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Labriola on the initial 53-man roster

It’s long been a football tradition, and it played out once again at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex over the last 36-some hours. The Steelers took a 90-man roster and cut it to 53, and those 37 moves were announced officially yesterday at 4 p.m. And according to the protocol, the 37 were notified, while the others were left to hope their phones didn’t ring, that there were no knocks on their hotel room doors.

“Quite simply, you’re more concerned with the guys you’re letting go,” said Coach Mike Tomlin, “and you’re providing insight and guidance for them. Maybe direction, evaluation, and a critique. I think the day belongs to those guys, to be quite honest with you. Everyone has given a substantial effort, and put their best foot forward, so I think it’s just appropriate to give those a conversation if they so desire, to provide some direction for them. These are very young people, some are 20, 21, 22 years old. They’re being fired from a job. It’s not a good day for them. Often times, they’re transitioning in terms of figuring out what’s next. I tend to focus on those men.”

Indeed, Saturday, Sept. 1 belonged to the 37 players who were notified that their Steelers career wasn’t going to continue as part of this initial 53-man roster. But that was yesterday, and the NFL is not a nostalgic business. Starting today, it’s all about moving forward with these 53 into the regular season, with the opener set for one week from today against the Browns in Cleveland.

NOTE: Because Le’Veon Bell hasn’t signed his franchise tender, he does not count against the roster limit of 53 players. It also should be noted that in order for a player to be eligible to be considered for injured reserve/designated to return, he must be a part of the 53-man roster before being placed on injured reserve.

The following is a position-by-position look at the Steelers’ initial 53-man roster, with the players at each listed alphabetically:

QUARTERBACKS (3): Joshua Dobbs, Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph
It cannot be said veteran Landry Jones lost his job as the No. 2 quarterback, at least he didn’t lose it based on his play during the preseason. But there were reasons why the Steelers opted to keep Joshua Dobbs, and certainly working in his favor had to be his play during the preseason.

Playing all but one series in the first half of the preseason finale vs. Carolina, Dobbs completed 8-of-12 in that game for 151 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, and a rating of 137.5. He also ran the ball three times for 18 more yards and another touchdown. For the preseason, Dobbs completed 29-of-43 (67.4 percent) for 434 yards, with four touchdowns, two interceptions, and a rating of 111.9. He also had 64 yards rushing on 10 attempts.

Eventually, it could become clear what separated Jones and Dobbs in the Steelers’ minds, but at this point it’s still somewhat speculative. Jones was entering his sixth pro season, and Roethlisberger had made it a point during training camp to say publicly that he trusted him to help him as an extra set of eyes from the sideline during games.

What Dobbs has going for him is youth, which also could have been interpreted as inexperience, and upside. Dobbs can make plays with his legs, which is not part of Jones’ game, and if the Steelers had to go to him for a segment of the regular season, his ability to run could have been viewed as another issue for opponents to defend. There also is much more financial security with Dobbs, who will be working on his rookie contract through the 2020 season, whereas Jones could have become an unrestricted free agent next March. Also, what could have been attractive for the Steelers is the amount of improvement Dobbs showed from his first to his second NFL season, and the promise that improvement indicates for the near future.

RUNNING BACKS (4): James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Jaylen Samuels, and Stevan Ridley
As previously noted, Le’Veon Bell does not count on the 53-man roster because he has yet to sign his franchise tender, and it’s believed that when Bell does sign he simply will be added to this group of four to give the team five running backs on the roster. The Steelers are keeping an extra player at this position when compared to the recent past, and they’re also keeping guys who are more offensive players than special teams players.

This group would seem to put the Steelers in better shape to deal with a slow start by Bell, should that be the case, than they were last year. James Conner is significantly better than he was last year at this time as a rookie, and Stevan Ridley is a veteran, a powerful runner, and a guy who is not a deficiency in the passing game, either as a receiver or as a blocker. Jaylen Samuels, like many rookies at this position, struggled early with the pass protection demands of the position, but in the second half of the preseason he flashed his versatility as a runner and a receiver, and that potential helped him earn a roster spot.

TIGHT ENDS (3): Xavier Grimble, Jesse James, Vance McDonald
Health is the major issue here, with Vance McDonald having missed the majority of the camp/preseason process with a foot injury, and then Xavier Grimble reportedly had surgery to repair a ligament injury in his wrist. The Steelers employ a lot of two-tight-end sets, and so this could be a spot for another move or two before the opener against the Browns.

WIDE RECEIVERS (6): Antonio Brown, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Ryan Switzer, James Washington
Two of the six players here are primarily special teams guys: Ryan Switzer is the primary kick returner, and Darrius Heyward-Bey is a key element on the coverage units. The other four receivers will make up the various personnel groupings the Steelers will employ on offense.

Hunter, at 6-foot-4, is physically similar to Martavis Bryant and during the preseason his contributions to the passing attack were similar as well. Hunter is a down-the-field threat, and if he can duplicate the production he displayed in that area during the preseason – an 18.9-yard average that included receptions of 46 and 32 yards – he should open up portions of the field for Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

James Washington had a very nice preseason and lived up to his reputation as a guy who excels at making combat catches, but he sustained an abdominal injury against the Titans on Aug. 25. How much this impacts him, if at all, will be something to monitor as the regular season begins.

OFFENSIVE LINE (9): Zach Banner, David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, B.J. Finney, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Chuks Okorafor, Maurkice Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva
The only spot in doubt among the starting five is at left guard, and that only because of the uncertainty created by Ramon Foster’s MCL sprain. If he’s physically unable come Sept. 9, B.J. Finney would start in his place.

Since the Steelers typically dress seven offensive linemen on game day, the sixth and seventh guys would be Finney (if Foster is healthy) and Okorafor, and if Finney is in the starting lineup, then Feiler would figure to be the primary interior backup because he lined up at both guard spots and even at center during the preseason.

Zach Banner, the son of former Raiders offensive tackle Lincoln Kennedy, made a late rush to earn a roster spot after being just days before training camp ended as an injury replacement when Kyle Meadows was waived injured. After Banner showed himself capable of playing left tackle, he inserted himself into the mix for a team that reported to Saint Vincent College looking for depth at the position. In Banner, 6-6, 330, 24 years old, and Okorafor, 6-6, 320, 21 years old, the Steelers have a combination of size and youth for offensive line coach Mike Munchak to develop.

DEFENSIVE LINE (6): Tyson Alualu, Javon Hargrave, Cameron Heyward, Dan McCullers, Stephon Tuitt, L.T. Walton
Dan McCullers put on a push during the preseason, often literally, to win the final roster spot available at this position. But when it comes to the defensive line, the key is the top of the depth chart, not the bottom. With Cam Heyward coming off a double-digit sack season that earned him first-team All-Pro recognition, Stephon Tuitt’s return to the kind of playmaker he was before his arm injury in Cleveland in the 2017 opener could end up being a key for the whole defense this season..

LINEBACKER (9): Ola Adeniyi, Jon Bostic, Anthony Chickillo, Bud Dupree, L.J. Fort, Tyler Matakevich, Matthew Thomas, T.J. Watt, Vince Williams
After a summer of excitement generated by undrafted rookies Ola Adeniyi and Matthew Thomas, the focus now shifts to the veterans who will see most of the playing time at the start of the regular season.

As the summer wore on, it became clear that Jon Bostic was becoming comfortable with the way the Steelers play defense and also with his new teammates. What hasn’t been able to develop – because of injuries – is the starting outside tandem of Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, who have switched sides from the positions they played in 2017. This season, Dupree will line up on the right side while Watt will shift over to the left.

“Bud is a tremendous flame-thrower and this gives him an opportunity to match up against some left tackles. T.J. has tremendous awareness, and there’s a lot of rhythm passing that goes on on that side of the defense – quick-game and screens and things of that nature. Opportunities to bat passes,” said Tomlin about the rationale behind the move. “They’re both interchangeable.”

Regardless of who is lining up where, the focus of this group must be to control the opposing running attack while generating the kind of pressure that allowed the Steelers to lead the NFL in sacks last season. And the guys not regularly involved in that will have to be core special teams players.

DEFENSIVE BACKS (10): Marcus Allen, Morgan Burnett, Artie Burns, Jordan Dangerfield, Sean Davis, Terrell Edmunds, Joe Haden, Mike Hilton, Coty Sensabaugh, Cam Sutton
There are more defensive backs on the roster than players at any other position, which makes sense from the standpoint of sub-package defensive football. One of the sub-packages the Steelers experimented with at training camp included seven defensive backs, and if there are going to be times when the unit lines up with seven at a time, then keeping 10 doesn’t deserve to be seen as unusual.

One of the decisions made on cut-down day could preview how the unit will deploy defensive backs in the near future. Brian Allen, a 6-3 cornerback, was waived, while Marcus Allen, a 215-pound safety, who has a reputation as an in-the-box safety and a potential contributor on special teams, was kept. Maybe that was a move made with an eye toward developing Marcus Allen as one of the hybrid .linebacker/safeties who could become an integral part of the Steelers defense in the near future.

That hybrid role was expected to be filled by No. 1 pick Terrell Edmunds this season, but an injury to Morgan Burnett could vault the rookie into the starting lineup alongside free safety Sean Davis. Last season, a lingering injury to Sutton allowed Mike Hilton to claim the slot cornerback job, but this summer it is Hilton who’s injured, which could open the door for Sutton to have a regular role in all of the sub-packages.

SPECIALISTS (3): Chris Boswell, Jordan Berry, Kameron Canaday
Little was in doubt here throughout the process, even though Matt Wile certainly did look like someone who should find himself with a job with another NFL team, especially after he finished the preseason with a 49.0 average on eight punts, with four inside the 20-yard line and no touchbacks.

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