Darrius Heyward-Bey picks up yardage Thursday night against the Panthers at Heinz Field.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers have less than two days to reduce their roster by 22 players and get to the 53-man limit for the start of the regular season. After a preseason in which they finished 1-3, cutting players, as Chuck Noll once said, isn’t the problem.
The Steelers ensured their second losing preseason in a row with a 10-0 loss against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field, and, if coach Mike Tomlin was looking for someone to make his cutdown decision more difficult, it likely didn’t happen.
The player who best solidified his spot on the roster was wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, who had five catches for 38 yards against the Panthers after catching three passes, including a 33-yard touchdown, a week earlier in Philadelphia.
“I just went out there with the mindset to get better every day,” Heyward-Bey said. “That’s a good way to go about it. You don’t stress about it that way.”
Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick in the 2009 draft, was signed in free agency to add deep speed to the offense and some veteran presence to a young receiving corps. He likely will end up as the team’s fifth receiver.
“It’s a good locker room, I appreciate that,” said Heyward-Bey, who spent last season with the Indianapolis Colts. “And it’s a good coaching staff, I appreciate that. When you have that, it’s a good combination. You have a chance to be successful.”
The biggest questions facing Tomlin likely will be deciding if he should keep eight or nine linebackers and 10 or 11 defensive backs. Some decisions could change in a couple days if the Steelers decide to sign a player who was waived by another team.
Here is how the 53-man roster could break down for when the Steelers open the regular season in nine days against the Cleveland Browns. The number of players at that position is in parenthesis.
Quarterback (3) — Despite what some people think, the Steelers will, in all likelihood, keep three quarterbacks, meaning Landry Jones is on the roster behind Ben Roethlisberger and Bruce Gradkowski.
Jones did not produce any points in 2½ quarters against the Panthers and completed 14 of 18 passes for only 97 yards. He was also sacked three times. But Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert believe in keeping three players at the most important position, and that’s not likely to change.
Running back (4) — The days of keeping five and six backs on the roster are over, so the Steelers will enter the regular season with four — Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, rookie Dri Archer and fullback/H-back Will Johnson.
Wide receiver (5) — It is possible the Steelers could as many as six wide receivers, though it is not likely, which means the players who don’t make the cut likely are Justin Brown and Derrick Moye, who were teammates at Penn State.
In the past two games, veteran Heyward-Bey has emerged as a legitimate receiving threat and appears to be a lock as the fifth receiver.
What’s more, Tomlin extolled his special team skills earlier this week. He will join Antonio Brown, Markus Wheaton, Lance Moore and rookie Martavis Bryant.
Tight ends (3) — The Steelers had four tight ends on their roster at the end of last season, but that number should be reduced by one. Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth are the top two, and veteran Michael Palmer could get the nod over David Paulson and rookie Rob Blanchflower because he is a better blocker
The caveat is that Bryce Davis, also a long-snapper, might have to be kept on the roster for the first week or two until Greg Warren returns from knee surgery. That will force the Steelers to lose a roster spot temporarily at another position.
Offensive line (9) — New line coach Mike Munchak said he would lobby Tomlin to keep nine, and he will probably get his wish. The top eight return from last season — centers Maurkice Pouncey and Cody Wallace, tackles Marcus Gilbert, Kelvin Beachum, Mike Adams and Guy Whimper and guard David DeCastro and Ramon Foster. The ninth will probably be rookie tackle Wesley Johnson, a fifth-round pick, mainly because he can play every position on the line.
Defensive line (6) — This unit will have three new players — ends Cam Thomas and Stephon Tuitt and nose tackle Daniel McCullers — to go with Cam Heyward, Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel.
Keisel’s return means free-agent end Josh Mauro, who has played well, will get bumped to the practice squad. Thomas gives the team flexibility because he also can play nose tackle.
Linebackers (9) — This is another area where only eight players could be kept, and, if so, then outside linebacker Chris Carter might not return for his fourth season.
The four starters are Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Lawrence Timmons and rookie Ryan Shazier. The top reserves are Sean Spence and Vince Williams inside and veteran free-agent acquisition Arthur Moats on the outside.
If they keep nine, it’s Terence Garvin and Carter or rookie free agent Howard Jones on the 53-man roster. The Steelers, however, might try to sneak Jones onto the practice squad, leaving the battle between Garvin and Carter for the eighth spot.
Rookie Jordan Zumwalt, a sixth-round pick, could be placed on injured reserve.
Secondary (11) — This area will get the most players, mainly because of special teams.
The cornerbacks will likely be Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, William Gay, Brice McCain, Antwon Blake and rookie Shaq Richardson. McCain and Blake are special teams standouts.
The safeties are Troy Polamalu, Mike Mitchell, Shamarko Thomas, Will Allen and Robert Golden.
Special teams (3) — Under usual circumstances, this would be kicker Shaun Suisham, punter Brad Wing and Warren, who has started 64 regular-season games in a row. But Warren’s streak is in jeopardy because of his injury and that could force the Steelers to carry him and Davis for at least the first week.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com and Twitter @gerrydulac.
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