2016 South Side Questions: Has Justin Gilbert Been Benched For Good?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: Have the Steelers given up on even using Justin Gilbert as a return man?

Prior to Sunday’s game, the Steelers placed lineman Cody Wallace on injured reserve and in turn promoted cornerback Al-Hajj Shabazz from the practice squad, a move that they have previously made before sending him back down a week later.

They made that move due to injuries both times, this time while the status of William Gay was in jeopardy. But Gay played, and the Steelers chose to give Shabazz a game day helmet over Justin Gilbert, who has seen time as a sub-package defender as well as in the role of kick returner.

Although Shabazz did not play on defense, as he had in the one game during which he was on the 53-man roster previously, he did see 13 snaps on defense. He showed some proclivity toward special teams earlier in the preseason, which is probably why he got the helmet.

But with Sammie Coates having returned to reasonable health, he has also, apparently, returned to extensive special teams time, and that includes working as the kick returner, even though he has no history of doing it, and has really shown no reason in the preseason or so far during the regular season to continue to play him there.

It appears, at least for the moment, that Gilbert is the sixth cornerback, and will be inactive, barring injuries, unless something changes. If the Steelers send Shabazz back down to the practice squad, for example, he will get his helmet back.

But it doesn’t seem as though he will return to playing any time soon. While I’m not overly concerned about his playing on defense, I did think that he showed some good things as a kick returner in the limited opportunities that he has been given.

If the plan going forward is to leave him on the bench, then that is simply disappointing, given that the Steelers traded for him and brought him in, only to see him not even dress. He has already contributed in limited capacity on both defense and special teams, but evidently not up to the level of others who started behind him on the depth chart, or who are on paper less qualified, as is the case with the kick returner job.

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