CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 01: Teammates John Malecki #77 and Weslye Saunders #44 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after Saunders catches a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers during their preseason game at Bank of America Stadium on September 1, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
With the Saturday deadline looming for the Steelers to trim their roster down to 53, here's a look at which offensive players helped their cause during Pittsburgh's 33-17 win over Carolina Thursday night.
The fourth and final preseason game is typically the least interesting one for fans. With just over a week until the start of the new season, coaches wisely limit the amount of exposure their starters face in a meaningless preseason game. That said, there's always a handful of jobs that are still up for grabs on all 32 teams during the preseason finale. For the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011, there was no exception. So, what are those final roster spots up for grabs this year and which players helped or hurt their cause during Pittsburgh's 33-17 win over the Panthers? Let's take a quick look as the Saturday afternoon deadline to trim rosters to 53 rapidly approaches, beginning with a comprehensive look at the offensive personnel.
Offense: QB (3) - I think it's safe to say that there was little at stake in terms of the bottom of the QB depth chart once Byron Leftwich broke his arm last Saturday night against the Falcons. The Steelers will roll with Ben Roethlisberger, Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch.
RB (4) - Again, an injury left little mystery as to who would comprise the depth chart at RB. Once Baron Batch was lost for the year with an ACL injury, it was pretty much settled that Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer would be Mike Tomlin's quartet of backs in 2011. Dwyer though could have easily missed out on a golden opportunity to make the squad had he not gotten in shape and performed well during training camp and the preseason. Dwyer cemented his status on the squad Thursday night with an impressive 50-yard touchdown run. The half-field scamper displayed Dwyer's natural moves, vision, and underrated speed once he gets that big frame of his heading downhill.
TE (3) - Obviously, Heath Miller and David Johnson will be the team's No. 1 and No. 2 tight ends. As for who will win the No. 3 job? Well Weslye Saunders has to be the leader in the clubhouse after Thursday night. He hauled in three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown, a 15-yarder from Dennis Dixon in the fourth quarter. Not that Saunders will be asked to do much pass-catching in 2011, but the fact that he's proven to be both competent in the trenches as a blocker and as a guy who can get downfield and catch the ball, Saunders looks like yet another undrafted free agent rookie that the Steelers have correctly identified as a diamond in the rough.
WR (6) - With just over 24 hours until final roster cuts, there's no need to speculate too much. We'll find out soon enough. But the WR is definitely one that's hard to quite figure out. Obviously, Hines Ward, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown are locks. The same goes for Emmanuel Sanders after the 2010 third round pick return from a foot injury to play well in Thursday night's win. Sanders had four receptions for 60 yards and also looked solid in the blocking game. If he can stay healthy all year, the Steelers might have the deepest wide receiver corps in football.
One would have to think that Jerricho Cotchery would make the squad as well, though I suppose it's possible that the Steelers decide to release him now that they've seen Sanders' foot heal. If the Steelers do keep Cotchery though, that's an absolutely stacked top five wideouts.
Incredibly, there are two other wideouts who are deserving of roster spots. The first of those is Wes Lyons, the 6-foot-8 giant who has had a great camp and is an intriguing options because of how much taller he is than the rest of the guys ahead of him on the depth chart. Lyons had another nice play on Thursday when he snagged a 38-yarder on his lone catch of the night. Any other team but the Steelers and Lyons has earned a helmet and the opportunity to be a part of the regular weekly game plan. As is, he'll probably be released.
The same unfortunate fate might await Arnaz Battle as well. The special teams ace might have seen too much of his value diminished by the kickoff rule changes, but Battle has still found a way to impress all preseason, and ultimately I think Tomlin will keep six receivers for a few weeks while waiting to see how things shake out injury-wise across the roster, as well as how special teams fares in the early stages of the young season. Remember, Pittsburgh bounced back from a disappointing 2009 season in large part because the special teams play improved so drastically. Yes the kickoff rule change will negate some of the importance of keeping ST aces on the roster, but you can't completely forget about that aspect of the game just because the kickoff was moved up by five yards.
OL (9) - There are too many uncertainties with several key players' injury status to speculate here, but it's safe to assume the Steelers will keep nine offensive linemen. The starters should be Jonathan Scott, Chris Kemoeatu, Maurkice Pouncey, Doug Legursky and Willie Colon. Tony Hills, Trai Essex are both locks as well, I'd say. I imagine that Ramon Foster or Chris Scott will win one of the final two spots, with rookie Marcus Gilbert rounding out the depth chart as a reserve tackle who could conceivably fill in at either left or right tackle under dire circumstances. That would leave Legursky as the emergency option at center in the event of Pouncey's ankle acting up, with any number of guys able to slide into Legursky's guard duties if he had to be slid over to center.
We'll see who makes the practice squad, but I have had my eye on Trevis Turner, a raw talent out of Abilene Christian, as a practice squad option since I first read about him. John Malecki, a former Pitt standout at guard, might also make the practice squad as a viable option at left guard as well as at center where he saw action Thursday night.
By my count, that's 25 offensive players set to start the 2011 NFL season as members of the Steelers' 53 man roster. Throw in three specialists - kicker, punter, long snapper - and we're left with another 25 spots up for grabs on the defensive side of the ball. We'll take a look at who those 25 guys might be on Friday.