"I don't do things with numbers in mind. I look at who I consider varsity players, and then I work back from there. Usually it handles itself and works itself out when you take that approach."
That was the approach, or at least the foundation for the approach Coach Mike Tomlin brought to the table when he got together with General Manager Kevin Colbert and Steelers President Art Rooney II to make the decisions that resulted in the season opening 53-man roster. The preseason came to an official end following the Steelers' loss to the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field on Sept. 3, and then the process began. It had to begin almost immediately because the regular season opener was just seven days away.
"It's multi-layered," said Tomlin in explaining the process of cutting the roster. "You look at health, because you want to start the season as healthy as possible collectively, and some of these guys vying for spots have health issues. So you have to decide and distinguish what to do with those guys, what list you're going to put them on – PUP or IR, etc. You like to look at guys who are sure-shot make-it guys, active roster guys, and then there is a group of guys in between. You look at position numbers, you look at their bodies of work individually, and then you sort through that group.
"I don't rank them 1-through-53. There are ins, definite ins, there are maybes. What you're talking about in terms of ranking them 1-through-53 is an analysis of the maybes."
According to the NFL, the Steelers have the league's toughest schedule in 2015, with their opponents having posted a combined 147-107-2 record last season for an overall winning percentage of .578. Tomlin was asked for his thoughts about the group of Steelers tasked with dealing with that.
"I really like the overall conditioning of the group," said Tomlin. "That was displayed when they checked into Latrobe for the conditioning test. I think it's been displayed over and over again throughout the process. I like the youth and energy of a lot of people and the competition that it has created as a result. That's what has made this opportunity what it is. We have a lot of guys fighting for spots, not only to be a part of this, but the division of labor within the group. I think that's a reflection of the competition that's been happening to this point, and that's been an enjoyable element of this process."
That process is over. The games now start to count.
(NOTE: 2015 Roster reflects the original 53. Does not include subsequent changes.)
(2014 Roster: 3: Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones, Ben Roethlisberger)
(2015 Roster: 3: Landry Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Vick)
The Steelers remained a three-quarterback team, and that really was an issue only within a segment of the team's fan base. It had been three quarterbacks on the roster during each of the seasons Colbert and Tomlin have worked together, and it will be that way again.
The presence of a fifth preseason game on the schedule – the Hall of Fame Game – coupled with a right shoulder injury to Bruce Gradkowski found Jones taking more snaps than in either of his previous NFL summers. While he apparently showed enough improvement to convince the Steelers to keep him as their No. 3, Jones didn't make them comfortable enough to elevate him to the backup job when Gradkowski's shoulder and subsequent finger surgery forced him to the injured reserve list. Jones actually ended up leading the NFL this summer in preseason passing yards with 724 that came on completing 65-of-120 (54.2 percent) with four touchdowns and two interceptions, which worked out to a rating of 76.5).
But because they felt they had to do better for a backup to Roethlisberger, the Steelers turned to the open market, where they signed Mike Vick, who completed 7-of-10 passes for 130 yards in his very brief time on the field during the final two of the five preseason games.
The best news to come from the camp/preseason period is that Ben Roethlisberger enters the regular season in good health and having played well dating all the way back to OTAs in May. He has a new contract confirming the Steelers' commitment to him, and Roethlisberger has given every indication he's prepared mentally and physically to give them the kind of season they're going to need from him to be a contender.
(2014 Roster: 4: Dri Archer, Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Will Johnson)
(2015 Roster: 4: Dri Archer, Will Johnson, Roosevelt Nix, DeAngelo Williams)
As the 53-man roster became official, this position looked to be the one most likely to be changed as the rest of the teams' final cuts became official. It didn't make sense for the Steelers to open a season with only two running backs, with one of them being 173-pound Dri Archer, and with two fullbacks in Will Johnson and Roosevelt Nix. Johnson has four regular season carries in 47 games with the Steelers, while Nix is a first-year player who was a defensive tackle through his four seasons at Kent State.
What makes this an area in need of additional attention is the two-game suspension of Le'Veon Bell, because as Tomlin said, "Replacing a guy as dynamic as Le'Veon is not a one-man job but a multiple-man job."
The first man assigned to that job will be DeAngelo Williams, whose performance throughout the camp/preseason portion of the calendar spoke volumes about his readiness to carry the load during the two games of Bell's suspension.
"I have a lot of confidence in DeAngelo," said Tomlin. "This is not his first rodeo by any stretch. He has been in the league for a decade. He is a 6,000-yard college rusher. If you listen, he will tell you about it [Laughs]. He is an energy-bringer. He is a hard worker. He's had not only a good offseason, but a good preseason. I am excited about watching him play."
UPDATE: On Sunday, the Steelers moved to strengthen this unit by adding Jordan Todman (5-foot-10, 200 pounds), a fourth-year pro they had seen in person some 72 hours before in the preseason finale against Carolina. Drafted by the Chargers in 2011, Todman has spent time with Minnesota, Jacksonville, and Carolina while accumulating 450 rushing yards on 111 carries. He had 72 yards on five carries, including a 49-yard touchdown, against the Steelers. His preseason totals were 17 carries for 134 yards (7.9 average) and one touchdown.
WIDE RECEIVERS* (2014 Roster: 6: Antonio Brown, Justin Brown, Martavis Bryant, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Lance Moore, Markus Wheaton) (2015 Roster: 5: Antonio Brown, Sammie Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Tyler Murphy, Markus Wheaton)*
The unit absorbed a body blow with the announcement of the four-game suspension to Martavis Bryant for violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. What appeared to be a dynamic three-receiver complement including Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, and Bryant was going to be denied its deep threat through the first quarter of the season.
The Steelers say they are committed to helping Bryant get his life together, but as for replacing the on-field impact they first will look to veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey to fill what had been Bryant's role. Also in the mix will be Sammie Coates, who was drafted because the Steelers were aware of Bryant's issues to some degree, but Coates will be limited early in the regular season by his inexperience. Remember, Bryant was inactive for the first seven games of his rookie season because of a too-limited understanding of the nuances of his position.
When Tomlin was asked about whether the two suspensions made it more difficult to construct the first 53-man roster, he said, "It really didn't present challenges. It clarified some of the challenges associated with putting together the 53. Often you spend a lot of time debating over guys Nos. 50-55 and how to sort those guys out. Having those two additional spots minimized that discussion."
And it likely helped Tyler Murphy make the cut.
(2014 Roster: 3: Heath Miller, Michael Palmer, Matt Spaeth)
(2015 Roster: Jesse James, Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth)
At one point of the training camp process, this seemed like an area where the Steelers were going to have a two-rookie battle for one job. Fifth-round pick Jesse James and free agent Cameron Clear were competing for the third roster spot to be allotted to the tight ends. In the days after catching one pass for 4 yards in the Hall of Fame Game, Clear needed knee surgery for what he said was a childhood condition. Clear missed a couple of weeks of practice and was put on the waived/injured list on Aug. 31.
(2014 Roster: 9: Mike Adams, Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, Wesley Johnson, Maurkice Pouncey, Cody Wallace)
(2015 Roster: 8: Kelvin Beachum, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Chris Hubbard, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Cody Wallace)
It was sickly appropriate that the penultimate play of this five-game preseason ended with a cart coming onto the field to assist one of the two Steelers offensive linemen injured during the course of it. From the moment training camp opened, injuries shaped the group that the team was able to bring into the regular season.
Mike Adams began on the physically unable to perform list following a surgical procedure on his back on July 20, and that's where he begins the season. Maurkice Pouncey also began training camp on PUP, but he was back on the field on Aug. 3. Now he figures to miss the first 10 games after breaking his fibula on Aug. 23. Those injuries soaked up some of the depth, with Cody Wallace moving into the starting lineup and Alejandro Villanueva ascending to swing tackle. And in the preseason finale, three more offensive linemen were forced from the game with injuries – Kelvin Palmer (knee), Mitchell Van Dyk (ankle), and B.J. Finney (ankle).
UPDATE: On Sunday, the Steelers made official the move that had been expected for weeks when it placed Pouncey on IR-designated-to-return. Doug Legursky, who was out of football when the Steelers signed him on Aug. 25, was released as a vested veteran on Sept. 5 because he couldn't be a waiver claim and that made him free to wait for the Steelers to make the Pouncey move, at which point he was added to the 53-man roster.
Here is the 53 man roster for the Pittsburgh Steelers as announced on Saturday, September 5, 2015.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN* (2014 Roster: 6: Cameron Heyward, Brett Keisel, Daniel McCullers, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt) (2015 Roster: 6: Cam Heyward, Dan McCullers, Steve McLendon, Cam Thomas, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton)*
Clifton Geathers was making things interesting from a competition standpoint early in training camp, but he succumbed to injury and was placed on IR 48 hours before the Hall of Fame Game. From there, L.T. Walton improved steadily enough to win one of the six roster spots. Once Geathers was removed from the equation, the top six became apparent, even though it would have been nice to see more from Cam Thomas and Dan McCullers, both of whom completed their second camps/preseasons with the Steelers.
UPDATE: On Sunday, the Steelers claimed defensive end Caushaud Lyons who had been waived by Tampa Bay after signing with the team as an undrafted rookie in May. Lyons played his college football at Tusculum, and he has some intriguing measurables. He ran a 4.87, had a 30.5-inch vertical, and a 10-foot broad jump at his pro day and is praised for his agile feet and athleticism, but he's very raw and when he excelled in college it was at a lower level of competition. He is listed at 6-foot-5, 295 pounds.
(2014 Roster: 8: Terence Garvin, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams, Jason Worilds)
(2015 Roster: 10: Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, Terence Garvin, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams)
Keeping a lot of guys at a particular position can indicate one of two things: either there too many quality prospects who have to be kept, or there are too many unknowns about the individuals within the group and so it's decided there can be safety in numbers. With the Steelers opening with 10 linebackers on their roster, it's probably a result of a little bit of both. Plus, there's special teams.
And the truth is the Steelers very likely were going to carry nine linebackers this season, because nine was their number at the end of 2014 when they closed with four straight victories to clinch the AFC North Division championship. Seven of those nine are back – Terence Garvin, James Harrison, Jarvis Jones, Arthur Moats, Ryan Shazier, Sean Spence, Lawrence Timmons, and Vince Williams – and Bud Dupree is the most recent first-round draft pick. Looking at the group that way paints Anthony Chickillo as the last man across the finish line, and if that indeed was the case it likely had to do with some of the pass rush ability he flashed at times throughout the summer while transitioning from college defensive lineman to NFL outside linebacker.
UPDATE: Chickillo was waived when the Steelers were awarded DE Caushaud Lyons on waivers. At the time, there was a sense Chickillo could still end up on the Steelers practice squad.
(2014 Roster: 11: Cortez Allen, Will Allen, Antwon Blake, William Gay, Robert Golden, Brice McCain, Mike Mitchell, Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Shamarko Thomas, B.W. Webb)
(2015 Roster: 11: Cortez Allen, Will Allen, Antwon Blake, Brandon Boykin, Ross Cockrell, William Gay, Robert Golden, Doran Grant, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Ross Ventrone)
For the second straight year, it's 11 defensive backs on the opening roster, and with the switch to more cover-2 concepts it makes some sense to find four different players among this year's 11. Brandon Boykin was acquired via trade with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Ross Cockrell was signed after he was waived by the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 31. Last year, Ross Ventrone was signed from the practice squad on Oct. 11, and this year he was one of the original 11, as was Doran Grant, the team's No. 4 pick in the 2016 draft.
UPDATE: Grant made the first 53, but he was waived when the Steelers signed running back Jordan Todman on Sept. 6. Grant was a part of a three-defensive-back draft class for the Steelers in 2015, and it now appears none of them will be on the 53-man roster for the opener in New England. Senquez Golson is on IR, and Gerod Holliman was waived on Sept. 5. It's still possible Grant will come back as a member of the practice squad.
(2014 Roster: 3: Shaun Suisham, Greg Warren, Brad Wing)
(2015 Roster: 3: Jordan Berry, Josh Scobee, Greg Warren)
It started for Jordan Berry with a phone call made by Dermontti Dawson. The Steelers' Hall of Fame center placed a call to the team about a possible tryout for a punter from Eastern Kentucky named Jordan Berry, and since the Steelers needed someone to punt during their rookie minicamp – only rookies and some first-year players are eligible to attend – they liked enough of what they saw during the tryout and signed him. Three-plus months later, Berry is the Steelers' punter, after the team traded Brad Wing to the New York Giants for a conditional seventh-round pick in the 2016 draft.
The way it turned out this summer, the only legitimate competition for a starting job was at punter, where Wing and Berry went after each other on a daily basis. Wing finished his second preseason with a 48.8 average on 12 punts with one touchback and four inside the 20-yard line. Berry, the rookie, averaged 49.8 yards on his 19 punts with one touchback and five inside the 20-yard line.
When Shaun Suisham sustained a knee injury during the Hall of Fame Game that required surgery, Garrett Hartley emerged from an impromptu tryout at Heinz Field and joined the team at training camp. The Steelers seemed satisfied with Hartley, who made all four of his field goal attempts and both PATs, but when he injured a hamstring in Buffalo on Aug. 29, they swung a trade with Jacksonville for Josh Scobee. All due respect to Hartley, but Scobee is closer to Suisham's level than Hartley.