Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers will most definitely be a big game for several Pittsburgh Steelers players when it comes to them attempting to make one last statements as to why each deserve to be part of the team’s final 53-man roster. So, how many players are currently on the proverbial roster bubble? Let’s see what head coach Mike Tomlin had to say about that recently when he answered that very question asked by Bob Labriola of steelers.com.
“I don’t do a count, but I imagine five or six jobs are up to be won by about eight or nine guys,” Tomlin explained. “That’s usually the case this time of year. There are somewhere in the high-40s in terms of solidified spots, and the other spots will be determined by upside and special teams productivity.”
Upside and special teams productivity? If you are a big fan of rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich, those words that Tomlin uttered are most definitely music to your ears.
Nobody is going to argue that Matakevich doesn’t have upside as we’ve seen that on display during the team’s first three preseason games, albeit mostly in the fourth quarter when it comes to him playing on defense. Thursday night against the Panthers, Matakevich should almost certainly see his most playing time on defense of the preseason as starting inside linebackers Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier will both be held out of the finale as a precaution. While backup linebacker Vince Williams could see some playing time Thursday night, I can’t imagine it will be much as the team already knows what they have in him. In other words, look for Matakevich, L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson to split the load inside in Charlotte.
So what about special teams play Thursday night and especially when it comes to Matakevich? As I wrote in a Wednesday post, he has already logged 32 special team snaps in the team’s first three preseason games and figures to hit double-digits, or close to it, Thursday night against the Panthers. How he plays on those units could ultimately decide whether or not he makes the final 53-man roster.
“It depends. It differs from year to year based on the needs of the team and based on the skills of the potential guys,” Tomlin told Labriola when asked how big of role special teams play is when trying to determine a final 53-man roster. “Some guys have made it in the past exclusively on their special teams ability – Ross Ventrone being an example of that.
“Sometimes their special teams abilities highlight their efforts and are a chief reason why they make it as opposed to the sole reason. It’s always an element of the equation. There always are several guys within that discussion, but usually the conversation involves others at their position as well, and usually the health of others at their position is part of the discussion, too.”
Usually the conversation does indeed involve others at a same position and such is the case this year as Matakevich, Fort and Johnson, all inside linebackers, all appear to be in a heated battle for what could be two open spots on the final 53-man roster. All three players have backgrounds in the area of special teams and all have contributed in that phase of the game so far during the preseason.
While the Steelers Thursday night preseason finale against the Panthers might be considered unappealing to a good portion of the fan base because of so many starters on both sides of the football watching it as spectators, I am really looking forward to watching it to see the final round of the battle between Matakevich, Johnson and Fort. I’ll really be on the lookout for splash plays from any of those three players as it could ultimately wind up being a tiebreaker if the perceived battle is as close as I think it is.
Upside? As a rookie and seventh-round draft pick, Matakevich has that advantage over both Fort and Johnson. Special teams productivity? I think that’s a dead-heat right now when it comes to the three inside linebackers so if “Dirty Red” wants to make the final 53-man roster, it would certainly help his cause if he has more productivity than both Johnson and Fort on special teams Thursday night against the Panthers.