Following the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 10-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers, the time has finally arrived for Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and the rest of the staff to cut down the roster and form the 53-man group that will take the team into their regular season opener against the Cleveland Browns.
Here’s a look at what we learned about the final shaping of that roster against Carolina.
The team lacks a solid, consistent backup QB
The Steelers have a problem behind Ben Roethlisberger. Bruce Gradkowski remains a competent backup, but his size and lack of a big arm make him a poor choice should he be needed in extended action. Landry Jones, drafted in the fourth round two years ago, was hoped to be the answer.
Jones was given a big chance against the Panthers to prove himself. Instead, he proved to be a disaster. Even going 14 of 18 isn’t enough when you look beyond the stat. Just like every contest in which he’s played more than a few snaps, Jones looked confused, out of sync and out of control. He showed no leadership skills and didn’t take command of his offense. When things got bad, he got worse.
Rookie Brendon Kay, in his only action, looked more poised in the pocket and got rid of the ball much quicker. While his work probably was not enough to make the team, he earned a look and could be a good practice squad keeper.
At this point, it would be a shock if he was given the nod for the final quarterback spot. Pittsburgh could elect to keep two passers instead and look for someone as the season progresses. They could also pick up someone else’s castoff and try to catch lightning in a bottle.
The stout linebacker corps of old is on its way to being rebuilt
Pittsburgh has been a linebacker factory for years and looks to be churning out another impressive set of them in 2014. Rookie Ryan Shazier has justified his status as the team’s first-round pick and looks to be the starter alongside Lawrence Timmons in the interior of the defense.
Behind the starters, the competition has been fierce. Howard Jones excited enough to warrant a long look during the final cuts and should at least end up on the practice squad if he doesn’t make the team as a developmental backup. Arthur Moats also looks like a player who could make an impact as a backup.
Time seems to have run out on Chris Carter, who has not played well enough during his tenure to justify continued employment. Like Jones at quarterback, it is better to cut him now than waste time and money on another season of mediocrity.
Wide receiver corps is beginning to fill out and take shape
Behind Antonio Brown, the depth chart was uncertain going into training camp. Markus Wheaton has now solidified himself as the other starter with a preseason filled with great catches and smart plays. Wheaton is a player who can replace the production lost when Emmanuel Sanders skipped town. He could be the latest mid-round gem at the position for a team quickly developing a reputation for creating solid receivers from unknown college players.
The back end of the depth chart was a complete mess after the departure of Jerricho Cotchery. Lance Moore was the only sure thing there. Instead of it being a problem, it has turned into a potential strength. Dri Archer will be lined up all over the field to get favorable matchups and utilize his good hands and breakaway speed. Martavis Bryant has improved each week and has definitely earned a spot. The final spots will come down to a combination of Derek Moye, Justin Brown, and Darrius Heyward-Bey. All three have turned in good efforts but Brown really stands out as having the most potential. It will be hard to let go of Heyward-Bey, who has excellent speed and turned in a solid effort against Carolina. If the team can find a way to keep both, they should do so.
The starting offensive line could be the best unit the Steelers have fielded in a long time, but depth could be an issue
The starting unit of Kelvin Beachum (LT), Ramon Foster (LG), Maurkice Pouncey (C), David DeCastro (RG), and Marcus Gilbert (RT) appears to be set and even solid. They kept Ben Roethlisberger relatively clean in the preseason and look to be meshing nicely.
The backup situation is a mess. Mike Adams might find himself on the street after a poor preseason and a poor start to his career overall. He has not developed into the tackle the Steelers hoped to steal in the second round of the 2012 draft. Cody Wallace has been underwhelming as the backup at center. Guy Whimper probably makes the team by default. Maybe rookie Wesley Johnson also sneaks in. This is an area where Pittsburgh would do well to seek outside help from someone’s scrap heap. The current unit cannot survive an injury to one or more starters.
Odds and ends
Jordan Zumwalt, one of the team’s draft picks, hasn’t justified a spot but should make the practice squad since it has been increased to 10 players. He’s a solid developmental guy who will get better with time working under Joey Porter and Keith Butler.
Robert Golden looks to be the best of an unimpressive group of backup defensive backs. He has the ability to play multiple spots as well. That doesn’t hurt his candidacy. None of the team’s backups at corner have done enough to make the team. Perhaps someone will emerge from the cut lists. Otherwise, the team will likely keep rookie Shaquille Richardson. Isaiah Green and Antwon Blake got significant time in the preseason, but neither player has a wow factor. Blake would have the edge there.
At punter, Brad Wing’s excellent game against Carolina has earned him the job. Adam Podlesh, who never reported after his wife’s pregnancy, will be officially released barring a big surprise. Wing may finally solidify the team’s punting situation, but will have to prove his consistency. That wasn’t always on display in the preseason.
Daniel McCullers is deserving of a spot on the defensive line and reminds me of Casey Hampton with his size and ability to take up space. He isn’t ready to start just yet, but he is not a player that the team will want to risk losing on waivers. The defensive line looks stacked from top to bottom as DC Dick LeBeau looks to rebuild the Steel Curtain of old.