Labriola On

Labriola on Villanueva, stealing a roster spot

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LATROBE, Pa. – Ready or not, here it comes:

  • Preseason game No. 3 is just around the corner, and since the Steelers will be making their initial roster moves some 48 hours after facing the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field, it's only natural for fans who've been following along since this camp opened on July 25 to cast their eyes to a depth chart and start playing the numbers game.
  • The numbers game is dangerous to players, but a lot of fun for fans. The first deadline – 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 1 – will require 15 moves, from 90 to 75, that usually are pretty clear-cut by this stage, and then comes Friday, Sept. 4 when it gets really interesting as rosters are set at 53.
  • For those amused by handicapping these races, here are two factors to consider: which players are being tested for versatility, and which players are seeing a lot of time and/or are productive on special teams.
  • Alejandro Villanueva is a prime example of a guy being tested for versatility. When OTAs opened, Villanueva was at left tackle, No. 2 at the position behind Kelvin Beachum. There he stayed through the rest of the offseason program, and then at training camp and the start of the preseason. During the first two preseason games, Villanueva played 102 offensive snaps, all of them at left tackle, and the only offensive lineman to play more than his 102 was B.J. Finney, who played 112 snaps at center.
  • Then upon returning from Jacksonville, Villanueva was put at right tackle when practice resumed, and he started working there regularly over the next few days. The No. 3 tackle on an NFL team's roster has to be able to play both sides of the line of scrimmage, because coaches typically dress no more than seven offensive linemen for games – the five starters, one backup tackle, and one backup center/guard. With Mike Adams still on the physically unable to perform list after having back surgery on July 20 and not looking like he's going to be ready to play any football real soon, Villanueva seems to be a guy being groomed for a significant role on this team this season.
  • In the special teams category, Jordan Sullen, Shayon Green, and Roosevelt Nix all currently share the team lead with two special teams tackles apiece. Sullen had one in each game, while Green and Nix both had two against the Jaguars. Green also forced a fourth-quarter fumble on a kickoff that Sammie Coates recovered to set up the touchdown that gave the Steelers a 21-17 lead with under five minutes left in the game in Jacksonville.
  • Green, being an outside linebacker, and Sullen, being a safety, both would seem to have tougher paths to a spot on the 53-man roster than Nix, who is a fullback. The Steelers are going to keep one fullback, and there are but two on the 90-man roster right now: Nix and Will Johnson. Green is among a group of seven outside linebackers, including James Harrison, Arthur Moats, Jarvis Jones, Bud Dupree, Howard Jones, and Anthony Chickillo. At safety Sullen is one of nine, including Will Allen, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Robert Golden, Alden Darby, Ian Wild, Jordan Dangerfield, and Gerod Holliman. At fullback, it's either Johnson or Nix.
  • On the subject of Ian Wild, the Steelers recently responded to a hamstring injury to Vince Williams and a toe injury to Lawrence Timmons by moving Wild down from safety to inside linebacker for some camp practice sessions. Always conscious of what he calls "short lines," Coach Mike Tomlin is diligent in trying to do what he can to avoid wearing guys out, but what made it interesting is that when Wild dropped down closer to the line of scrimmage he immediately established himself as more than just a place-holder. In this more enclosed area, Wild began delivering hits that echoed off the hills surrounding the practice field, and Tomlin noticed and then made sure everyone on the field knew he noticed.

A collection of some spectacular catches during the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2015 training camp.

  • Watch Ian Wild on special teams against the Packers, and then maybe the following Saturday afternoon in Buffalo. Pay attention to the number of snaps he gets, the production he carves out with those snaps. For him to take these 15 minutes and turn them into something more, special teams will have to be his ticket.
  • Since the pads first went on in this training camp, the Steelers have designated a player as waived/injured six times. Among them, Eli Rogers, the undrafted receiver who worked himself up the chart sufficiently to get repetitions when Ben Roethlisberger was the quarterback; Rob Blanchflower, the tight end who was their seventh-round pick in 2014; Devin Gardner, the quarterback/wide receiver who took repetitions at both positions; and Cameron Stingily, a tough running back who ate up a lot of carries and provided quality repetitions for the defense.
  • The waived/injured tag is used on players the team believes it cannot wait for, players whose injuries will keep them sidelined for a length of time that would preclude them from making the 53-man roster.
  • Ross Ventrone has not practiced in pads yet, having injured an ankle during the second of the two padless practices that opened camp back on July 26-27. Evidently, the Steelers are seeing Ventrone as someone who's worth the wait.
  • Tyler Murphy was the other guy who opened training camp as a QB/WR, and to my eyes he was as good as Devin Gardner at wide receiver but better as a quarterback. Murphy is intelligent, a quick study, versatile and dependable. He hasn't complained about being switched back-and-forth from quarterback to receiver, and the Steelers have given him notice of where he would be working week-to-week instead of yo-yoing him back and forth.
  • Murphy has to be considered a long-shot to make the roster even though he can play two positions, but he's what I perceive to be a perfect candidate for the practice squad. Team guy, versatile, dependable. And he can play two spots, which helps the defense get good looks in practice. Then maybe after a year of seasoning …
  • Don't look now, but Cam Thomas is having himself a nice training camp after going through a 2014 season in which he quickly became a player Steelers fans loved to hate. There were some high expectations for Thomas after the Steelers signed him as an unrestricted free agent on March 14, 2014, but as he continued through a season in which he finished with 19 tackles and one-half sack after playing in all 16 games with nine starts, he became a face for the defensive deficiencies against the run.
  • Through two preseason games, Thomas has two tackles and one of the team's three quarterback pressures. He has played a total of 63 defensive snaps so far. If Thomas can continue to be a serviceable backup, a guy who can contribute some quality snaps in whatever rotation develops among him, Cam Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt, the Steelers will be getting what they were looking for back in March 2014. Getting it a year late, but getting it nonetheless.
  • As for the defensive line, there seems to be a precipitous drop-off from the top five players at the position – Heyward, Thomas, Tuitt, Steve McLendon, Dan McCullers – and the rest of the guys on the depth chart. Typically, the Steelers have entered the regular season with six defensive linemen, but this seems to be a year where there isn't a clear-cut No. 6 who's deserving of a roster spot beyond being No. 6 at a position that usually keeps six.
  • Maybe this is the place where the Steelers try to steal a roster spot.
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