AFC North: Pittsburgh Steelers
Coach Mike Tomlin had said after Bell and Blount were arrested for possession of marijuana -- Bell was also charged with driving under the influence -- that the Steelers had not ruled out suspending both players.
Clearly the eighth-year coach publicly left that option to impress upon Bell and Blount how badly they had erred after getting charged less than two hours before the Steelers flew to Philadelphia for their third preseason games.
But there was never any serious question about whether the Steelers would suspend them. As for whether the two have already been punished, Tomlin said, “That will be between us.”
More significant in regard to the season opener is how the Steelers will use Bell and Blount Sunday against the visiting Browns.
Tomlin has said that both Bell and Blount will share the workload at running back.
But at his weekly news conference Tomlin said he does not necessarily see Bell having to accept a reduced role after averaging just over 20 touches per game last season.
When asked if he could see Bell getting 20 to 25 touches a game this season, Tomlin said, “I think we drafted him with that in mind.”
Of course the Steelers drafted Bell before they added Blount, who may be the most talented runner on the roster, and the ultra-fast Archer this offseason.
The backfield is a little more crowded this season.
But Bell's versatility will help the Steelers keep him heavily involved with offense while also taking advantage of Blount and Archer, who they will try to get the ball in space.
Bell caught 45 passes in 13 games as a rookie, and his receptions should rise this season. If Bell also averages around the 17.2 carries he received per game in 2013 he could get well over 300 touches this season provided the former second-round pick stays healthy.
One of the more interesting storylines with the season opener less than a week away is how the Steelers will use Bell, Blount and Archer.
And how the math will play out at running back.
The Bengals (No. 9) and the Ravens (No. 12) are among the six AFC teams ranked ahead of the Steelers. If the rankings turn out to be accurate -- and Sept. 2 is a looong way from the end of December -- the Steelers would be on the outside looking in at the playoffs for a third consecutive season.
Rankings are incredibly subjective, especially since teams have yet to play a game this season.
What isn't debatable when it comes to the Steelers is how imperative it is they get off to a fast start after losing their first four games in 2013.
And the season opener on Sunday is a must-win given the questions the Browns have at quarterback and their miserable history at Heinz Field. Also the Steelers' second and third games are both on the road as they play at Baltimore on Sept. 11 and at Carolina on Sept. 21.
When asked if the Steelers' 0-4 start last season, their first since 1968, impressed upon the young players the importance of playing well early, coach Mike Tomlin said, "I hope that point already hit home. I don't need an 0-4 start to let me know how significant good starts are. I'll proceed with the same mentality that I have throughout the course of my career."
The Steelers have lost three consecutive season openers, but the Browns haven’t beaten them in Pittsburgh since 2003.
Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is nursing an A/C shoulder sprain that kept the rookie from practicing on Monday, but coach Mike Tomlin hasn’t ruled out Bryant playing Sunday against the visiting Cleveland Browns.
“At this stage early in the week we’re going to leave the light on for all of these men,” Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference.
A handful of players who have been working through injuries practiced at least on a limited basis on Monday, the first day the Steelers went through drills since assembling their 53-man roster.
Those include cornerback Brice McCain (groin), linebacker Sean Spence (knee), tight end Matt Spaeth (leg), wide receiver Lance Moore (leg) and long snapper Greg Warren (knee).
One thing Tomlin said he is not worried about when it comes to injuries is Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown getting hurt while returning punts.
Brown will serve as the Steelers’ primary punt returner, Tomlin said, with rookie Dri Archer behind the fifth-year veteran.
Brown averaged 12.8 yards per punt return last season and scored a touchdown in that phase of the game.
“He’s a Pro Bowl-caliber return man. So that’s what you do with those guys, you play them,” Tomlin said. “I don’t live with my fears.”
ESPN.com Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Scott Brown makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: Cleveland Browns
A new-look team will be the same, old Browns when it comes to this AFC North rivalry. The Browns haven't defeated the Steelers in Pittsburgh since 2003 and they have never beaten Ben Roethlisberger, an Ohio native, at Heinz Field. It won't happen this year with quarterback so much of a question mark for the Browns. Prediction: win
Week 2: at Baltimore Ravens
A terrific early-season Thursday matchup sees the renewal of one of the nastiest rivalries in the NFL. Both teams are alike in a lot of ways, which only adds to their dislike for one another. They get a national stage to beat the stuffing out of one another, and I see another close game with the home-field advantage proving to be the difference. Prediction: loss
Week 3: at Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are vulnerable this year, and this is a good time for a team with question marks in the secondary to play an opponent that needs wide receivers to emerge. The Steelers steal one in Charlotte after getting a lot of rest to recover from their game against the Ravens. Prediction: win
Week 4: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers have made a ton of changes, the most significant one coming at head coach where Lovie Smith takes over for Greg Schiano, who was a disaster in the NFL. The Steelers come close to winning three of their first four games but the Buccaneers upset them at Heinz Field. Prediction: loss
Week 5: at Jacksonville Jaguars
I think the Jags have the right coach to lead their turnaround in Gus Bradley but they are still a year away from making a move in the AFC South. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau isn't going to let journeyman quarterback Chad Henne or rookie Blake Bortles beat him, and the Steelers will pull away from the Jaguars in the second half. Prediction: win
Week 6: at Cleveland Browns
The Browns may have handed over the offense to Johnny Manziel by this time, and it would certainly add some sizzle to this game if he is indeed under center. The Steelers were expecting Johnny Football to start against them in the season opener. They will wait a couple of weeks to give Manziel their welcome to the NFL. Prediction: win
Week 7: Houston Texans
This will be a closer game than people think. J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney will make it tough for the Steelers to move the ball, and Ryan Fitzpatrick is a capable enough of a quarterback to beat the Steelers if they don't pressure him. Prediction: win
Week 8: Indianapolis Colts
Andrew Luck has established himself as an elite quarterback and I suspect he will be too much for the Steelers to handle, even though they play Luck and the Colts at Heinz Field. The three-game winning streak comes to an end when the Steelers finally run into a team that is anything but suspect at quarterback. Prediction: loss
Week 9: Baltimore Ravens
The biggest key for the Steelers in the prime-time rematch is not letting Joe Flacco summon some late-game heroics. Flacco beat the Steelers in three consecutive regular-season games at Heinz Field from 2010-12, delivering two of those wins with late touchdown drives. Prediction: win
Week 10: at New York Jets
Rex Ryan's bunch looks like the one team capable of challenging New England's supremacy in the AFC East. Geno Smith should be a much better quarterback than the Steelers beat last year at MetLife Stadium. I don't like this matchup for the Steelers with the Jets trying to keep pace with the Patriots in the AFC East. Prediction: loss
Week 11: at Tennessee Titans
The Steelers face former Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt in their fifth and final prime-time game of the regular season. The Steelers have lost consecutive games to the Titans that they should have won. Whisenhunt should do well in Tennessee but the Titans have the look of a 7-9 or 6-10 team. Prediction: win
Week 13: New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees has fared well against the Steelers both times he has played them since joining the Saints -- and becoming one of the most prolific quarterbacks of his generation. It's hard to see the Steelers' secondary holding up under the barrage of passes Brees will throw at Heinz Field. Prediction: loss
Week 14: at Cincinnati Bengals
This game should have huge AFC North implications. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is 5-2 at Paul Brown Stadium and I'm not a big fan of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. But the Bengals defense and home-field advantage should give them an all-important division win. Prediction: loss
Week 15: at Atlanta Falcons
Every season, it seems, a team goes from worst to first in its division, and Atlanta is a candidate to do that in 2014. Injuries wrecked the Falcons last season and this will be one of the Steelers' tougher road games. The offense carries the Steelers in a high-scoring win, and the Steelers keep themselves in the AFC North race. Prediction: win
Week 16: Kansas City Chiefs
This team takes a step back after emerging as one of the surprises of the 2013 season and making the playoffs. The Steelers will load up against running back Jamaal Charles and make quarterback Alex Smith beat them. They also will put up their share of points against the Chiefs defense. Prediction: win
Week 17: Cincinnati Bengals
Hello, again. The AFC rivals meet for the second time in four weeks and nothing less than the division title may be on the line. Just as in Cincinnati, home-field advantage is the difference and the Steelers close the regular season on a three-game winning streak. Prediction: win
Predicted record: 10-6
The question, with the regular-season opener less than a week away, is how much of a jump will outside linebacker Jarvis Jones make in his second season?
Jones didn’t make enough of them last season when the former Georgia All-American registered just one sack despite starting eight games and playing 612 snaps.
The Steelers' starting right outside linebacker has to make significant improvement this season or it could have a domino effect on a defense that gave up too many big plays last season and recorded just 34 sacks, the Steelers’ lowest total since 1990.
If Jones doesn’t put consistent pressure on the quarterback, it will allow teams to focus on slowing down left outside linebacker Jason Worilds. And if Worilds is consistently double-teamed or offenses use a running back to chip or block the fifth-year veteran and the pass rush suffers as a whole, it will only further expose the Steelers’ cornerbacks.
Jones is in the year where Mike Tomlin expects players to make their most improvement, and the eighth-year coach said last week he is pleased with where Jones is despite an unsettling third preseason game in Philadelphia.
“Jarvis is a type of young guy that I expect him to continually be on the rise,” Tomlin said. “Sometimes you think as you push forward toward opening day that you can take the snapshot of the individual and the group and that’s the finished product and really that’s far from the case. I expect him (and) I expect us to continually get better even as we push into this season.
“The reality is, ultimately if we’re going to be the type of team that we need to be and want to be and (the) individuals that we need to be and want to be, we’re going to be continually in growth and develop(ment) particularly from a young guys standpoint.”
Jones is a young guy but the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder has had an entire offseason to get stronger and hone his pass-rushing moves. He is working with former Steelers pass-rushing great Joey Porter and he has had more than a year to learn defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s system.
In other words, there are no built-in excuses as there were last year when Jones was trying to find his way as a wide-eyed rookie.
“I think I’m doing a good job as far as getting there but I’m not going to make predictions,” Jones said. “I feel good about myself. I’m just going to continue to work.”
What is interesting about the current roster -- and telling of how the draft is a series of educated guesses -- is that the Steelers have as many former undrafted free agents on offense and defense as they do first-round picks.
I did not include the three specialists in this analysis since kicker Shaun Suisham, punter Brad Wing and long snapper Greg Warren are all former undrafted free agents.
Here is a closer look at how the Steelers were built.
Notable: Heyward-Bey, the seventh overall pick of the 2009 draft by the Raiders, is the only first-rounder on the roster who wasn’t taken by the Steelers.
Second round (6): OLB Jason Worilds, OT Marcus Gilbert, OT Mike Adams, RB Le'Veon Bell, DE Stephon Tuitt, S Mike Mitchell.
Notable: Mitchell, the only second-round pick on the roster not drafted by the Steelers, was the Raiders’ second pick the year they drafted Heyward-Bey.
Third round (4): TE Matt Spaeth, LB Sean Spence, WR Markus Wheaton, RB/WR Dri Archer
Notable: Spence, a 2012 pick, makes the team after a devastating knee injury he sustained two years ago imperiled his career.
Fourth round (8): CB Ike Taylor, CB Cortez Allen, S Shamarko Thomas, QB Landry Jones, WR Martavis Bryant, S Will Allen, C/G Cody Wallace, CB D.W. Webb.
Notable: A lot of Steelers fans are wondering why the Steelers kept Jones after his lack of productivity in the preseason. Might they be looking to upgrade at the No. 3 quarterback position? Terrelle Pryor, who was waived by the Seahawks, might intrigue them as coach Mike Tomlin has long been enamored of Pryor’s physical ability.
Fifth round (3): CB William Gay, C Wesley Johnson, DE Cam Thomas.
Notable: Johnson will get a chance to develop into the Kelvin Beachum role from two years ago. Beachum proved to be particularly valuable as a backup because he could play every position along the offensive line. Johnson, a rookie fifth-round pick, has similar versatility.
Sixth round (7): WR Antonio Brown, WR Justin Brown, NT Daniel McCullers, LB Vince Williams, OLB Arthur Moats, CB Brice McCain, QB Bruce Gradkowski.
Notable: McCullers, the second of two sixth-round picks the Steelers made this year, looks like a real find. The 6-7, 352-pound man-child has the potential to occupy multiple blocker in the middle, and he moves very well for someone his size.
Seventh round (2): DE Brett Keisel, OT Kelvin Beachum.
Notable: Two absolute steals here. Keisel went with the 242nd pick of the 2002 draft; Beachum lasted until the 248th pick of the 2012 draft.
Undrafted free agents (10): G Ramon Foster, NT Steve McLendon, FB Will Johnson, S Robert Golden, LB Terence Garvin, CB Antwon Blake, G Chris Hubbard, TE Michael Palmer, RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Lance Moore.
Notable: All of these players except for Hubbard figures to be active on game days.
PITTSBURGH -- The closest I ever came to experiencing what an NFL quarterback faced when playing against James Harrison came in October 2008.
A couple of days earlier, the Pittsburgh Steelers had beaten the Jaguars in Jacksonville, but Harrison had been furious after the 26-21 win -- and rightfully so since he had been held more times than a newborn baby.
As the visiting locker room at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium started to empty, Harrison groused to longtime Steelers beat reporter Mark Kaboly and me during an interview that maybe the officials had money on the game.
We wrote it. Roger Goodell read it. And Harrison received an envelope from Park Avenue.
It included a $25,000 fine and a letter explaining that he would be making a generous donation to one of the charities that the NFL supports because of something I had written.
I had the good fortune the first time Harrison did a group interview after getting fined to be on the other end of the Steelers' locker room since one of my colleagues was in on the scrum.
I felt really lucky when I was later informed that Harrison had said, “Which one of you m-----f------ is Scott Brown? You owe me $25,000.”
That was the last I heard of that debt, though I did briefly consider walking up to Harrison one day and handing him $25,000 in Monopoly money. I wisely figured that joke might not play well for several reasons.
James Harrison was ornery. James Harrison was intimidating. And James Harrison was unpredictable.
Let me add this in the wake of Harrison announcing his retirement Saturday morning via social media: James Harrison was one of the greatest success stories in the fabled history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Let that sink in a little bit.
And then consider that Harrison was cut three times by the Steelers before finally sticking with the team in 2004.
He bided his time on special teams for three seasons before the Steelers unleashed a raging bull on the rest of the NFL.
Harrison both terrorized and tormented quarterbacks after taking over at right outside linebacker for perennial Pro Bowler Joey Porter, earning the nickname "Deebo" from his teammates after the terrifying neighborhood bully in the movie "Friday."
Harrison piled up 54 sacks from 2007-11, and his 64 career quarterback takedowns for the Steelers rank fourth in team history, two behind a guy named Joe Greene. Harrison became a perennial Pro Bowler, and the former undrafted free agent won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2008 after registering 16 sacks.
Harrison turned in one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history at the end of that season when he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown.
The Steelers don’t win a sixth Super Bowl title if Harrison doesn’t weave his way down the field, pinball off Arizona Cardinals tacklers and then collapse in the end zone with no time left in the first half.
We may never see a play like that again.
If it was an original, so was Harrison.
He played with an edge. He also played on the edge, something that turned Harrison into the unwitting face of Goodell’s crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits.
His clashes with Goodell -- Harrison blasted the commissioner in a 2011 Men’s Journal story for which he later apologized -- may complicate his legacy a bit when it comes to the NFL.
That is not the case with the Steelers, which is why so many fans were clamoring for the team to re-sign Harrison when he made it clear he wanted to return to Pittsburgh for one more season.
It doesn’t look like he will get that second act with the Steelers.
But what a first act it was for the inimitable James Harrison.
Now, as the Steelers' general manager, Colbert will have an even bigger say as to whether a Wing, 23, punts for his employer.
"Hopefully it's not double trouble," Brad Wing said with a smile late Thursday night.
Wing's status is intriguing because he is a near lock to make the 53-man roster, which has to be finalized by 4 p.m. ET today. It is what might happen after late Saturday afternoon that will have Wing all but jumping any time his cell phone rings.
Drew Butler made the 53-man roster last year after presumably winning the punting competition he had waged with veteran Brian Moorman. A couple of days later, the Steelers claimed Zoltan Mesko off waivers and cut Butler.
That is not the only reason why Wing will be on edge for the next couple of days.
The former LSU standout did not seize the punting job even though he had no competition in training camp and the preseason with veteran Adam Podlesh out because of a family matter.
Wing displayed excellent hang time and six of his 29 punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. But inconsistency also plagued the Aussie, and a 25-yard punt in the Steelers' final preseason game cannot be ignored even though Wing otherwise made a strong closing argument.
"I had a few I wish I could have back," Wing said after the Steelers' 10-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night. "It seems like I'm saying that every week. I'm just going to continue to work to eliminate the bad ones. Hopefully I've shown enough and hopefully they have enough trust and confidence in me that I can go into the regular season with them."
Coach Mike Tomlin, who showed little patience with Mesko and his one bad punt a game last season, has given Wing several votes of confidence.
Will it be enough for him to stick on the 53-man roster after the Steelers have had a chance to see which other punters surface on the waiver wire today?
"All I want to do is just be here and play football," said Wing, who didn't make the Philadelphia Eagles last season. "I'm still very young and I think they know that. I don't think I've reached my full potential."
The Steelers’ claiming of Webb, a former fourth-round draft pick, could be an indication that cornerback Brice McCain sustained a significant groin injury Thursday night in the Steelers' preseason finale.
The loss of McCain for an extended period would weaken a position where Steelers are not particularly deep. Rookie Shaquille Richardson is nursing a knee injury and the fifth-round pick is a candidate for the short-term injured reserve list, though the Steelers would first have to put him on the 53-man roster.
The Steelers have yet to announce any cuts, and they have until 4 p.m. ET on Saturday to finalize their 53-man roster.
The Steelers will essentially redshirt Zumwalt after he missed most of their offseason practices because UCLA had not completed its school year. The sixth-round pick has been hampered by a groin injury, and Zumwalt has not played since the Steelers’ first preseason game on Aug. 9.
It might also be their last major order of business before the start of the regular season.
The Steelers have signed center Maurkice Pouncey, right tackle Marcus Gilbert and kicker Shaun Suisham to new long-term contracts since June.
Outside linebacker Jason Worilds and cornerback Cortez Allen remain the only starters who are candidates to receive new deals. The Steelers don't negotiate player contracts during the regular season, so it would be an understatement to say that the clock is ticking.
"There’s probably a chance we’ll do one more contract," Rooney said. "I don’t know if we will get it done or not, but we’re pretty much done with the signing process as we’re heading into the season."
Worilds is probably the odd man out even if the Steelers sign one more player to a new long-term contract before Sept. 7.
The fifth-year veteran will make $9.754 million in 2014 after signing the one-year contract the Steelers offered him when they used a transition tag on him in March, and the Steelers might not be willing to offer the kind of multi-year deal to make it worth it for Worilds to pass up making nearly $10 million this season.
The Steelers will still have some measure of control when it comes to Worilds’ rights even if they don’t sign him to a new contract before the start of the regular season.
They can tag Worilds again next year, which would prevent him from becoming an unrestricted free agent when the 2015 NFL year starts.
The Steelers appear to be content to see if Worilds can build on his strong second half from last season and then decide whether they are ready to commit to the former second-round draft pick long term.
Allen is the more likely of the two to sign a new contract becausee it might be more feasible -- and palatable -- for the Steelers from a financial standpoint.
Allen, whose cap hit is $1.529 million this season, is a promising young cornerback who has yet to put it together for an entire season. His signing a long-term contract would provide security for both Allen and the Steelers, who are thin at cornerback.
Given where the respective sides are coming from, it seems a lot more likely that Allen, not Worilds, and the Steelers find common ground on a new deal before the organization shuts down contract negotiations until next year.
PITTSBURGH -- It certainly looked like a fourth preseason game, from the swaths of empty seats at Heinz Field to the uneven play with many starters from each side playing sparingly, if at all.
Carolina parlayed a big pass play into the game’s only touchdown ,and the Panthers beat the Steelers 10-0 Thursday night with the specter of final cuts looming for fringe players on each side.
Landry Jones started at quarterback and completed 14 of 18 passes for 97 yards before giving way to Brendon Kay midway through the third quarter. Jones, a fourth-round pick in 2013, didn’t lead any scoring drives but probably did enough to make the 53-man roster as the Steelers’ No. 3 quarterback.
No Steelers player battling for a roster spot made a particularly compelling argument to stay with the team beyond 4 p.m. ET Saturday, the NFL deadline for finalizing 53-man rosters.
Brad Wing looked like he was on his way to nailing down a roster spot after pinning the Panthers deep in their own territory several times. Then the Aussie unleashed a 25-yard clunker, something that will make the coaches ponder whether Wing is consistent enough to be trusted.
Players such as Wing have made their final argument as far as making the team.
The Steelers’ coaches and front office personnel will meet on Friday to start paring down the roster and could make some cuts then, with the rest coming on Saturday. The Steelers have to cut 22 players to get to the 53-man limit by late Saturday afternoon.
Some other thoughts from the Steelers’ fourth preseason game:
- It was a very nice bounce-back game for starting outside linebacker Jarvis Jones after the second-year man struggled a week ago in Philadelphia. Jones made his presence felt early against the pass and the run, and the Steelers coaches had to love his hustle after a snap sailed over the head of Panthers quarterback Derek Anderson in the second quarter. Anderson tried to pick the ball up, and when he couldn’t get a handle on it Jones made a diving recovery. He then got up and started to rumble downfield, drawing a personal foul penalty when former Steelers center Fernando Velasco dragged Jones down by his hair. Jones recorded three tackles, including one for a loss, and the fumble recovery before calling it a night.
- If the Steelers only keep five wide receivers Justin Brown might be headed back to the practice squad. The wide receiver who created such a buzz during offseason practices caught five passes for 32 yards in four preseason games despite playing more snaps than any other Steelers skill player. Hard-charging Darrius Heyward-Bey caught six passes for 44 yards against the Panthers and solidified his spot on the 53-man roster even if the Steelers only keep five wideouts. His speed and experience -- and his production in the Steelers' final two preseason games -- will make Heyward-Bey too difficult to cut
- David Paulson and Rob Blanchflower needed to beat Michael Palmer for the No. 3 spot at tight end, and neither was able to do it. Palmer had a couple of nice blocks early when the Steelers were able to run the ball, and the fifth-year veteran is solid on special teams. He solidified his spot on the 53-man roster, and Blanchflower looks like a strong candidate for the practice squad.
- Cornerback Antwon Blake had played well before getting beat badly on a 53-yard catch by wide receiver Philly Brown, setting up the Panthers’ only touchdown. Blake will make the Steelers as a core special-teams player but Brice McCain has clearly established himself as the No. 4 cornerback assuming the groin injury he suffered against the Panthers isn’t serious.
- The Steelers showed an interesting defensive look late in the second quarter. Josh Mauro, Roy Philon, Daniel McCullers and Ethan Hemer were up front with Vince Williams and Terence Garvin as the only linebackers in the game. However, Shamarko Thomas played close enough to the line of scrimmage that it looked like the Steelers had their big nickel package on the field with four down linemen.
Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger 68, Bruce Gradkowski 68, Landry Jones 48
Notable: Roethlisberger won’t play Thursday night, and Gradkowski is likely to sit as well. Jones is expected start and play most of the way as he tries to show the Steelers he is worthy of a roster spot. Undrafted rookie Brendon Kay may get some playing time so he can put out some game film after not seeing the field in the first three exhibition games.
Running back: Le'Veon Bell 43, LeGarrette Blount 42, Dri Archer 25, Will Johnson 16, Josh Harris 12, Stephen Houston 7.
Notable: Coach Mike Tomlin has said both Bell and Blount will play against the Panthers, but Harris and Houston figure to get the bulk of the carries. One of them has to convince the Steelers to carry a fourth running back behind Bell, Blount and Archer.
Wide receiver: Justin Brown 98, Markus Wheaton 87, Martavis Bryant 80, Antonio Brown 76, Derek Moye 58, Darrius Heyward-Bey 35, Lance Moore 20, Lanear Sampson 8.
Notable: I think Justin Brown is safe as far as making the team. It wouldn’t hurt for him to have a productive game, as the second-year man has caught just three passes for 15 yards despite playing the most snaps of any Steelers skills player. Tomlin praised Heyward-Bey’s play on special teams even though the sixth-year veteran has logged just seven snaps in two preseason games on those units. He should see a lot of action on special teams against the Panthers.
Tight end: Heath Miller 76, David Paulson 53, Matt Spaeth 43, Rob Blanchflower 35, Michael Palmer 18.
Notable: Miller and Spaeth are the only locks to make the team. I give Palmer the edge for the No. 3 spot because of his contributions on special teams. Paulson and Blanchflower, however, are still in the running. Blanchflower may be coming on after a slow start to training camp. The rookie seventh-round pick logged 18 snaps against the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday in a game in which the starters played extensively.
Offensive line: Mike Adams 104, Chris Hubbard 100, Guy Whimper 96, Kelvin Beachum 80, David DeCastro 80, Marcus Gilbert 80, Maurkice Pouncey 80, Ramon Foster 66, Cody Wallace 64, Will Simmons 50, Wesley Johnson 40.
Notable: I have Johnson, a fifth-round pick, making the team, but the rookie may have to show the coaches something against the Panthers. It will be interesting to see if he plays multiple positions Thursday night. The first-team offensive line got plenty of work together as reflected by the starters’ respective snap counts.
Roethlisberger is No. 28 on offense, two spots behind Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who won the 2013 Super Bowl.
Despite throwing for 4,261 yards and 28 touchdowns -- and holding the Steelers together after a ghastly 0-4 start -- Roethlisberger somehow slipped four spots from his 2013 ranking.
The 11th-year veteran has already broken many of Terry Bradshaw's Steelers passing records and is one of only four quarterbacks in the modern era to win 80 games in 113 or fewer starts.
His ranking confirms what I have long thought about Roethlisberger: He doesn't get the recognition he deserves for what he means to the Steelers.
Maybe consecutive 8-8 seasons slightly dimmed opinions on Roethlisberger from a national perspective. Imagine, however, the losing the Steelers would have endured as they rebuilt their defense on the run without Roethlisberger, who is a franchise quarterback in every sense of the word.
That he is still playing at an incredibly high level at the age of 32 is the Steelers' biggest reason for optimism as they try to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Running back shuffle: The Steelers are down to five running backs after releasing three at that position Tuesday, including Tauren Poole, who got a long look from the coaches. A roster spot is there for the taking if either Josh Harris or Stephen Houston seizes the final opportunity against the Panthers. The Steelers may go with three running backs and fullback Will Johnson even given the uncertain status of starter Le’Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount. Coach Mike Tomlin has said the team is considering all options as far as punishment following their arrest on marijuana possession charges. (Bell has also been charged with driving under the influence.) That includes a suspension -- and the Steelers can maneuver around the collective bargaining agreement by simply deactivating Bell, Blount or both for the Sept. 7 season opener against the Browns. I don’t expect the Steelers to sit either for an entire game, and a suspension from the NFL wouldn’t come until next season. That means Harris or Houston will have to play his way on to the 53-man roster, or the two could be vying for a spot on the practice squad. The Steelers will also keep an eye on the waiver wire to see which running backs become available at the end of the week.
Steelers’ moves: Arnfelt, S Jordan Dangerfield, C Chris Elkins, Fangupo, WR C.J. Goodwin, RB Jordan Hall, LS Luke Ingram, RB Miguel Maysonet, OT Emmanuel McCray, WR Kashif Moore, Poole, CB Devin Smith, OLB Vic So’oto, CB Lew Toler, TE Eric Waters