Tonight last chance for some Steelers
Thursday, August 28, 2008
By Ray Fittipaldo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers don't have any major decisions to make after the preseason finale tonight against the Carolina Panthers. Every starting position except for punter has been determined.
The most important part of the game will be avoiding injuries. For a select few players fighting for jobs, however, this game is the biggest of the season.
"It's a big week for a lot of reasons," coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's the last opportunity for a lot of men to make an impression. We have some critical decisions to make as a football team."
Tomlin said between three and five roster spots have not been determined. For players vying for those positions, this game could be the difference between earning an NFL paycheck, being placed on the practice squad or being out of a job.
One of the key decisions will be how many quarterbacks Tomlin decides to carry. Backup Charlie Batch had surgery to repair a broken collarbone and might not be ready to return for another few weeks.
Veteran Byron Leftwich was signed to replace Batch, and rookie Dennis Dixon was drafted in the fifth round with the intention that he would be the backup of the future.
Leftwich has impressed Tomlin in the limited amount of time he has been in camp. The decision could be whether Leftwich has impressed enough to keep him over Batch while Dixon learns the system. Batch, in the final year of his contract, has been on the roster since 2002.
"Based on what [Leftwich] has done to this point, there is comfort," Tomlin said. "Every day is so important for him because there have been very few days and opportunities. So far, he has taken advantage of those opportunities and gotten better. He has to continue to do that. [Tonight] will be a part of that."
After Ben Roethlisberger plays a series or two against the Panthers, Leftwich and Dixon will take the rest of the snaps.
"I knew I could come in and learn it quick," Leftwich said. "I've learned as much as I could learn in a short period of time. It's still football. I'm comfortable with it. I'm just enjoying it and having fun."
One of the other key battles will be for the fifth receiver position. Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Nate Washington and likely Limas Sweed have the team made. The fifth and final receiver position is between Willie Reid and Dallas Baker.
"They've had good moments and they've had moments that haven't been so good," Tomlin said. "They're fighting. They're young guys. They make mistakes. Hopefully, they don't make too many. That's a hotly contested battle, one that may be waged on [tonight] and ultimately decide how those spots unfold."
Tomlin was speaking of Reid, Baker and Sweed in that response, but it's hard to imagine any scenario where Sweed is not on the 53-man roster. He has struggled at times and has been laid up with a knee injury lately, but he is a second-round pick with loads of potential.
Reid impressed with his performance last week against Minnesota when he led the team with five receptions for 55 yards.
"It's one of those things where it's a day-to-day battle," Reid said. "I'm not getting caught up in numbers and who's doing what. I just go out and play my best and play my game."
Reid, a third-round draft pick in the 2006 draft, played in one game as a rookie before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He played in five games last season. Reid was a standout punt-returner at Florida State, but he has yet to flash great return skills in the NFL.
Tomlin said Reid and Eddie Drummond will split the punt- and kick-return duties against the Panthers.
"I talked to them and let them know I want my shot to do some punt- and kick-return stuff because that's what I do and I feel I'm real capable of doing it," Reid said. "I think of myself as being able to do the whole nine yards, being able to do whatever they want me to do. Return kicks, cover kicks, catches passes, block, whatever."
A few other decisions the Steelers could make:
Safety -- Veteran Tyrone Carter and rookie Ryan Mundy are battling for one spot. Mundy, who has been out since Aug. 8 with a high ankle sprain, did not play in the past two preseason games and will not play tonight.
Cornerback -- Special teams standout Anthony Madison and undrafted rookie Roy Lewis are vying for one spot. Madison is a special-teams demon while Lewis, who played at the University of Washington, has been impressive in his first camp.
Defensive end -- The Steelers brought in Orpheus Roye to push Ryan McBean, last year's fourth-round pick.
Linebacker -- Third-round pick Bruce Davis, sixth-round pick Mike Humpal and veteran Andre Frazier could be fighting for one spot.
Tight end -- The Steelers have kept three tight ends in the past. Lee Vickers and Dezmond Sherrod could be battling for one spot unless Tomlin uses backup tackle Max Starks as the third tight end.
Offensive line -- If the Steelers keep 10 linemen, fourth-round pick Tony Hills likely will make the team. If not, they'll try to sneak him through to the practice squad.
Punter -- Mitch Berger and Paul Ernster were brought in to replace injured starter Daniel Sepulveda. They will split the punting duties against Carolina. Ernster performed the punting duties in the first and third preseason games, Berger in the second. Ernster averaged 48 yards per punt last week against Minnesota.