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Labriola On

Labriola on the 53-man roster

It's not easy. It's not fun. It's not something that's taken lightly. Coach Mike Tomlin has said that cut-down day is "the worst day of the year, quite frankly," but it's also necessary because it signifies a turning of the page from offseason football to the time of the year when NFL players and coaches are able to focus on the challenges that lie on the immediate horizon.

Last year, cutdown day had to happen without an offseason program, without OTAs and minicamp, and most significantly, teams had to reduce their rosters to 53 with no preseason games to aid in the evaluation.

In 2021, the process returned to "normal" in that there was a complete offseason and, for the Steelers at least, the regular complement of four preseason games. The one difference this summer was that instead of a single massive roster reduction, there were three cut-down dates – from 90 players to 85 on Aug. 17, then from 85 to 80 players on Aug. 24, and finally from 80 players to 53 on Aug. 31.

"It doesn't matter to me to be quite honest with you," said Tomlin about three roster cuts instead of just one. "Whenever it's time to cut, you're generally in position to make those decisions. You have a general understanding about what has transpired and about who's deserving of moving forward, and often times those decisions are clear ones."

Why the change?

"There were a multitude of reasons given in committee," said Tomlin. "None of them really stand out right now and I don't think, largely, a lot of us really care, to be honest with you, when that is. As long as we have sufficient time to do the evaluations, and it has been that through this process. When we had to cut five guys (that first) week, we were ready at that point. We had seen enough to do that."

After the weeks of training camp at Heinz Field and four preseason games, and the daily evaluations throughout the entire process, the Steelers accumulated what they believed was sufficient information to make the necessary and required decisions. But that didn't make it any easier, or any less difficult for Tomlin.

"I'm not going to get into what's tough and what's not," said Tomlin on Aug. 31 before the final cuts were announced. "Understand that they all are tough, because we've been working with this group of men since the spring. We respect their preparedness and what they put into it. It's just something we need to be sensitive of, and we are.

"I don't want it to get easier, to be honest with you. I don't want to get desensitized to it. These are men on the other end of these decisions, and that never leaves the front of my mind."

The following is the Steelers' initial 53-man roster:

QUARTERBACKS – 3: Dwayne Haskins, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
(Last Year: 3) Devlin Hodges, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph

What attracted the most interest had nothing to do with what was most important.

When training camp began, most of the interest directed to the quarterback position had to do with whether Dwayne Haskins would show enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, but what was most important when it came to the team's potential for success throughout the 2021 regular season had to do with Ben Roethlisberger. But once the Steelers and Roethlisberger came to the agreement that adjusted his contract, the only real issue at the quarterback position regarding the making of the 53-man roster was whether Haskins would hold off the competition to be presented by Joshua Dobbs.

"Arm talent is the thing that really jumps out at you," said Coach Mike Tomlin about Haskins with the team's four-game preseason underway. "His pedigree is very evident, really in all circumstances. There's not a throw on the field he can't make or doesn't have the confidence in making. Largely he has taken care of the ball throughout the process, and that's been good. He's been a fluid decision-maker in terms of getting the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. So, he's done a lot of good things. There are some things that he needs to continue to work on, and all the quarterbacks have those things, but it's been a good process for him."

Haskins was sufficiently impressive through the first three games of the preseason – 28-of-42 (66.7 percent) for 271 yards, with one touchdown, no interceptions, and a rating of 92.5 – that he was given the start in the finale when Tomlin opted to rest both Roethlisberger and Mason Rudolph. Tomlin was giving Haskins a chance to play against Carolina's starting defense and show he deserved to vault Rudolph on the depth chart and become Roethlisberger's backup in 2021.

But that fairy tale ended in Charlotte, because Haskins played poorly. In the first half, he quarterbacked an offense that ran 19 plays, was 0-for-4 on third downs, managed 64 total net yards, never penetrated the Carolina 44-yard line, and ended its six possessions this way: punt, punt, interception, punt, punt, end of half. Tomlin then gave him the first series of the third quarter, likely in an effort to allow Haskins to dig himself out of a hole, and the hole just got deeper. By the time Haskins was replaced by Dobbs, he was 3-for-9 for 24 yards, with no touchdowns, one interception, and a rating of 2.8. There was a touchdown drive in garbage time, but by that point the depth chart was set.

Rudolph would be Roethlisberger's backup. Haskins was the No. 3 quarterback, but he had earned a spot on the 53-man roster.

For his part, Roethlisberger played three series in the third preseason game – against the Lions on Aug. 21 at Heinz Field – and was perfect, at least by the measure of the NFL's passer rating formula.

"Ben's been teaching me since I got here," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "I think Ben is right where he wants to be. He's playing very well. He's worked extremely hard to bring along the many young guys up front, working with them. We've got a young guy (Najee Harris) in the backfield. We've got a young guy (Pat Freiermuth) at tight end. He's certainly had some rapport with those (wide receivers) on the edge. They don't have a lot of years (in the NFL). Ben has worked very hard to get everyone on the same page. The few changes we've had in our offense, the tweaks we've had in terminology, he has embraced those and learned them, as well as teaching everybody else now. I'm excited for where we all are, but he certainly has been great."

RUNNING BACKS – 5: Kalen Ballage, Najee Harris, Anthony McFarland Jr., Benny Snell, Derek Watt
(Last Year: 5) James Conner, Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Derek Watt

From the first day of rookie minicamp, it was obvious he was different. That he was better. As Tomlin would come to explain it: "Succinctly, he's varsity. He checks the boxes."

Najee Harris was the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. He was the Steelers' No. 1 pick. On the first snap of 11-on-11 during Rookie Minicamp he was the No. 1 running back. Same thing with the first snap of OTAs. Ditto minicamp. Training camp, too. Same for the preseason opener. And in each preseason game until Tomlin had seen enough and encased him in bubble-wrap for the preseason finale.

"He appears to be highly competitive," Tomlin said about Harris. "There haven't been many scenarios we've had this guy in where he hasn't been really comfortable with competing. But I think that's to be expected when you're drafting running back in the first round. They've got to have some unique traits. They've got to be competitive, virtually in all circumstances, and he has displayed those things in a very short time."

Then it became a matter of assembling a complementary group around Harris so that the Steelers would be able to go into the regular season with some different elements for the opposing defenses on their schedule.

"Different guys have different skill-sets, and more than anything it is less about depth and more about specialization, about the guys bringing their special skills and traits to the table," said Tomlin. "Anthony McFarland has a different skill-set than the majority of the runners, so it's reasonable to expect his area quickness and spatial play to be a factor. And that's a way he can contribute. Benny Snell over the course of his career has proven to be a solid short yardage and goal line runner. He's got a good pad level, he's got strong legs, he's got good drive after contact, and so, he lends himself to a role in that area.

"In today's game, that's what it's about. It's not necessarily about a depth chart per se, particularly when you're talking about who falls behind Najee, but it's more about what skill-sets they bring and how can we accentuate their talents."

That plan of action hit a bump in the road when the Steelers placed McFarland, Zach Banner, and Stephon Tuitt on the injured reserve list on Sept. 1, roughly 24 hours after setting their initial 53-man roster. McFarland had to be kept on the initial 53 and then placed on IR because if he had been placed on IR before the cut to 53, he would've been lost for the whole season. This way, he only had to miss at least three regular season games before having a chance to be brought back to the active roster.

With McFarland out at least for the first few games of the season, the Steelers figure to turn to Benny Snell and/or Kalen Ballage to take the offensive snaps that Harris doesn't. Ballage, a fourth-year pro with 629 rushing yards (3.1 average) and seven touchdowns in 35 NFL games, finished the preseason with 57 yards rushing (4.1 average), one touchdown, and two catches for 17 more yards.

"He's got a well-rounded skill-set," said Tomlin about Ballage. "He's athletic, he's got good speed for his size, and he's also very strong."

In addition to being the team's second-leading rusher in 2020 behind James Conner, Snell also is a significant contributor on special teams. He led the Steelers in solo tackles in coverage last season with nine.

TIGHT ENDS – 3: Eric Ebron, Pat Freiermuth, Zach Gentry
(Last Year: 3) Eric Ebron, Zach Gentry, Vance McDonald

When the Steelers used their second-round pick in the 2021 draft on a tight end instead of an offensive lineman, many wondered what they were doing. Midway through the preseason it became clear that what they were doing with the selection of Pat Freiermuth was adding the draft's best two-way tight end to their offense.

"I'm really high on his work ethic and his football IQ," said Canada. "I think he wants to get better every day. He takes mistakes off film, and that's a great credit to a young player. He doesn't make the same mistake twice. When you're doing that, you're striving to get better. That's a hard thing to do at whatever level. The great thing about him is he's learning all the time, and he's very willing and very open to take coaching from all of his coaches and players. He's very much an open book. I appreciate how hard he works."

It's pretty much a guarantee that Roethlisberger will appreciate Freiermuth in the red zone, particularly after he made two nice catches in the back of the end zone in the preseason game vs. Detroit. Roethlisberger also developed an effective working relationship last season with Eric Ebron, who creates matchup difficulties for opposing defenses with his ability to get down the seam and make plays in the passing game.

But what this group lacks, or to be kinder, what this group needs to develop, is the ability to handle the blocking element of the tight end position on a consistent basis to allow the running game to become what it needs to be to allow the offense as a whole to become more well-rounded.

The closest thing the Steelers have to a "blocking tight end" is Zach Gentry, whose college career at Michigan began with him as a quarterback. A fifth-round pick in 2019, Gentry was a 215-pound quarterback at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque; a 230-pound quarterback-soon-to-switch-to-tight-end as a freshman at Michigan; a 248-pound rookie with the Steelers; and now a 265-pound third-year pro.

"Zach's come a long way from the time I've been here," said Canada, first was hired by Tomlin to be the Steelers' quarterbacks coach in 2020. "I think Zach has embraced his role. He has a unique role. He's a huge man who plays tight end. He has worked very hard on his ball skills, first off, to make sure he can make those catches so he's not just a big blocker, but I do think his blocking has improved. I think that gives us some flexibility in the matchup game, with the things he can do in the pass game and the run game. Very happy with where Zach is. Happy for him because he has put a lot of work in."

WIDE RECEIVERS – 5: Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington
(Last Year: 5) Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, Ray-Ray McCloud, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington

Simultaneously, this was the toughest position for a player to earn a roster spot and the easiest position for the team to cut.

In 2020, the five wide receivers who made the initial 53-man roster for the Steelers combined for 297 catches for 3,096 yards (10.4 average) and 30 touchdowns. That level of production, combined with the fact that JuJu Smith-Schuster, as a fifth-year pro, is the most veteran of the top four players on the depth chart, left little room for a new guy to make the kind of impression during the summer that would've been necessary to unseat one of the returning receivers.

In truth, the only player among the holdovers from 2020 who even was remotely vulnerable was Ray-Ray McCloud, but none of the challengers this summer turned in a noticeably better or more productive preseason than his. McCloud caught eight passes for 108 yards (13.5 average) and one touchdown, while Cody White finished with seven catches for 46 yards (6.6 average); Rico Bussey caught five for 49 yards (9.8 average); Mathew Sexton caught two for 10 yards (5.0 average); and Anthony Johnson caught six for 72 yards (12.0 average) and one touchdown. And any chance Sexton had to replace McCloud as the return specialist vanished during the preseason finale when he muffed two punts.

OFFENSIVE LINE – 8: Zach Banner, Kevin Dotson, Joe Haeg, J.C. Hassenauer, Kendrick Green, Dan Moore Jr., Chuks Okorafor, Trai Turner
(Last Year: 9) Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Kevin Dotson, Matt Feiler, J.C. Hassenauer, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Stefan Wisniewski

No unit on this roster had as much turnover than the offensive line from 2020 to 2021 but based on the Steelers finishing last in the NFL in rushing for the first time in the Super Bowl era, maybe that kind of turnover was necessary. David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, and Stefan Wisniewski were five of the nine linemen who were a part of the initial 53-man roster in 2020, and none of them are employed by the Steelers in 2021.

And then less than 48 hours after the initial 53-man roster was announced, the Steelers made more changes that impacted this unit. Banner, along with running back Anthony McFarland Jr. and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, landed on the injured reserve list, which means they cannot practice or play until they miss the first three games of the regular season. Then in corresponding administrative moves, veteran interior backups B.J. Finney and Rashaad Coward, who had been released to allow the Steelers to keep Banner, Tuitt, and McFarland on the initial 53-man roster, were re-signed to restore some necessary depth along the interior.

There may be some more roster changes that impact this position, but the most likely scenario has the team making the trip to Buffalo with the original eight, minus Banner, plus Finney and Coward. Barring some more roster changes, the Steelers will take the field for the regular season opener in Buffalo with some group of five players from the nine currently on the roster as the starting offensive line. But how will they be aligned?

Here's a guess, from left-to-right: Moore, Dotson, Green, Turner, and Okorafor.

If that turns out to be correct, Okorafor will be the only player in the same spot that he played a year ago, and the starting five in front of Ben Roethlisberger will include two rookies. If that guess turns out to be correct, it would be the first time that group of five lined up together in that specific alignment in a game situation.

Tomlin acknowledged the need for the starting group to develop some cohesion, but with a caveat: "There's no question (about wanting to develop cohesion), and the sooner that's identified the better. But again, the sooner it is identified, the better, but what you don't want to do is mis-identify the appropriate five. So as soon as we have an understanding of that, that group will begin work and that has happened in a lot of ways, to be quite honest with you. We just choose to not make any bold declarations regarding it. It's not necessary. We like to work behind the scenes and hone our skills and readiness for the battles that lie ahead."

The first of those battles will begin at 1 p.m. in Buffalo against the defending AFC East Champion Bills.

"Well, we're going to take as much time as we can get, but the bottom line is when we play the Bills, we're going to be ready to play," said Canada. "You never want anybody to be out but when that happens, you can mix and match, and that's what real football really is, right? As far as a No. 1 O-line and a No. 2 two O-line, the cohesion, you want to build that and that's very important, but in real football one guy gets nicked up and another guy goes in. You can look at anything however you want. It's a positive for us. We're getting some great reps with some guys. We're getting some other guys healed up and healthy, and we're going to be in a good spot when it's time to play."

DEFENSIVE LINE – 8: Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, Cam Heyward, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Henry Mondeaux, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley
(Last Year: 6) Tyson Alualu, Isaiah Buggs, Carlos Davis, Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Chris Wormley

This was another area that experienced some quick turnover in the 48-hour period following the initial cut-down to 53, and it had to do with Stephon Tuitt's health. On Sept. 1, Tuitt was placed on the injured reserve list with what has been reported as a knee injury, and because he first was on the initial 53-man roster he will be able to return as early as the fourth game of the regular season. The move with Tuitt also explained why the Steelers, who operate from a 3-4 base defense, opened with eight defensive linemen on the 53-man roster.

The most logical replacement for Tuitt in the lineup is veteran Chris Wormley, who was acquired in a trade from the Ravens during the 2020 offseason.

"He's done a great job with the additional reps that he's gotten, but we're not surprised by that," said Tomlin about Wormley. "He's been a part of us, and we re-signed him in the offseason because of that expertise."

Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar is someone who believes in rotating players throughout a game to keep everyone fresh for the fourth quarter, and that philosophy means the top backups will be counted on to make weekly contributions. Included in the group of top backups are third-year pro Isaiah Buggs and second-year pro Carlos Davis.

"I'll say this about both guys: They both have had good consistent camps in the areas where they distinguish themselves," said Tomlin. "Isaiah Buggs being a strong run defender. He's shown that consistently in run drill-like circumstances. And Carlos Davis is a young, dynamic interior rusher, and he has shown those skills in drills that highlight that aspect of play. Probably the difference between them are the areas where they do not excel, or they don't have an area of expertise. Like how well does Isaiah Buggs rush the passer, and how well does Carlos Davis stop the run. Those are the things that ultimately could determine roles that could potentially develop for those guys."

Even though it seemed like a long-shot when camp opened, both rookie Isaiahh Loudermilk and second-year pro Henry Mondeaux made the active roster. Mondeaux finished the preseason with two special teams tackles, and Loudermilk was in on seven tackles and had one sack and two pressures.

LINEBACKERS – 10: Marcus Allen, Devin Bush, Ulysees Gilbert III, Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram III, Buddy Johnson, Jamir Jones, Joe Schobert, Robert Spillane, T.J. Watt
(Last Year: 8) Ola Adeniyi, Devin Bush, Bud Dupree, Ulysees Gilbert, Alex Highsmith, Robert Spillane, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams

When the 2021 offseason officially began, the big news here was the loss of Bud Dupree via free agency. When the 2021 preseason ended, the big news had become the addition of Melvin Ingram III as an unrestricted free agent and the acquisition of Joe Schobert in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Oh, plus the fact Alex Highsmith arguably was the team's most impressive player throughout training camp.

The heart of the Steelers defense is their linebackers, and the unit absorbed a couple of significant losses in 2020 when first Devin Bush and then Dupree went down with torn ACLs. The team had prepared for the eventuality of losing Dupree via free agency by using a third-round pick on Highsmith, but that knee injury thrust Highsmith into the starting lineup earlier than anticipated. And there was no obvious replacement for Bush after he was injured.

The Steelers are much better suited to withstand a loss at inside linebacker following the trade for Schobert, a Pro Bowl player who has averaged over 100 tackles per season during his NFL career, while also contributing nine interceptions, 24 passes defensed, 11 sacks, and nine forced fumbles. He immediately was installed next to Bush in the starting lineup.

"He is a veteran player who has well-known and consistent productivity, and that's very attractive," said Tomlin. "Not only productivity in terms of run-game tackling – his tackle total is what it is, it speaks for itself – but this is a guy who has been one of the best interceptors at the linebacker position in our game in recent years, and he also has a resume of quarterback pressures and sacks. He plays a well-rounded game. We're highly familiar with him because not only did we play against him when he was in Cleveland, but we also played against him since he's been in Jacksonville. We've seen that guy every year of his professional life, and he's been a consistent and productive player, and so we're glad to have him."

In 2020, the starter next to Bush sometimes was Vince Williams and sometimes was Robert Spillane, but neither of those guys had the coverage ability that Schobert brings. Once Bush is 100 percent back from his ACL injury and is confident that he's 100 percent back from his ACL injury, he is the team's every-down, all-situations inside linebacker. But until that happens the Steelers have a capable backup for that role in Schobert.

Backups also are important at the two outside linebacker spots, and that's where Ingram and Jamir Jones will help in 2021. Ingram is a veteran, three-time Pro Bowl selection, who can play either side and is competent in coverage as well. Jones came on during training camp and the preseason to beat out rookie Quincy Roche and veteran Cassius Marsh for the No. 4 spot at outside linebacker.

Jones, one of the stars of the preseason, finished with 2.5 sacks, 9 quarterback hurries, and was in on nine special teams tackles in the four games.

Buddy Johnson, Ulysees Gilbert III, Marcus Allen, and Spillane should end up being core special teams players.

DEFENSIVE BACKS – 8: Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Miles Killebrew, Justin Layne, Tre Norwood, James Pierre, Cameron Sutton
(Last Year: 11) Marcus Allen, Jordan Dangerfield, Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Justin Layne, Steven Nelson, James Pierre, Curtis Riley, Cam Sutton

The fallback plan all along was that Cam Sutton was capable of being the starting nickel if one of the other candidates failed to establish himself in that role, and as the preseason ended it seemed as though the Steelers were going to open the regular season, at least, using their fallback plan.

Antoine Brooks Jr. and Arthur Maulet had early shots at the nickel spot, but both saw their chances ruined by injuries that forced them to miss too much practice time to be viable candidates once the regular season began. And even though rookie Tre Norwood didn't miss any practice time and showed promise as the team's Swiss Army knife throughout the summer, by the time the Steelers got around to trying him there the preseason was all but over.

Assuming Sutton is the decided-upon option at nickel, James Pierre seemingly would be the guy to take over the outside cornerback duties opposite Joe Haden when Sutton slides down to the inside. Pierre, a second-year pro who was the only undrafted rookie to make the roster in 2020, was a regular playmaker through training camp and finished the preseason with 11 tackles and a pass defensed. Justin Layne, a third-round pick in 2019 entering his third NFL season, secured a roster spot with a preseason that included 11 tackles, two passes defensed, one interception, and one forced fumble.

It will be interesting to see how Norwood's role develops and how that might impact the way some of the other defensive backs are deployed in the many sub-packages the Steelers decide to employ over the course of the regular season.

SPECIALISTS – 3: Chris Boswell, Pressley Harvin III, Christian Kuntz
(Last Year: 3) Jordan Berry, Chris Boswell, Kam Canaday

Jordan Berry probably had the best training camp/preseason of a professional career that dates back to the summer of 2015, but it wasn't enough to hold off the powerful leg and potential of seventh-round pick Pressley Harvin III.

"It was tight. It really was," said special teams coordinator Danny Smith of the competition at punter. "I was really proud of those two guys. Jordan Berry is a real pro. I'm not here to build him up or anything like that, but he punted better than he ever has. He really did. In practice, as well, and some of you saw some of that. It was a real battle. It really was. Pressley [Harvin III] handled it really well and met challenges. Jordan was a real pro, and I knew that and thought that about him, but he went above and beyond. He helped that young kid, he was a real teammate in those kinds of things. I think we had two NFL punters, I really did, and I would've been good either way. They were both quite capable of going into this season with the tape that they put out there."

The other significant part of the punter's job is holding for Chris Boswell, and Harvin showed himself to be sufficiently NFL caliber in that aspect to avoid having that costing him the job.

"It is a significant box to check," said Tomlin about the punter's ability to be a consistent holder on placement attempts. "We don't necessarily evaluate levels of excellence, but they have to be more than adequate holders. And once they're more than adequate, we can focus our energies on their punting abilities. Both punters are more than adequate in terms of holding for Chris Boswell, so it'll be a non-factor in determining who gets the job."

Usually, an NFL team will bring a second long-snapper to camp as a hedge against injury – as a glorified camp body – and once the preseason gets underway the second long-snapper is one of the first guys waived. But this summer Christian Kuntz was a legitimate contender for the job, and he ended up beating out veteran Kameron Canaday.

"Christian is very consistent," said Smith. "His ball is the same ball, and that's easier (for the holder and the placekicker), to be honest with you. He's very consistent in his snaps, in his location, and that's a challenge as a snapper. He's a good player. I'm comfortable with these guys. I really mean it. I am. My job is to coach them, and I'm really comfortable in that. It's a challenge for young guys in their first game. I went through that this morning in the meeting. We haven't played a real game yet. Obviously, the temperature's going up starting with Monday's practice, but he's very consistent. That would probably be the term that I'd put on him – consistent. He got into this mix and won that job."

Whether Kuntz knew he was something more than a camp body when the summer began is unknown, but by the time the preseason finale came around, a conversation with Tomlin should have made that clear

"Let me put it this way: Two years ago, we were playing in this (preseason finale), and Christian had a sack in this game as an outside linebacker," said Tomlin before the team's trip to Charlotte. "He prides himself on being a football player. He asked if he could play some outside linebacker (in this preseason finale this year). We said absolutely not, because in this camp, he's a legitimate, viable candidate for the snapper position."