AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
PITTSBURGH -- Here is a position-by-position look at who stays and who goes when the Pittsburgh Steelers make their final cuts.
Jones didn't do enough this preseason to earn the No. 2 quarterback job, but he didn't lose the No. 3 job. Vick has shown in two preseason games that he can be counted on as a reliable backup at age 35. His arm looks live and accurate, though he's lost a step when avoiding sacks. The Steelers can consider him an upgrade over Bruce Gradkowski. Jones gets a third year in the system to improve.
RUNNING BACK (4)
Le'Veon Bell doesn't count against the roster while suspended for two games, and the Steelers will probably take four backs into New England. Johnson can do more than Roosevelt Nix as a natural H-back and thus gets the nod at fullback, even though Nix had a blocked punt Thursday and looks eager to make the team. Harris had a quiet preseason. He didn't show much but makes the team out of necessity.
WIDE RECEIVER (5)
The Steelers will get by with five receivers while Martavis Bryant serves a four-game suspension. There are no surprises with the top four. Heyward-Bey is locked into the No. 3 spot, and the Steelers will give Coates, a 2015 third-round pick, time to develop. At No. 5, Murphy has shown promise in the preseason despite being asked to convert from quarterback to wide receiver, and he edges Shakim Phillips. Murphy could slide to the practice squad once Bryant returns.
TIGHT END (3)
These are the only three tight ends left. The Steelers have moved on from all other tight ends. James is a developmental player, but the fifth-round rookie has good hands and red zone potential. The Steelers have always liked Spaeth's blocking ability. He is slotted as the No. 2. Miller won't disappoint -- 60-plus catches, rinse/repeat.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
The Steelers must carry Pouncey (leg injury) through the final round of cuts but can pick up an extra player once they place him on short-term injured reserve. Undrafted center/guard B.J. Finney could then get a call-up. Otherwise, he's a practice squad option. Either way, I like his game. The Steelers stick with Hubbard because of his flexibility inside. Villanueva can play both tackle spots.
DEFENSIVE LINE (5)
Thomas is a candidate to be released because of his $2 million salary and spotty play in 2014, but he made a few plays Thursday night, and the Steelers are so thin at backup end that they need help there unless they can find a suitable option on waivers. Ethan Hemer is intriguing but probably won't make the team. I haven't seen enough from sixth-round pick L.T. Walton to suggest he's ready.
The Steelers face difficult decisions here, including whether to carry a fifth outside linebacker. The Steelers could go either way with sixth-round pick Chickillo, who flashed more in early training camp practices than in preseason games. But coach Mike Tomlin likes him, and Chickillo did a few nice things Thursday. Howard Jones is a difficult cut at OLB. He was quick to the ball against the Panthers. Inside linebacker is the Steelers' deepest position. If it comes down to Williams or Garvin, Williams' experience could prevail.
Fogg would be a difficult cut, if it came to that, but the Steelers won't part with Grant, a fourth-round pick. They value draft picks too much. The numbers game might keep the Steelers at five corners. Otherwise, Fogg gets the call. The Steelers will part with B.W. Webb, who had a nice pass breakup against the Panthers but never really showed a knack for playmaking during the preseason.
If the Steelers keep these five, they would have to cut Alden Darby, a nice find who's active on special teams and on defense. But Golden and Ventrone are too valuable on special teams, and the Steelers aren't moving Allen. Then there's seventh-round pick Gerod Holliman, who has good ball skills but didn't do enough to separate himself. This group doesn't have any stars but has enough to make it work.
Place-kicker Josh Scobee
Long-snapper Greg Warren
Punter Jordan Berry
Berry got the start Thursday and landed a 48-yard punt inside the 15, and then booted a 55-yarder with plenty of hang time. This will be a difficult decision because incumbent punter Brad Wing has battled. Tomlin says each player made a strong case. But Berry has the bigger leg.
PITTSBURGH -- For the Pittsburgh Steelers, the timing of Tom Brady's win in court isn't ideal. The once-suspended Brady is re-inserted into the New England Patriots lineup a week before the opener against Pittsburgh.
To hear the Steelers tell it, though, they knew this was coming, and they prepared all offseason for Brady and the Patriots.
"It's the first game," defensive end Cam Heyward said. "It's not like they have a new starting quarterback or a new offense. We've had all offseason, we've had the Super Bowl to even look at them, too. They've been on prime time games for a long time. It's about time we get to play them again."
The Steelers' sluggish, drama-riddled preseason is over. No more significant injuries or suspensions, at least not for the next week. All 11 starters on defense will start playing together, which wasn't the case for parts of the preseason.
No more warm-ups. The defensive backfield that struggled against Bills and Panthers quarterbacks can hit the refresh button. Coach Mike Tomlin pointed out after Thursday's 23-6 loss to Carolina that this was a long preseason, with five games and 18 training camp practice sessions. Sometimes, it showed. The Steelers can finally see how this new-look defense stacks up.
They'll face a quarterback eager to produce a memorable performance on national television. He'll be angry. The Steelers could feel that heat.
But it's not as if they haven't prepared for all scenarios.
"If you prepare to play the New England, you better prepare to play Tom Brady," Tomlin said. "Thankfully, we have been preparing with that mentality."
The Steelers definitely paced themselves in the preseason, because of the length. That could have contributed to the sloppy play at times. Several defensive players have nursed minor injuries, including lead linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
All that rest could work to the Steelers' advantage next week.
"When Thursday comes, we'll be ready to play," cornerback Cortez Allen said. "I see how these guys prepare. I see the seriousness of film study, taking what the coaching staff is trying to deliver to us. ... I'm very excited about this season."
PITTSBURGH -- For the second straight week, the Pittsburgh Steelers struggled to thwart opposing quarterbacks. Career backups have had their way with Steelers’ reserve defensive backs. And now Tom Brady awaits. Here are some quick thoughts on the Steelers’ 23-6 loss to the Carolina Panthers:
QB depth chart: Michael Vick registered a quiet 3-for-5, 24-yard performance, but most of the Steelers’ top receiving options didn’t play. Nothing alarming and nothing outstanding about his performance. He did re-enter the game in the final minute for a few handoffs. No. 3 quarterback Landry Jones was a little better, completing 8 of his first 10 passes.
Maybe that dude could start: Antwon Blake is one of four cornerbacks who should see steady playing time, but his athletic deflection on a lob pass intended for Panthers receiver Devin Funchess in the end zone reminded why he could earn some starter’s reps on the outside.
Who got hurt? The Steelers completed this game in relatively good health, which hasn’t been the case for much of the preseason. Reserve offensive linemen B.J. Finney and Mitchell Van Dyk were injured on the second-to-last play of the game.
A player who looks amazing: Cornerback Kevin Fogg consistently made plays in camp and almost recorded his second interception in as many preseason games. Fogg could get squeezed by the numbers game during cuts but has made an impression.
Rookie watch: Third-round receiver Sammie Coates was the only rookie draft pick to make a splash play, outmuscling a cornerback for a 42-yard gain downfield. Fourth-round corner Doran Grant was good against the run but slipped in coverage on a touchdown catch by Marcus Lucas. Sixth-round pass-rusher Anthony Chickillo also played the run adequately but didn’t apply much pressure on the quarterback.
One reason to freak out: The Steelers offense started 0-for-8 on third down. This reminds how important Ben Roethlisberger, who wore street clothes Thursday, really is.
Another reason to freak out: Joe Webb, the Panthers’ No. 3 quarterback who’s not known for his drop-back passing, went 17-of-22 for 193 yards and a touchdown. Coupled with last week’s 30-for-33 performance by the Buffalo Bills' quarterbacks, the passing stats of opposing offenses leave something to be desired from the Steelers’ second- and third-string secondary.
The Steelers have a kicker: Thursday was a good start for recently acquired Josh Scobee, who made two short field goals and booted all three kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. The Steelers gave up a sixth-round pick for Scobee due to injuries at the position.
Why watch: With marquee starters expected to sit, dozens of players are competing for positioning on the 53-man roster. One of those players is Alejandro Villanueva, who's journey to the NFL is a great story. Villanueva can solidify a roster spot with a solid performance. The 6-foot-9 Villanueva, a former Army rifle platoon leader turned 345-pound offensive lineman, has worked at left and right tackle for the Steelers and figures to become a serviceable backup to Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. But not many roster spots are safe outside of starters, a few veterans and some draft picks, so Villanueva must build on his positive camp performance.
Did you know: Running back Josh Harris has been hurt for much of the preseason and could use a few impact runs against the Panthers. The Steelers need tailback depth while Le'Veon Bell serves a two-game suspension, so Harris must take ownership of that third spot behind DeAngelo Williams and Dri Archer. Also, the Steelers face tough cuts in the secondary, where undrafted corner Kevin Fogg has stood out but could get left out by the numbers game.
PITTSBURGH -- Bud Dupree isn't yet a force on the field, but he is on the streets of Pittsburgh.
While living in Kentucky before the draft, Dupree bought a new four-door F-150 SVT 'Raptor' truck with red-rimmed, 35-inch Gripper M/T tires and a menacing T-Rex X-Metal grille decorated by a white bar. He bought the truck and got it customized, picking out every detail on his own.
Dupree, who was drafted No. 22 overall by the Steelers, just "fell in love with the Raptor," he said.
"So I just went ahead and got it," said Dupree of the Raptor, which has a 6.2-liter engine and 4-wheel drive. "I still have a little more to do to it, put some lights at the top, put some more bars on it.
Dupree said he usually needs two parking spots to get in and out of the car.
Dupree loved trucks growing up in Georgia, he said. Once Dupree realized his financial stability -- with a $5-million signing bonus for his first-round draft status -- he felt good about splurging a bit on the truck.
The Raptor starts at around $46,000 for a two-door. Dupree's has four doors plus several upgrades. The truck gets 14 miles a gallon, 18 miles on the highway. "The Raptor flies over dry riverbeds at crazy speeds but rides like a Lincoln on-road," according to Car and Driver.
UPDATE: ESPN originally reported the truck belonged to Steelers defensive tackle Steve McLendon, who has a similar truck but in a different color. McLendon clarified that he was confused about the exact nature of the truck he was being asked about, so he corrected the matter by confirming the truck belonged to Dupree.
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers' trimmed their roster to 75 players before the NFL deadline of 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. They released 13 players Monday.
Most significant move: Receiver C.J. Goodwin played on the practice squad last season and had a chance to make a move with Martavis Bryant's four-game suspension. But he never really created a role for himself. The Steelers liked Shakim Phillips' big-play ability better.
Wild card: Ian Wild, a former Canadian Football League safety, is a big hitter who got attention in training camp for his diving tackles in the running game. The Steelers moved him from safety to inside linebacker, which seemed like a good sign for him. At least they liked him enough to experiment. But the Steelers are loaded at that position, so this became a numbers game.
What's next: The Steelers must reduce the roster to 53 players by Friday. They have no obvious salary-cap casualties and should keep most of the core players intact, though difficult decisions remain with late-round picks: tight end Jesse James (fifth round), outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo (sixth round) and safety Gerod Holliman (seventh round). Undrafted receiver/quarterback Tyler Murphy has a chance to stay on the team or join the practice squad.
Steelers cuts: TE Cameron Clear (waived/injured), DE Niko Davis (waived/injured), TE Ray Hamilton (waived/injured), OG Miles Dieffenbach, WR Kenzel Doe, Goodwin, RB Braylon Heard, DE Joe Kruger, DT Joe Okafor, OL Collin Rahrig, CB Jordan Sullen, OT Kevin Whimpey, Wild
PITTSBURGH -- DeAngelo Williams trimmed his weight to 215 pounds and has shown explosion at age 32 while rushing for 63 yards on 13 carries this preseason.
Seems like a good time to see his old team, the Carolina Panthers.
Williams isn't so sure, telling ESPN on Monday he's having "mixed feelings" about Thursday's game at Heinz field at 7:30 p.m. ET.
The reason: He was released in March and quickly found a new team. Both sides moved on a while ago.
"I think it went really well," Williams said about the way his release went down. "They let me go. I was hired by another employer two days after. I sense it went really well for me...Everything happens for a reason. The reason they got rid of me is there wasn’t enough balls to go around in Carolina. That was one of the things they told me. They told me I just didn’t fit in their cap situation. I went to a team that has enough balls for me and enough cap room for me.”
On March 10, the Panthers saved $2 million by designating Williams, the franchise's all-time leading rusher at 6,846 yards, a post-June 1 cut. On March 13, Williams announced his signing with the Steelers.
Williams didn't want to rehash the Panthers' seemingly unsympathetic approach to his mother's death when asked about it Monday. As for seeing old teammates and coaches, Williams said he doesn't know how he'll feel so "I'll tell you about it after."
Williams is happy with his new situation in Pittsburgh but doesn't plan to compare his new job with his old one.
He just goes by what he sees, which is an explosive offense and big rushing holes created by the offensive line. Williams was reminded of this when he slipped on a two-point conversion attempt during Saturday's 43-19 loss to Buffalo, then had time to get back up and score.
Williams will need to keep getting up as the Steelers' primary back in Weeks 1 and 2 while Le'Veon Bell serves a suspension.
The Steelers gave Williams a two-year, $4-million contract to bridge the gap for Bell, then produce as the primary No. 2 back upon Bell's return. Williams had to get comfortable in the new offense to fill that role.
"Love the offense," said Williams, who rushed for 15 yards and a score on three carries last week, plus one reception for 10 yards. "I think anybody would say that with all the weapons that were there and the way the offense is blocking. ... Outer space is the limit for this team."
A quick observation of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and how he's played in preparation for the season opener on Sept. 10 against the New England Patriots:
Roethlisberger's pedestrian performance at Buffalo, completing 2 of 4 passes for 30 yards, means little. Roethlisberger showed throughout training camp that he's in full command of Todd Haley's offense and frustrates defensive backs daily. A 51-yard scoring drive against Green Bay on Aug. 23 was all the Steelers needed to see. It was vintage Roethlisberger: Casually shrugging off a surging pass-rusher from the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield -- completion, 20 yards. Pump-faking before finding Heath Miller over the middle -- completion, 11 yards. Throwing sidearm to squeeze the ball between two defenders on the way to Markus Wheaton by the sideline -- completion, 5 yards, touchdown.
This is what he does. He feels the chaos around him and is willing to let plays develop as a result. It's a skill not every quarterback has, but Roethlisberger does.
Couple that action with Roethlisberger's 44-yard touchdown toss to Martavis Bryant on the first drive against Jacksonville on Aug. 14, and the preseason served as a satisfactory tune-up for the Patriots.
In three preseason games, Roethlisberger finished 16-of-21 for 189 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a clean, tidy performance Roethlisberger can store in his locker, along with his pads and helmet for the next 10 days. Roethlisberger should be done with game action until Sept. 10. He's a likely scratch for Thursday's preseason finale against Carolina.
If there's one critique of Roethlisberger in preseason games, he took two sacks in six offensive series. That's a sack every 10.5 passing attempts, compared to one every 18.4 attempts last season. Small sample size, yes, but Roethlisberger would benefit from keeping that average closer to 20 than 10. The point of Haley's offense is to promote yards after the catch and keep Roethlisberger upright.
Martavis Bryant: The Steelers will miss Bryant, who's set to serve a four-game suspension for substance abuse. Bryant skied for a 63-yeard catch from Michael Vick. He beat two other cornerbacks for long games, finishing the day with three catches for 138 yards and a score. Bryant goes for the score every time he touches it.
DeAngelo Williams: Williams continues to show explosion at age 32, recording 25 yards and a touchdown on four touches. He also converted a two-point try. His role is increasing as the Steelers prep for two games without Le'Veon Bell.
Ryan Shazier: Shazier missed practice time this week and looked rusty. He got outmuscled by a tight end on a 41-yard Fred Jackson run and could have provided more help on a 67-yard Charles Clay touchdown. He did record an impressive tackle for a loss.
Cody Wallace: Wallace appeared to lose track of Bills tackle Corbin Bryant on a third-down sack of Ben Roethlisberger. Wallace will be fine, but this wasn't a good start to his campaign to replace injured Maurkice Pouncey.
What it means: This was an unsettling performance from a defense that needs to be cleaned up, and fast. Can the Steelers stop anybody? Several Steelers looked out of position on two long Bills gains in the first quarter. When Bills quarterbacks – yes, the Bills – complete 23 of their first 25 passes for 304 yards, you know it’s a brutal day.
Play of the game: In his first play as a Steeler, Michael Vick threw a 63-yard deep ball to Martavis Bryant down the sideline. Bryant skied over the cornerback to make the play. Welcome to Pittsburgh, Michael.
Stat of note: The Steelers have gone for four two-point conversions this preseason, including two in the first half Saturday. Expect Pittsburgh to take the occasional two-point chance after touchdowns during the regular season.
Injuries of note: Kicker Garrett Hartley left the game with a hamstring injury, leaving second-string punter Jordan Berry on kickoffs. The Steelers signed Hartley to replace Shaun Suisham, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament three weeks ago. Outside linebacker Bud Dupree left the game with a right foot injury. The severity is unknown.
What’s next: The Steelers finish the preseason with a Thursday home game at 7:30 p.m. ET against the Panthers. Because the Bills challenged the Steelers' secondary, Cam Newton should, too.
Luckily for the Steelers, they have enough playmaking depth at receiver to make things interesting while Martavis Bryant is out for four games. DeAngelo Williams is a primary target at running back while Le'Veon Bell serves a two-game suspension. Here's a look at what to expect Saturday against Buffalo from the receiver targets not named Antonio Brown.
Darrius Heyward-Bey is not on this list because the Steelers know what to expect with him -- he's a reliable veteran who still has good speed. A dynamic special-teams player, Heyward-Bey is a lock to make the team.
Markus Wheaton:The Steelers have praised Wheaton's work ethic and crisp route-running for weeks. Though the Steelers do like him, I believe they knew about the looming Bryant suspension and prepared Wheaton for No. 2 status as a result. During camp, Wheaton was always the second man up in wide receiver practice drills. He's responding well so far, breaking free for three catches and a score last week against Green Bay. He can play inside or out. How will he respond without the threat of Brown and Bryant on the field with him?
Sammie Coates: Let's see what type of second gear Coates has. What an opportunity for him. He can run a go route. We knew that. I need to see him fight for the ball more on slants or balls to the corner of the end zone, assert himself a little bit more. The urgency isn't always there with him. Once he fixes that, his potential can shine through.
Dri Archer: Still don't know what his identity is. Is he a tailback? A slot receiver? A do-everything weapon? Where Archer can really make his money is on kick returns. He has Ducati-inspired wheels. But if Wheaton plays on the outside some, Archer can get some reps inside, where he can do damage with his shifty athleitcism. The 5-foot-8 Archer has a penchant for creeping to the sideline instead of fighting through contact. Time to fight through that.
C.J. Goodwin/Shakim Phillips/Tyler Murphy: This trio of fringe roster guys shows glimpses of potential, but can't put it all together yet. Phillips is especially intriguing, making a ridiculous one-handed catch in Week 1 of the preseason, followed by two costly drops in Week 2, then a physical over-top touchdown in Week 3. Not sure what to expect from Phillips week to week. He has loads of athleticism, though, as does Goodwin, who's in the same up-and-down class. For such a raw receiver, Murphy, a quarterback by trade, is flashing big time. But will time run out on him while he's trying to learn the position? He's clearly not a quarterback at this stage. Perhaps the Steelers can stash and develop him on the practice squad.
PITTSBURGH – Those snap counts are working just fine for James Harrison.
That’s two sacks in two preseason games for Harrison, who hasn’t played much beyond the first few series of each game, when he beat left tackles on a speed edge rush in back-to-back weeks.
Preseason or not, it’s never easy to sack Aaron Rodgers for a safety.
Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter told Steelers.com in the offseason that Harrison will be “a better player for us” by keeping his snap count around 25 per game. Porter believes he’ll get a more efficient Harrison at 25 snaps instead of 60, which the 37-year-old could have handled a decade ago.
Twenty-five snaps? Harrison could handle 25 if he was 50, he says. As far as weight, he can handle a lot more than 50 pounds, as evidenced below.
But Harrison in small dosages on the field could help lift the Steelers defense when it needs it. His presence affects the locker room. Safety Shamarko Thomas calls Harrison “one of the hardest workers I’ve ever been around.”
Subtleties in Harrison’s pass rush – the stuff beyond physical strength – enable him to produce at age 37.
“James is a technician. He prides himself in that,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Pittsburgh Steelers can pump the "Next Man Up" football mantra and hope for the best, but at some point these persistent issues of the offensive players will handcuff the team.
Le'Veon Bell's two-game suspension, Maurkice Pouncey's leg surgery, and now this -- Martavis Bryant facing a four-game suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
That's 19 touchdowns' worth of 2014 production from Bell and Bryant alone, not counting all the touchdowns Pouncey helped produce as a Pro Bowl center.
For all the discussion about the Steelers' offensive wizardry and goals for 30 points per game, don't be surprised if they start slow once again, no matter how money Ben Roethlisberger is.
The past two seasons, the Steelers found a rhythm later in the year after sluggish starts. In the first six games of 2013, the offense averaged close to 18 points per game. The first six games of 2014, the average rose slightly to more than 19 points per game.
The offense just makes more sense with the 6-foot-4 Bryant in the game. Everything falls into place with Bryant as the second outside receiver opposite Antonio Brown, while Markus Wheaton mans the slot. The Steelers play receivers inside and out, but Bryant gives them more options. Plus, he has looked like a beast all offseason. He gained 20 pounds of good weight and he has been making tough catches all preseason.
Now he has put the Steelers in a tough spot. Wheaton has a chance he didn't fully realize last season, when he caught 53 passes for 644 yards and two touchdowns. More is expected in Year 3, and he must capitalize.
Darrius Heyward-Bey elevates to the No. 3 receiver. He had a solid training camp, but he has averaged 316 yards per season since 2012.
Sammie Coates, stand up. What an opportunity for him. Coach Mike Tomlin said today that he liked Coates' progress, but wants him to mirror Brown and others when it comes to physical prowess. Basically, Coates is in good shape, but he's in rookie shape, and needs to elevate to great shape. I've found Coates' play to be uneven, as if he hasn't turned on a second gear that you would think he has. Let's see it. It's time.
When coupled with the other recent issues this offense has faced, the timing of Bryant's suspension is awful.
As if there wasn't enough pressure on Roethlisberger and Brown to make the offense hum.
Bryant has a big-play future if he learns how to say no.
PITTSBURGH -- Shamarko Thomas blew an assignment against Jacksonville. He didn’t cover the sideline on a Clay Harbor touchdown when cornerback B.W. Webb thought he had help. It happens, but Thomas wasn’t happy about it.
Apparently the first thing he did is text the man he’s replacing.
Thomas said he sought guidance from the recently retired Troy Polamalu, who has served as a de facto coach to the third-year Steelers safety.
Polamalu, likely a future Hall of Fame safety after a 12-year career with Pittsburgh, quickly responded to Thomas.
“I came out here, texted Troy, and he said, 'Stay disciplined, do your job,'” Thomas said. “I told him, 'thank you.'”
Thomas, who had missed part of training camp with a hamstring injury, had a cleaner performance Sunday against Green Bay. He didn’t miss any obvious assignments and blitzed off the edge for a sack of Scott Tolzien.
Thomas isn’t trying to replace Polamalu – he plans to craft his own identity -- but he wants to absorb all of Polamalu’s knowledge.
“I talk to Troy all the time,” Thomas said. “All I do is listen, say 'thank you' at the end for the support. I was like, ‘Troy’s right.’”