Preseason finale crucial time for some Steelers
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer
PITTSBURGH - There are big games, meaningful in their importance to a team's season and its goal to win a championship.
Then, there are big games that are meaningful for individual purposes.
Tonight's preseason finale between the Steelers and Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field is the latter.
With NFL teams preparing to trim their rosters to 53 players by Saturday, this game will be the final chance for many players to leave a good impression on the coaching staff before the decision is made on who stays and who goes.
"We're readying ourselves for September football and at the same time, we've got some critical decisions to make about our football team," said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin said many of those decisions have already been made. But there are a handful of roster spots still up for grabs.
"Most of the time it comes down to about three to five decisions that are 11th hour," Tomlin said. "I think that will be the case this time around."
Wide receiver is one position the Steelers are closely examining.
Rookie Limas Sweed, this year's second-round draft pick, has one spot sewn up behind Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Nate Washington. That leaves one or possibly two spots for three candidates: Willie Reid, Dallas Baker and Eddie Drummond.
"Those guys have had good moments, they've had moments that are not so good," said Tomlin. "They're fighting. They're young guys. They make mistakes. Hopefully, they don't make too many. Their talent and pedigree shows up from time to time. That's a hotly contested battle, one that may be waged on Thursday night and ultimately decide how those spots unfold."
Reid, a third-round pick in 2006, may be getting his last opportunity to make a contribution after two injury-plagued seasons.
The Florida State product leads the team with nine catches for 81 yards and has returned three kicks for a 20.3-yard average. He's also had one punt return for six yards.
Drummond, a seven-year veteran from Penn State, was signed during the first week of training camp to provide a boost as a return man. He leads the team with a 9.3-yard average on four punt returns, but has not had an opportunity to return a kickoff.
Tomlin said Reid and Drummond will handle those duties against the Panthers and that if Drummond is markedly better, he could make the team strictly as a return man.
"There's a potential for that," Tomlin said. "That was our intention when we gave him the opportunity and signed him a few weeks back. His opportunities to impress are dwindling and Thursday night is a big night for him."
Baker, a seventh-round pick in 2007, does not return punts or kicks. At 6-3 and 206 pounds, he is a bigger target than the 5-9 Drummond or 5-10 Reid. Baker has six catches for 80 yards in the preseason after spending 2007 on the practice squad.
Odds and end zones
Tomlin said the starting offense and defense will play the first quarter. ... Strong safety Troy Polamalu will see his first game action after missing training camp with a hamstring injury. ... Lawrence Timmons will start at inside linebacker in place of injured Larry Foote. ... Center Justin Hartwig, named the starter by Tomlin earlier this week, was Carolina's starting center in 2007. The Panthers released him in the offseason in a salary cap-related move.