The Pittsburgh Steelers will play their preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers on Friday night. Nearly every starter and even some key backups will be sitting out of this game to avoid injuries. This game will be the ultimate deciding factor for some players trying to make the roster or the practice squad. Some players are multi-year veterans trying to extend their careers by another season, while others are rookie undrafted free agents trying to make it in the league for the first time. Here are the Steelers’ preseason position battles to keep an eye on during this weekend’s game.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #1: Running Back 3 and 4
Following the draft, the Steelers’ depth chart at running back seemed pretty firm. Najee Harris would be the starter, Benny Snell would back him up, Anthony McFarland Jr. would provide a speedy, change-of-pace option, and Jaylen Samuels would…still be on the team somehow. Kalen Ballage joined the team in late March, and he was basically an afterthought for the offseason.
However, entering the final preseason game, everything has changed. Ballage has arguably been the best Steelers’ running back in three preseason games, while Snell hasn’t played, and Samuels has been consistently inconsistent. Given his performance, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Ballage doesn’t make the roster. This puts Snell and Samuels in precarious positions.
Snell is somewhat protected in that he has two years left on his rookie deal and the coaching staff seems to like him. But he hasn’t played this preseason, and his performances the last two seasons were uninspiring. Snell lacked the speed and explosiveness necessary to succeed in the Steelers’ offense the last two years; with Matt Canada’s offense requiring, even more, his lack of fit could force him off the roster.
Regarding Samuels, outside of one game against New England in 2018, he has never really found his footing in the NFL. Samuels came to Pittsburgh as a versatile player from NC State, where he played halfback, fullback, H-back, tight end, wide receiver, even Wildcat quarterback. Many thought this was the Steelers’ attempt to replace or replicate the versatility that Le’Veon Bell once provided. This never happened. Samuels had some moments this preseason, but with only one year left on his contract, there isn’t much keeping him here.
With Najee Harris sitting out the preseason finale, all three players will be given plenty of opportunities to earn a roster spot. However, there is the distinct possibility that the Steelers only elect to keep three running backs. This puts Snell and Samuels in even greater jeopardy. Ballage offers a lot of the same things Snell and Samuels do individually. But he can combine his size and power with athleticism and versatility.
If the Steelers want to carry a fourth running back, they’d probably go with Trey Edmunds, who serves as an H-back in Canada’s offense. Still, he can also play fullback and halfback and be a significant contributor on special teams. Since they can still stash Edmunds on the practice squad, I’d predict Snell to make the team, but that’s only because of his contract, and I would not be shocked if he was cut as well.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #2: Wide Receiver 6
This is probably my favorite position battle, partially because it is probably the least consequential. Additionally, every player in this group has flashed very positive plays. If you need some convincing as to why this position battle matters, consider special teams. The Steelers typically prefer to carry six wide receivers. This allows them to still play in five-wide sets in case one of the primary starters gets hurt. The sixth wide receiver is typically a major contributor on special teams; think of Darrius Heyward-Bey during his time with the Steelers. Let’s get into the four contenders for that sixth receiver spot.
First is Cody White, a big wide receiver formerly of Michigan State. White initially signed with the Chiefs after the 2020 NFL Draft. But they released him, and after bouncing around to the Giants and Broncos, he landed on the Steelers’ practice squad. White saw the first NFL action of his career this preseason and opened some eyes. He made several great catches against the Cowboys and Eagles and displayed his blocking ability against the Lions. Of these players, White might have the most ability as a receiver. However, he only saw his first special teams action against the Lions and did not make an impact, like our next player.
Anthony Johnson was a prolific receiver in college but went undrafted in 2019. He initially signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the Bucs waived him at the end of the preseason, and after spending time on the Chargers practice squad, Johnson ended up with the Steelers. He began 2020 on the injured reserve list then spent the rest of the season on the practice squad. This preseason, Johnson has been a core special teamer on both return and coverage units. He also made some nice catches against Dallas and Philadelphia, including a beautiful snag in the back of the end zone against the Eagles. Johnson has not made the same number of plays that White has; however, Johnson has been a much more valuable contributor on special teams.
Rico Bussey Jr.
Rico Bussey Jr. is the next receiver with a shot to make the roster. Bussey garnered some buzz in training camp when he took the field wearing #84, the first Pittsburgh player to do so since Antonio Brown’s ignominious exit. Bussey has barely played on special teams, given that he is a relatively smaller receiver. But he’s been a productive receiver. He’s an excellent route runner and went for four catches and 45 yards against the Eagles. Along with most of the other receivers, he did not get many receiving opportunities against the Lions.
This makes the matchup against the Panthers that much more important. The vast majority of the starters, and even most of the primary backups, are sitting this game out. This should give all three of these players increased opportunities to show out as receivers and prove they belong. Bussey might be behind these other two players, but a big showing against the Panthers could elevate his stock enough to earn a roster spot.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #3: Offensive Lineman 10
This offseason, the Steelers brought in a handful of offensive linemen to help bolster and rebuild their offensive line. Players like Kendrick Green and Trai Turner project as immediate starters, while Rashaad Coward and Joe Haeg are versatile backups. I predict nine players to make the active roster: Okorafor, Dotson, Green, Turner, Banner, Moore Jr., Finney, Haeg, and Coward. But there could be potentially room for a tenth. I’d anticipate the Steelers to be looking for a player that can provide depth at multiple positions.
First is JC Hassenauer. He is a center that saw playing time last year when Maurkice Pouncey went down. Hasseanauer is undersized, even for a center, but has been with the Steelers in some fashion since 2019. He performed well this preseason, especially against the Eagles. However, he exclusively plays center; additionally, his film from last year shows he cannot be trusted to be consistently effective at the NFL level. Hassenauer’s experience could be valuable, but I’m not sure it’s worth a roster spot.
Next is John Leglue, who has bounced around several practice squads before arriving in Pittsburgh. He’s much bigger than Hassenauer and very versatile. In 2019 with Denver, he played at left tackle, right guard, and right tackle during the preseason; thus far, with the Steelers, he has played right guard, center, and left guard. Leglue did not have his best game last week against the Lions but was dominant in the previous two matchups. He should receive much playing time this week (where exactly is unclear) and could play himself onto the roster as a versatile swing man.
The final offensive lineman is Chaz Green. Green is most famous, perhaps infamous, for his 2019 performance with the Cowboys against the Falcons when he allowed six sacks to Adrian Clayborn. Green has legitimate playing experience in the NFL, albeit not much of it good. He has played both left and right tackle in his career, giving him some added value. Green has consistently performed well this preseason against backups. He probably hasn’t done (or played) enough to beat out Haeg or Coward. While getting another swing tackle never hurt anyone, the Steelers need more depth on the interior.
As previously mentioned, this spot will go to someone who can play multiple positions along the line. With that in mind, I think John Leglue has a really good shot. He has played every position along the offensive line, so he can get called up if anyone gets hurt. Leglue has been an excellent performer at multiple positions this preseason, so I think he deserves a spot on the practice squad at the very least.
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Steelers Preseason Position Battle #4: Defensive Lineman 7
Like some of these other positions, the defensive line group is extremely deep. There are already six players I fully expect to make the active roster. However, the Steelers have been using some of their defensive linemen in non-traditional special teams roles, namely on kickoff coverage and returns. Adding an extra player could protect some of the more valuable backups. But there is probably only one spot for this role and two possible players to take it.
The first possible player is Isaiahh Loudermilk, the Steelers’ relatively controversial fifth-round draft pick. Loudermilk was roundly panned as a draft pick; the Steelers traded a 2022 fourth-round pick to take a player in the fifth round that many expected to go undrafted. However, it seems that Loudermilk may have been reading some of his draft grades. He’s put together a stellar preseason, both as a run defender and even as a pass rusher, something that was not necessarily a strength of his in college. Loudermilk has not been on the field for kick coverage, but his height and length make him an asset as a kick blocker on defense.
The other player is Henry Mondeaux. Mondeaux was a versatile player for Pittsburgh last year, obviously playing defensive end but also adding special teams and even offense (fullback) to his snap log. He has been a preseason star for the Steelers for multiple seasons and has shown he can play at an NFL level. However, he does not have the roster security that comes with a rookie contract. Mondeaux can be optioned to the practice squad without concern, and he would most likely not get picked up. However, he could lock in his spot on the 53-man with a dynamic performance on Friday.
Some of the defensive roster spots at the back end are pretty fluid. One week, the Steelers could carry seven defensive linemen, the net, eleven linebackers. It all depends on the matchup. If the Steelers choose to enter Week 1 with an extra defensive lineman, I would expect that spot to be filled by Loudermilk. His status as a draft pick gives him priority over Mondeaux’s experience in my mind. Additionally, I could see the Steelers’ coaching staff wanting to give themselves and the front office a pat on the back for finding a relatively hidden gem and developing him into an NFL-level player. In reality, Loudermilk could find himself bouncing back and forth between the active roster and the practice squad. But if the Steelers send him down, expect him to be one of the protected players.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #5: Linebacker 11
Obviously, these two players play very different positions, despite having similar designations. But in essence, these two players are fighting for one roster spot regardless of position. Furthermore, Jamir Jones and Ulysees Gilbert III are players with very different trajectories.
Ulysees Gilbert III
Gilbert took his first snaps on defense last year after only appearing on special teams the year prior, along with missing around a season and a half due to injury. Additionally, this preseason, Gilbert has looked, frankly, bad. He’s been getting torched in coverage, which is extremely problematic, given that his assumed role was as a coverage linebacker due to his speed and athleticism.
Conversely, Jamir Jones has arguably had the best preseason of any player on the Steelers’ roster. Jones is in his second year in the NFL with his second team; he initially signed with the Houston Texans after the 2020 NFL Draft but was cut last August. He is the brother of former Steelers’ offensive tackle Jarron Jones. The buzz for Jones began in training camp when it was reported that he was one of the positives surprises of training camp. Then, Jones capitalized on that hype in the actual preseason games. In three games on 82 snaps, he collected two hurries, five QB hits, and two sacks. He’s also been a contributor on special teams, racking up three tackles in 38 snaps.
When discussing this linebacker spot, they will primarily be a special teams player regardless of who wins the job. Obviously, Gilbert has the experience advantage over Jones. But Jones has been outstanding in that role so far this preseason. Additionally, Jones has been basically unstoppable against backups in the preseasons. It’s not a given that the Steelers will carry 11 linebackers. They have solid depth at both inside and outside linebacker. They also have fresh rookies at both positions. With all that being said, between these two players, I think Jones is the more likely candidate to make the roster. He’s been significantly more explosive and productive on defense, along with offering commensurate special teams value.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #6 : Cornerback 5
This position only came open recently, with Antoine Brooks being waived and sent to injured reserve. If Brooks is healthy later this season, his activation will probably lead to releasing one of these players if they make the roster. Additionally, the Steelers could bring in a veteran corner to start, pushing other players down the depth chart and some off the roster. But as it stands now, these three players are in a position to make the active roster, most likely a special teams contributor.
Shakur Brown had one of the best shots at this entering the preseason. He went undrafted in the spring, to the surprise of many draft analysts. He’s undersized and not the best athlete, but his tape was quite good. He was projected to be one of the players competing at the slot corner position. Things were going well for Brown this preseason until the matchup with the Lions. He allowed a big catch and committed multiple penalties in the fourth quarter in arguably the worst performance of the Steelers’ preseason. He has a chance to save his spot this week with a strong performance against the Panthers, but he cannot afford any more mistakes.
Mark Gilbert is the next possible name. Gilbert was a very decorated defensive back at Duke. But his last couple of seasons with the Blue Devils were marred by several major injuries. Gilbert finally made it to the NFL this year as a UDFA. He performed very well in the first game this preseason, but his snaps have decreased every week since. This could indicate that his grasp on a roster spot is slipping, but he’s been a very solid player so far. He should receive a much bigger share of the snaps with most of the players ahead of him on the depth chart sitting. Gilbert has also been a major contributor on special teams, which helps his case. Like Brown, he probably needs to put out a great effort this week to make the roster.
Last is Lafayette Pitts, a free agent the Steelers picked up after the injury to DeMarkus Acy. Pitts got off to a great start in Pittsburgh, making a great interception against the Eagles. However, his performance against the Lions was nothing special. Pitts has bounced around the NFL for a few years now, but he actually has NFL regular-season experience, something the other players lack. Given that he started behind the eight ball, compared to the other players, Pitts will need to make a serious impact against the Panthers if he wants to earn a spot with his hometown team.
All three players need big performances against Carolina this Friday to solidify their futures with this team. They should all receive significant playing time so they’ll have ample opportunity to prove themselves. Given Brooks’ injury, I’ll give Brown the inside track at this spot, as he has earned the most playing time among this group and will be desperately looking to bounce back this week.
Steelers Preseason Position Battle #7: Punter
This is clearly one of the more premier battles on the roster. That may sound like sarcasm, but I assure you it is not. With only one punt from Pressley Harvin III last week, the competition is still wide open entering the final week. Jordan Berry punted for the last few seasons but has been racked with inconsistency. He performed quite well against the Eagles, his only action this preseason.
Harvin obviously had a stellar debut against the Cowboys, and he booted another 50-yarder against the Lions. Both have proven to be competent holders as well. Both players’ performances against the Panthers could be the deciding factors on who makes the roster. Given that Harvin III is still on his rookie deal, I will give him a slight edge in my prediction. But if he flops and Berry plays well this week, it could very easily go the other way.