson can give them that. At inside linebacker, the team had two veteran backups in Larry Foote and Keyaron Fox, and keeping a fifth seemed unlikely at the start of camp. If there was going to be a ninth linebacker, a logical assumption was that it would be Patrick Bailey, a core special teams player and the Steelers rookie of the year in 2008. But then along came Stevenson Sylvester, who showed rather quickly that he was of the run-hit linebacker mold preferred by Tomlin. By the end of the preseason, Sylvester was the team leader in both tackles and sacks, and he had made enough plays on special teams to convince the coaching staff to keep him over Bailey. In the preseason final against Carolina, Sylvester had six tackles, a sack, a pass defensed and two special teams tackles. A corps of linebackers that seemed to be aging ended up getting a three-pronged injection of youth.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: (10)
Will Allen, Crezdon Butler, Ryan Clark, William Gay,
Keenan Lewis, Anthony Madison, Bryant McFadden,
Ryan Mundy, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor
The moves that added veterans Bryant McFadden and Will Allen were the ones attracting the attention during the offseason, with McFadden seen as a player capable of solidifying the cornerback spot and Allen being an upgrade at both safety and on special teams over Tyrone Carter. But then along came Crezdon Butler, one of three fifth-round picks, and by the start of the preseason he had inserted himself completely into the competition. By the end of the preseason, he had shown himself to be an active cornerback who made plays on the ball – he returned an interception 40 yards for a near touchdown – and Butler also was willing to mix it up on special teams. Keenan Lewis' solid training camp was enough to over-shadow a meltdown in Denver where he was flagged twice for personal fouls and played awful cornerback, and Madison likely cemented a spot with a decent showing as a cornerback against Carolina. This unit has a chance to be much better, because in addition to a healthy Troy Polamalu, William Gay is more comfortable as a nickel cornerback, Allen is faster and more athletic than Carter as an extra safety, and McFadden is a physical and experienced cornerback. Joe Burnett opened camp as a starter in the dime, but he didn't finish the preseason as strongly as either Butler or Madison.
Jeff Reed, Daniel Sepulveda, Greg Warren
The only intrigue here was Greg Warren getting a late preseason challenge from Matt Stewart. But in the end, Warren was a more accurate snapper, and consistency is mandatory at that spot.