One Tomlinism every Pittsburgh Steelers fan knows is “two dogs, one bone.” He says it every year around this time in reference to somebody’s job. Mike Tomlin is a players coach, but he is very matter of fact about whether a player is competing to move up or down the depth chart. He embraces competition. With that said, there are seven battles that will go on in camp that will be worth following. Who are the dogs, and who gets the bone?
Last week we ran a breakdown focusing in on the past, present, and future of each inside linebacker on the roster. Vince Williams thrust into a starting role, but may not see the field in sub-package football. Jon Bostic will likely be competing with Tyler Matakevich for starting snaps not only beside Williams but also alone at times in sub-package football.
Matakevich enters as the leader, but we like Bostic to earn the job with his leadership and understanding. On top of that, the team does have questions in the depth. Can Matthew Thomas go from a UDFA to the fourth linebacker in the rotation? If Sean Spence is going to start over L.J. Fort in a playoff game, why would Fort make the roster over Matt Galambos or Keith Kelsey as a fifth man? Is he that much better than both on special teams? These questions will be answered soon enough.
Last season Jesse James out snapped Vance McDonald 906 to 227. McDonald was injured for a good portion of the season, but when healthy never out snapped James in a single game. Until the Pittsburgh Steelers played their most recent playoff game.
As we have laid out, McDonald does wonders over Jesse James in terms of run blocking, and it shows statistically. The issue is always going to be healthy with McDonald. However, after a full year under his belt, if he can prove that health, he should enter the season as the starter.
Cameron Sutton, in general, is going to be an interesting name to watch for. He could wear a lot of hats for this defense. The third round rookie from Tennessee is certainly going to enter camp as the backup in the slot. The question is whether or not he is the first backup on the outside as well.
When Joe Haden went down, the team went to Coty Sensabaugh before Cameron Sutton. However, the Steelers paid for it and brought in Sutton, benching Sensabaugh. Sutton enters camp ahead of Sensabaugh on the outside now, right?
On top of that, Cameron Sutton could be competing for the dime defensive back role. William Gay played 27% of the snaps last season as a nickel back who could line up in a variety of spots. This is assumed to be a good spot to ease Terrell Edmunds into the NFL as a rookie. However, what if Sutton shows better than Edmunds? Does he get the role?
This is a big summer in identifying where Sutton stands amongst his peers in this defensive backfield.
Defensive Line Depth
The Steelers starting three defensive lineman and first man off of the bench are all accounted for and in no competition. From there, things get interesting. Between Daniel McCullers, Joshua Frazier, L.T. Walton and Greg Gilmore, only two will make the roster. Which two?
McCullers is the most likely to be gone. He has contributed little and was brought back on a minimum level deal with no guarantees. The team signed him just in case, and if any two of the other three show up, they should beat McCullers.
Walton is the most likely to stay. He has the most experience of the group and can play at each defensive line position. From there, who gets the sixth spot?
Joshua Frazier is the leader in the clubhouse. As a seventh-round pick, he would have a role similar to McCullers. He would just have to live up to it in the ways in which McCullers has not.
However, Greg Gilmore is an interesting challenger. A UDFA from LSU, Gilmore brings more versatility along the line than Frazier. Does the team go for the pure nose tackle backup or the player with a potentially higher ceiling? Could Gilmore compete with Walton?
Skill Player Depth Depth
When breaking down the 53-man roster, the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to keep about 13 skill players. This would include Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, Roosevelt Nix, Antonio Brown, James Washington, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Vance McDonald, Jesse James and Xavier Grimble represent nine locks.
That leaves Jaylen Samuels, Steven Ridley, Fitzgerald Toussaint, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, Marcus Tucker and Quadree Henderson to likely grab up four spots. There are deeper names on the roster, but those feel like huge long shots.
Samuels and Heyward-Bey essentially just have to meet expectations to grab up two of those spots. Samuels is a fifth-round rookie in a role he has never truly played, so his spot cannot be a lock. Heyward-Bey is getting older and only provides on special teams. Still, he is a team leader and if he can bring anything will hang around.
Quadree Henderson is unlikely to make the team unless he looks completely dynamic as a return specialist. It is possible, but it leaves us with a true spotlight on four players at two positions.
Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint both played roles for the Steelers last season. Justin Hunter saw some limited action, and Marcus Tucker spent the season on the practice squad. Do two receivers make it? One from each position? Can any of the four shine in the preseason?
Ben Roethlisberger is the starting quarterback. Things get shaky from there. We laid out a potential plan in which the Steelers could follow to try to maximize learning about their other three quarterbacks.
Still, it feels as though early into the preseason the Steelers have to decide whether they want to see what they have from Mason Rudolph or Joshua Dobbs. This is a tough scenario because if they spend so much time letting Rudolph compete with Landry Jones for backup snaps, they likely are not getting anything out of Dobbs, who they would like to see as their number three.
If they want to see what they have out of Dobbs as the number three, they are taking away snaps that Rudolph would need if he were to become the backup. Each scenario makes Dobbs look like the odd man out.
It will be interesting to see how they get Dobbs snaps, whether or not Mason Rudolph can compete with Landry Jones or whether or not Jones stirs up enough trade interest early into camp to make some of the questions go away.