Labriola On

Labriola on making the 53, practice squad rules

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Sunday night in Nashville, the Steelers will play what has come to be recognized as the most important preseason game of the summer, the third of four, and it will be against the Tennessee Titans. While there still will be an opportunity for a player or two to win a roster spot by what he shows in the preseason finale in Charlotte the following Thursday night, this game against the Titans will provide the last best opportunity for a bunch of hopefuls to make a positive impression.

• For those interested in tracking the progress of their favorite camp phenom, my suggestion is to pay special attention to special teams. And not just the guys returning the punts and kickoffs.

• Here is a highly unofficial breakdown of some players who figure to need a solid performance against the Titans to keep themselves at the forefront, and while most fans likely would be able to discuss how each man has done on offense or defense, it's a much smaller number who would know anything about their special teams abilities and contributions.

• Barring injury, the Steelers have kept four running backs, which includes fullback Rosie Nix, on their initial 53-man roster. James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, and Nix are three. The fourth spot is between rookie Benny Snell and Trey Edmunds, unless they both contribute so much on special teams that it convinces the Steelers to keep five.

• Both Snell and Edmunds are power backs, and both have shown some ability to move the pile in the NFL. But on special teams, it might surprise some to know that Snell actually might have the edge. Edmunds has played 24 special teams snaps so far this preseason, and he has one tackle, while Snell has played 25 special teams snaps over the same period, and he has two tackles, one of which was a tackle on Chiefs speedster Mecole Hardman during a punt return for a 16-yard loss.

• When it comes to the wide receiver position, it's safe to assume JuJu Smith-Schuster, Donte Moncrief, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson will make the team. Ryan Switzer and Eli Rogers could be competing for one spot because both are the same type of players. And if the Steelers keep a sixth receiver, that player probably would be kept primarily for special teams.

• There are two guys who could fit into that category – Diontae Spencer because of returns and Johnny Holton because of an ability to cover kicks.

• Spencer is averaging 16.8 yards per punt return with a long of 38 yards, and he has returned one kickoff for 35 yards through two preseason games. Spencer also has been consistent catching the ball, he has made good decisions about fair catches, and he hasn't allowed the ball to bounce in front of him and roll past him to add yards to the opponent's punts. Holton has two tackles on 23 special teams snaps.

• What's unusual about the linebackers who are competing for spots on the roster is that they really haven't gotten much of an opportunity on special teams so far, and none of them have done much in terms of being productive with the snaps they've gotten. And it's too bad, because a couple of them have flashed on defense.

• Ulysees Gilbert has been making a real run at a roster spot, because after the first two preseason games he has six tackles, 1.5 sacks, and four total hits on the quarterback. But in 22 special teams snaps (13 against Tampa Bay and nine against Kansas City) he has one tackle. Special teams on Sunday night could turn out to be critical for Gilbert.

• Tuzar Skipper is another guy who began camp as an unknown, but through two preseason games he has five tackles, including one for loss, plus a fumble recovery. But Skipper didn't play any special teams snaps against the Buccaneers, and he didn't record a statistic on the three special teams snaps he played vs. the Chiefs.

• It's a little different for safety Marcus Allen, because special teams isn't necessarily the final piece that puts him over the top in the quest for a roster spot, but special teams might have to be his ticket to a roster spot.

• During the first two preseason games, both Kameron Kelly and Jordan Dangerfield have been on the field for defensive snaps before Allen, but Allen has been more visible on special teams this summer than either of those other two safeties. In fairness, Dangerfield is an established NFL special teams player, and it's very possible special teams coordinator Danny Smith is comfortable enough with what Dangerfield provides that he doesn't really need to see more from him in that phase.

• But if Allen continues to be productive on special teams over the next 10 days, maybe he vaults himself over someone on the bottom of the depth chart at another position.

• What this all means if that if you're one who likes to try to predict the makeup of the Steelers 53-man roster, seeing who's on special teams and who's productive with the snaps they're given could turn out to be an accurate predictor of who ends up making it and who ends up on the waiver wire.

• Each team is permitted to have a practice squad containing up to 10 players, with four of those 10 able to come from the list of players who qualify under the "exception" category. The Steelers can have an 11th player – Christian Scotland-Williamson – on their practice squad because he qualifies under the NFL's International Player Pathway program.

• Teams are required to cut their rosters to 53 players by 4 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 31, and then the waiver period expires at noon on Sunday, Sept. 1, which means that starting approximately at 1 p.m. on Sunday teams will begin signing players to their practice squads.

• And before any player, including those who would qualify under the "exception" designation, can be signed to any team's practice squad, he must first be waived and then clear waivers without being claimed by another team.

• The following is a complete list of players, broken down by position, on the Steelers' 90-man roster who are practice squad eligible. Players who are eligible for the practice squad under the "exception" designation are noted by an (*).

• QUARTERBACKS: Josh Dobbs*, Devlin Hodges, Mason Rudolph.

• RUNNING BACKS: James Conner, Trey Edmunds, Travon McMillan, Jaylen Samuels*, Benny Snell, Malik Williams.

• TIGHT ENDS: Micky Crum, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson, Trevor Wood.

• WIDE RECEIVERS: Trey Griffey, Johnny Holton, Diontae Johnson, Tevin Jones, Brandon Reilly, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Spencer, Ryan Switzer, James Washington.

• OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Zach Banner, Garrett Brumfield, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassenauer, Jerald Hawkins, Fred Johnson, Patrick Morris, Chuks Okorafor*, Damian Prince.

• DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Isaiah Buggs, Winston Craig, Greg Gilmore, Henry Mondeaux, Casey Sayles, Conor Sheehy.

• LINEBACKERS: Ola Adeniyi, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert, Christian Kuntz, Tegray Scales, Tuzar Skipper, Sutton Smith, Robert Spillane.

• DEFENSIVE BACKS: Brian Allen, Marcus Allen, Dravon Askew-Henry, Marcelis Branch, Jordan Dangerfield, Terrell Edmunds, Mike Hilton, Kameron Kelly, Justin Layne, Travon Mathis, P.J. Locke, Cam Sutton.

• SPECIALISTS: Ian Berryman, Kameron Canaday*, Matthew Wright.