Breaking down the 53-man roster

What was put together a couple of days ago was actually months in the making and will be expected to be the foundation for the next five months. Or longer, if things go right.

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent the 36 hours after the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers putting together a 53-man roster, and they got to that number by cutting 21 players and putting Sean Spence on the injured reserve list. The chances of the Steelers even opening the season on Sept. 9 in Denver with this precise group of 53 are slim, but such is the level of fans' interest in all things NFL that the occasion regularly is treated as simply critical, if not more important.

Whenever the decisions actually were made, the Steelers spent most of Friday, Aug. 31 informing the 21 who didn't make it that they didn't make it, and there never is anything remotely enjoyable about that part of the business.

"It's not a good day. It's the worst day of the year, quite frankly," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But in another way, it's an exciting day because you have great clarity in terms of who the initial 53 are going to be, and you're starting to work with a smaller number of men and really focusing on the challenges that lie ahead.

"But at the same time, you're informing some men that they didn't do what they desired to do, what you watched them work for over the course of a number of months. This is not like a lot of jobs. What's required from an effort standpoint, from a commitment standpoint, even to have an opportunity be at the doorstep is special. It's a tough day when you have to inform somebody his journey is over."

QUARTERBACKS (3): Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Ben Roethlisberger
The journey will continue for another season for Charlie Batch, and this will be his 15th in the NFL. Batch played the first half of the preseason finale, and his 11-of-14, 102-yard, one-touchdown performance did nothing to hurt his chances of being kept by the Steelers for an 11th season in his hometown. Had Batch not practiced as consistently well as he did during training camp and then not played as well as he did throughout the preseason, maybe the Steelers go with only two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster and Jerrod Johnson as a third on the practice squad. But Batch did practice consistently and play well, and so the decision became easy.

"Traditionally, we always keep three quarterbacks. It's the most critical position on the team," said General Manager Kevin Colbert. "We've always felt we wanted three guys, especially when they are three quality guys. Jerrod Johnson did a great job the last three weeks of the preseason to really push the envelope and make it a tough decision for us, but we are real comfortable knowing we have three veterans who all have started games in this league."

The distribution at the rest of the offensive positions had the Steelers keep six running backs, four tight ends, four wide receivers, and nine offensive linemen.

RUNNING BACKS (6): Baron Batch, Jonathan Dwyer, Will Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Chris Rainey, Isaac Redman
Six running backs is a lot, but when one of them is Rashard Mendenhall, who can't be realistically expected to play until Halloween at the earliest, and another is the first fullback – Will Johnson – the Steelers have had since 2007 when Dan Kreider was on the roster, it becomes more understandable.

TIGHT ENDS (3): Heath Miller, David Paulson, Leonard Pope
Four tight ends even is more than the team kept during Bruce Arians' time as offensive coordinator, but Weslye Saunders has been suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league's rules on performance enhancers. That will leave the team with three working tight ends when the season opens, and a roster spot to fill, maybe from the waiver wire.

WIDE RECEIVERS (4): Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace
Four wide receivers is a low number, particularly when compared to 2011 when the Steelers kept six at this position to open the season. But none of the candidates behind the first four – Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery – really distinguished himself on special teams, and that would have been the fifth receiver's primary role early in the season.

"That's reflective of the group," said Colbert about keeping four receivers. "It's also reflected by the current roster that we are going to have, based on carrying some people at other positions. We feel good about the first four guys we have. We will have a couple guys on the practice squad who will round that (number) out."

OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9): Mike Adams, Kelvin Beachum, Willie Colon, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Doug Legursky, Maurkice Pouncey, Max Starks
Nine offensive linemen is a fairly standard number, but when the nine includes David DeCastro, who won't be available for months, it suddenly seems low. DeCastro figures to go on the new injured reserve list that will allow him to return to the team at any time after the eighth week of the season, and so the Steelers can be expected to add another offensive lineman on Monday.

"The new rule will allow us to bring one person back from IR, once we put that person on IR," said Colbert. "DeCastro may be a candidate for that. We haven't decided that yet. Right now, he will be on our active roster, and we will move forward from there."

It's understandable that Colbert would refrain from showing his cards until league rules require him to do so, but expect DeCastro to go on the new injured reserve list and don't be surprised if the addition accompanying that move is Trai Essex.

Released by the team on Friday, Essex is a vested veteran and therefore not subject to the waiver rules, which require a waived player to play for the team claiming him or not play at all. A vested veterans is allowed to pick his own team after being cut, and so Essex will be free to re-sign with the Steelers and resume his role as a backup who is capable of playing any position along the offensive line. Cutting Essex with the potential of re-signing him allowed the Steelers to keep Kelvin Beachum.

"Beachum's versatility, to be able to play tackle, guard, and some day he will be able to play center once he learns how to snap, that was what we liked about him," said Colbert. "He's intelligent. So you love that versatility, especially when you are only really carrying eight offensive linemen."

On defense, the original roster contains seven defensive linemen, nine linebackers and nine defensive backs.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (7): Casey Hampton, Cameron Heyward, Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon, Adameda Ta'amu, Al Woods
Seven defensive linemen has been the way the Steelers have opened seasons in the recent past, and this group includes fourth-round pick Alameda Ta'amu, who should be considered a developmental prospect at this point. Casey Hampton played a bit in the preseason finale and showed his knee to be fit for duty, and that gives the Steelers a group of six that blends experience and youth and versatility.

LINEBACKERS (9): Chris Carter, Larry Foote, James Harrison, Brandon Johnson, Adrian Robinson, Stevenson Sylvester, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds
The decision-making at linebacker would have been more difficult had Spence not injured his knee. Spence assuredly would have made the roster, and that could have forced the team into a decision of undrafted rookie Adrian Robinson vs. veteran Brandon Johnson. But with Spence headed for injured reserve, the Steelers were able to keep both.

Of more importance at linebacker, at least in the early stage of the regular season, is not so much who is on the roster but who is healthy enough to play. James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester all had their preseasons end under a shroud of various injuries. If none of them are able to be ready for the opener in Denver, the nine-player unit becomes a six-player unit.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (9): Cortez Allen, Will Allen, Curtis Brown, Ryan Clark, Robert Golden, Keenan Lewis, Ryan Mundy, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor
Nine defensive backs is a common way to open a season, but the Steelers arrived at that number in an unconventional way. Typically, there would be more cornerbacks kept than safeties, but safety Robert Golden has been impressive in various ways since the start of the offseason program.

SPECIALISTS (3): Drew Butler, Shaun Suisham, Greg Warren
As to the specialists, the only decision was at punter, but an injury to Jeremy Kapinos ended the competition before it had a chance to begin.

"It was unfortunate that Jeremy suffered a back injury early in training camp," said Colbert. "We wanted to give him every benefit that we could for him to get healthy. Unfortunately he wasn't ready to compete. (Drew) Butler did a nice job to this point in the preseason, and he will get his opportunity to show that he can be an NFL punter."

Really, that's what the Steelers do every year along the way to formulating a roster to open a particular season. They like to create as much competition as they can at every position, and then allow the players to sort themselves out along the four-month journey of OTAs, minicamp, training camp, and then the preseason games.

"It was a long process, one that has been going on since May," said Colbert. "Coach Tomlin and I always talk about it, that these players determine if they make the team. It's really not up to us. Over the last two-to-three months, this was the group that we felt we could take to Denver and have a chance to win with. Obviously some injury situations that we've had to deal with have helped shape this roster as it stands today, because we have to carry some extra people in different positions."

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