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Job Openings Dwindling
By Mike Prisuta
Monday, August 21, 2006
Nine offensive linemen or 10? Two tight ends or three? Five wide receivers or six? Or seven? And is there a quarterback in training camp worthy of a roster spot as the No. 3 at the position?
Those were some of the critical questions Steelers coaches and personnel people were wrestling with prior to Saturday night's 17-10 preseason loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Two more dress rehearsals remain, Friday night in Philadelphia and Aug. 31 against Carolina.
NFL rosters must be reduced to 65 by 4 p.m. Aug. 29 and to 53 by 4 p.m. Sept. 2.
Although much can change between now and the cut-down dates, it's reasonable to assume 47 of those who will ultimately make the Steelers' final 53 have already been identified.
Here is a look at what the Steelers already know, how the roster might built on a position-by-position basis, and what has yet to be determined:
QUARTERBACK (2 of 2): Ben Roethlisberger is ready to start, and Charlie Batch is established as the backup.
No. 5a pick Omar Jacobs and first-year pro Shane Boyd are probably battling for a spot on the practice squad.
In the preseason opener at Arizona, both played better than they'd practiced. Against Minnesota, however, neither proved roster-worthy.
"We haven't been able to generate much offense with Omar or with Shane," coach Bill Cowher said.
Boyd isn't accurate enough as a passer, and Jacobs continues to struggle running the offense. After the Steelers spent a draft pick on him, Jacobs would have to be beaten out decisively not to earn the practice spot.
RUNNING BACK (4 of 4): Willie Parker starts at halfback and will be complemented by Duce Staley -- despite Staley's sluggish preseason showing -- and Verron Haynes. Haynes is entrenched as the third-down back, as is Dan Kreider at fullback.
There's no need for a No. 5, when the roster spot can be better employed elsewhere.
First-year pro John Kuhn, who plays both positions and leads the Steelers with 45 preseason rushing yards on 10 attempts, is in a fight for a spot on the practice squad with first-year pro Branden Joe and No. 7 pick Cedric Humes.
WIDE RECEIVER (5 of 7): Starters Hines Ward and Cedrick Wilson and reserves Nate Washington, Santonio Holmes and Willie Reid are in.
The immense importance the Steelers place on special teams suggests Quincy Morgan and Sean Morey might be, as well. That would seemingly constitute an overload at the position, but the way the roster is shaping up, Morgan can be employed as an insurance policy at receiver and on special teams and Morey as a special-teams luxury.
TIGHT END (2 of 2): Starter Heath Miller, backup Jerame Tuman and an occasional tackle serving as a third tight end in short-yardage situations are all that's necessary.
No. 5b pick Charles Davis, rookie free agent Jon Dekker and rookie free agent Isaac Smolko haven't blocked well enough to earn a roster spot. One will make the practice squad.
Dekker was first off the bench against the Vikings and was promptly run over by linebacker Ben Leber while serving as a fullback/H-back, as Miller often does.
OFFENSIVE LINE (10 of 10): Etched in stone at this point are starters (from left to right) Marvel Smith, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Kendall Simmons and Max Starks, and backups Chukky Okobi, Trai Essex, Chris Kemoeatu, Willie Colon and Marvin Philip.
As long as they stay healthy (and as long as Okobi doesn't suffer a setback in his recovery from neck surgery), it'll be a matter of improving performance rather than identifying backups throughout the rest of the preseason.
"It seemed like there was a lot of pressure with that second group, which was a little bit of a concern, because some of those guys are going to be active on game day," Cowher said after the Vikings game.
One practice-squad spot is probably available; tackle Ulish Booker had one last season.
DEFENSIVE LINE (5 of 6): Starters Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and Brett Keisel and established backups Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke have their spots secured.
Unknown is whether veteran Rodney Bailey can continue to hold off second-year pro Shaun Nua (if there's been a disappointment of camp, he's it) and No. 4b pick Orien Harris (the least competitive player of this year's draft class). Bailey's the best bet; Nua, Harris and rookie free agents Scott Paxson and Lee Vickers are battling for two likely spots on the practice squad.
LINEBACKER (7 of 9): The starting group, Clark Haggans, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Joey Porter, and the top reserves, James Harrison, Clint Kriewaldt and Rian Wallace -- are in place and as good as ever. Wallace looks even better, since he's working outside as well as inside.
The race is on for perhaps two more spots, and it is being contested by Arnold Harrison, Richard Seigler and Andre Frazier, probably in that order.
Frazier, who played in 11 regular-season games and three playoff games in 2005, felt Cowher's wrath during an extended sideline tirade in the Minnesota game.
DEFENSIVE BACK (10 of 10): The only question coming in was whether there would still be room for special-teams demon Chidi Iwuoma. Apparently, there will be. Make it five cornerbacks (starters Ike Taylor and Deshea Townsend, and Bryant McFadden, Ricardo Colclough and Iwuoma) and five safeties (Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, No. 3a pick Anthony Smith and Mike Logan) in the secondary.
SPECIALISTS (2 of 3): Snapper Greg Warren and kicker Jeff Reed are untouchable.
The punting battle continues between 16-year veteran Chris Gardocki and first-year pro Mike Barr, who has yet to hold for Reed in a preseason game.
The sentiment on the staff is for Gardocki to win the job, because he was so dependable in last season's playoff run.