With the season opener in Denver now only 5 days away, the Pittsburgh Steelers have cut down to the 53-man roster that will open the season. The job was made a bit simpler in an unfortunate fashion in the final preaseason game when 3rd round pick LB Sean Spence went down with a torn everything in his knee, an injury that landed him on IR. TE Weslye Saunders will miss the first four weeks serving a suspension. G David DeCastro will be on the brand-new 8-game IR, making him eligible to return at midseason, but he has not yet been placed on that list, meaning that he is currently occupying one of the 53 roster spots. A look at the roster that will head to Denver.
QB: Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch – In something that was a bit of a surprise, the Steelers kept Batch around for yet another season. I believed that the Steelers could save a roster spot by releasing Batch and re-signing him if necessary, but the club decided to bring back Batch for an 11th(!) season as the 3rd string QB. Position Grade: A-
RB: Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey – Rashard Mendenhall will likely miss the first three games of the season while continuing to recover from the torn ACL he received in Cleveland in Week 17, although he was “not ruled out” for Week 1 during Mike Tomlin’s press conference today. Behind Mendenhall the Steelers have a collection of useful and varied running backs that will fill the position by committee. Redman will start, if healthy enough, with Dwyer mixing in for the occasional series. Batch will be the 3rd down back, and Rainey will be the change-of-pace back that will be used in a variety of ways. Position Grade: B
FB: Will Johnson – Signed off the street in the offseason, Johnson secured this spot by default when David Johnson went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the first preseason game. Johnson, however, has demonstrated that he can play at the NFL level with an impressive preseason performance. Position Grade: C
WR: Mike Wallce, Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery – In something of a surprise, the Steelers kept only 4 WR’s on the active roster, although it is a position that could be supplemented when DeCastro is placed on the designated IR. The crew that is in place, however, is as good 1-4 as any group in the NFL. Now if they can only lock up Wallace to a longterm contract…. Position Grade: A
TE: Heath Miller, Leonard Pope, David Paulson – Paulson is almost certainly headed for the practice squad when Weslye Saunders’ 4-game suspension is over, and is strong candidate for “inactive” on gameday until that time. Miller remains an underrated presence at TE, and once Saunders returns, he has considerable upside as a receiving TE. Pope followed Haley to Pittsburgh from Kansas City, but has done little in the passing game and a penchant for holding penalties as a blocker. Position Grade: B+
OL: Max Starks, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon, Marcus Gilbert, David DeCastro, Mike Adams, Doug Legursky, Kelvin Beachum - In a mild surprise, Beachum beat out Trai Essex for the final OL roster spot despite struggling in his preseason action. DeCastro will exit this list this week when placed on IR for the first 8 games of the season. Adams and Beachum, both of whom were also drafted this year, are projects that you don’t really want to see playing right now. The Steelers attempted to upgrade a shaky position during the offseason, but with the injury to DeCastro and struggles of Adams and Beachum, the position remains suspect, at least for now. Position Grade: C+
DL: Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward, Casey Hampton, Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta’amu, Al Woods - The Steelers have begun the process of turning over this position with the offseason retirements of Aaron Smith and Chris Hoke. Hampton is iffy for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a torn ACL he suffered in Denver in the playoffs, but McLendon is the superior player at this stage anyway. The Steelers need Hood and Heyward, both former #1 picks, to continue to develop for the defense to return to the run dominance it held prior to 2011. Position Grade: B
LB: James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Chris Carter, Stevenson Sylvester, Adrian Robinson, Jason Worilds, Brandon Johnson – A position that has been ravaged by injury this preseason, Harrison and Worilds are expected to play in Denver despite missing the preseason with injuries, while Sylvester continues to be sidelined with a torn MCL. The injury to 3rd round pick Spence opened a roster spot for UDFA Robinson, who had a fantastic training camp. This position has been a strength since forever and continues to be so in 2012. Position Grade: A-
CB: Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Curtis Brown, Terrence Frederick - Lewis held off Allen to start at LCB despite a fantastic preseason for Allen. Brown continues to be a disappointment and injury-plagued, while Frederick appeared to make the roster by default, but the Steelers are in good shape at the top of the depth chart at this position. Position Grade: B+
S: Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Robert Golden - Golden was the second UDFA to make this squad as a rookie, but enters the season nursing a minor hamstring problem. Clark will sit the season-opener in Denver due to having the sickle cell trait, but Mundy has developed into a capable backup. Polamalu remains one of the most dynamic, impact players in football, although his struggles in coverage continue. Position Grade: A-
Specialists: K Shaun Suisham, P Drew Butler, LS Greg Warren - Butler gets the punting job largely by default due to Jeremy Kapinos’ injury. Suisham will continue to make Steelers fans nervous but is usually ok enough. Position Grade: C+
It’s almost go time. We’ll take a look at the trip to Denver later this week…buckle up.