Friday, September 02, 2011

Now It Gets Interesting: Roster Cuts Loom

The Turk Cometh ... and, no, we don't mean Steelers radio announcer Tunch Ilkin, who is of Turkish descent.  We speak of THE TURK, as in the ominous guy who darkens your locker stall and says, "Coach wants to see you. Bring your playbook."

So, the Steelers beat the Carolina Panthers last night in the fourth pre-season game.  Big whoop. At least there were no serious injuries. 

As Mike Tomlin held 11 starters out of last night's game, it's hard to say what we learned.  Some players showed flashes; some, eh, not so much.  

The bottom line: The Steelers must cut 27 players by 4 p.m. Saturday to reach the 53-man roster.  Twenty-seven!  Some of those cut will make it to the Purgatory that is the Practice Squad, which will be bittersweet for them. 

As for those who will make the regular roster, well, this is a team coming off an appearance in the Super Bowl, so how many new faces can there be?  Indeed.  That is the question.  

Keep in mind, this is an aging team due for an infusion of new blood, at least in backup/developmental roles.  Remember, too, that the roster entering last night's game contained about 15 names that we've barely or never heard of (e.g., Trevis Turner, OT?  Baraka Atkins, LB?  Armand Robinson, WR??  Jamie McCoy, TE???).

Additionally, the salary cap may play a role in some roster cuts, and a player or two may be added from the waiver wire, as other teams make their cuts.

If Byron Leftwich hadn't gotten hurt during his needless appearance last week, the QB situation would be easy:  Dennis Dixon would be gone.  Now in his fourth year, Dixon has yet to show he can throw with accuracy or consistency, nor has he shown a strong pocket presence or the ability to find open receivers.  Last night, during one sequence in the second quarter, he misfired wide and/or high on three straight passes (one to a wide-open Antonio Brown, and two others, including a painful-looking wide-and-high miss toArnaz Battle).  That sequence alone was enough to make yours truly cringe and say, "Even Joey Porter's Pit Bulls could have completed those passes, especially the one to Antonio Brown."  

Heaven help Steeler Nation, if Dennis Dixon has to play any meaningful snaps this season.  He will make the team, however, although Joey Porter's Pit Bulls would rather keep an extra defensive back or maybe even that guy Swayze Watters just to kick the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs (hey, it's worth discussing, for about two minutes, anyway, although it won't happen).

The running backs appear to be set:  Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer (who somehow got his fat ass in shape and seems to have grasped the urgency of his situation, which was that his place on the roster was tenuous and precarious at best), plus Mewelde Moore, probably (although not necessarily).

Punter:  Surprisingly, Daniel Sepulveda may not make this team.  The Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, writing on his blog this morning, notes astutely that the coaches had Jeremy Kapinos holding for Shaun Suisham last night, while Sepulveda held for back-up (soon-to-be-cut) Swayze Watters: 

"It's not just that Kapinos booted both of his punts 63 yards, one without a return, and had a net average of 59 yards compared to Sepulveda's two that averaged 40.5 gross, 31.5 net.  The other bad sign for Sepulveda was the fact Kapinos held the ball for No. 1 kicker Shaun Suisham while Sepulveda held for backup kicker Swayze Watters.

"Why would Mike Tomlin not have Sepulveda holding for Suisham unless his job were in serious jeopardy? Sepulveda and Suisham were together for just two games last season and they need all the real-time practice they can get. Last night was the perfect opportunity and they did not do it once. It looked more as though Tomlin were getting Kapinos ready to hold for the regular season as his punter."

Hmmm.  One thing we noticed about Kapinos last season:  He does seem to have consistently better hang time than Sepulveda. 

Other cut-down question marks abound, particularly on defense, and the Dreaded Salary Cap may play a role in some of these cuts.  Will Skip McClendon displace reliable longtime veteran Chris Hoke at backup nose tackle?  Will linebacker Morty Ivy make it solely for his work on special teams, as well as potential as a backup linebacker (possibly displacing veteran Larry Foote)?  Rookie Weslye Saunders or veteran John Gilmore at third tight end?  Saunders is the better receiver, but Gilmore's the better blocker.

The biggest decisions seem to be on the offensive line and in the secondary.

Offensive Line:  This continues to be a muddle, just as it has been all pre-season and, really, for the past three or four years.  Doug Legursky is the starter at right guard all of a sudden, and Joey Porter's Pit Bulls are cool with that.  Trai Essex has position flexibility, so he will probably make the team because he can play just about any position on the line.  One of two Super Bowl starters, Ramon Foster and Jonathan Scott may be on the bubble, and our guess is it might be Scott, who plays tackle only and may be forced out by second-round draft choice Marucs Gilbert, who has gotten a long look at left tackle this pre-season (and, for what it's worth, Scott still is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart currently listed on the Steelers' Web site, which probably means nothing).  Whither Tony Hills?  Good question, as he does remain a BIG Question Mark.  They coaches may have made their decision on Hills already, and it cannot be a good sign for him that Legursky has been named the starter at right guard.

The Secondary:  Here is where it gets really interesting, and Joey Porter's Pit Bulls would advocate keeping 10 defensive backs from the following 14 candidates:

  • Corners – Decisions, decisions (yikes!)  -- Ike Taylor, Bryant McFadden, Keenan Lewis, Curtis Brown, William Gay, Donovan Warren, Cortez Allen, Crezdon Butler, Macho Harris

  • Safeties:  Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Ryan Mundy, Will Allen, Da’Mon Cromartie-Smith
Take your pick.  McFadden hasn't played all pre-season and may not be ready for the opener; plus, he carries a big-salary hit against The Cap.  Keenan Lewis apparently has improved his game (which he absolutely needed to do).  Curtis Brown looks like a keeper, and a potential starter (even for the opener, dare we say?).  William Gay is a lightning rod for fan criticism but, really, is usually solid in the nickel-slot role (although he and McFadden were scorched repeatedly in the Super Bowl).  Joey Porter's Pit Bulls have become a big fan of Donovan Warren and Cortez Allen -- keep 'em both! -- and we'd like to feel a bit more confident in Crezdon Butler (now in his second year), who got beat on a long pass last night in Charlotte, although it appeared he got no help from the safeties. Macho Harris has an all-time great football name but was brought in off the waiver wire mid-camp, and it may that he was always considered mere training camp fodder.

Speaking of which ... Ryan Mundy reportedly has had a "workmalike" camp, but last season he often appeared lost and slow as he seemed to be chasing a lot of plays.  Longtime veteran Will Allen is more a special teams player than a safety, and he is small.  Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith was on the practice squad last season and may have a chance (but probably not).  Depth at safety clearly is a concern.  Perhaps one of the young corners can move to safety?  Probably not.

There you have it.  Questions, decisions and intrigue.  An anxious Steeler Nation awaits.