One of the interesting things that I have enjoyed watching develop over the course of the summer is seeing the time that the Pittsburgh Steelers have devoted in extending their backups and feeding them into roles that they will be expected to carry out as key reserves.
This is not an uncommon practice, but it is rare to see it done with so many players at the same time. in my view, there are three players in particular whom the Steelers are grooming this season to be prepared for bigger roles in different capacities than they have been used in the past. Let’s look at each of them, as well as some other examples.
Two of the main subjects here are along the offensive line, but let’s look at the longer-term project first. Chris Hubbard is entering his fourth season now, but he has over the course of the past two years spent most of his time at tackle. Even though he was a tackle in college, he worked almost entirely at guard, and then dabbled at bit at center, in his first couple of years with the team.
Now that the Steelers have come to rely on him as a reserve tackle, they need him to get as much work there as they can get him, assuming that he will retain his abilities along the interior. He started three games at right tackle last year, and started this year’s preseason opener at left tackle.
Another lineman being flexed out more is second-year B.J. Finney. Though a center in college, he has spent most of his time with the Steelers at guard. He started the regular season finale at center, but he struggled there. Now they’re feeding him center snaps to make sure he can be their top backup guard and center.
Then there is third-year defensive lineman L.T. Walton. He came in as a defensive end, and started there late last year due to injuries, but he has spent the summer working at nose tackle with the team seemingly preparing to jettison Daniel McCullers.
The Steelers like his ability to play the run, but he lacks a pass rush, so the move also makes sense intuitively. But as a reserve, he will still be expected to have the capacity to handle all positions along the line, as Chris Hoke did for many years.
We saw last year with rookie Sean Davis the same situation. They worked him at both slot cornerback and safety. At the time it proved to be too much for him, but the concept is there. Now that he is a starter, his versatility is far less important.
The Steelers are grooming rookie wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to be able to play out of the slot, something that he didn’t do much in college. That is where they would expect him to see most of his playing time, so he has gotten a lot of work there, when he has been on the field.
In all cases, it is presumed that the players will continue to be able to function in other positions, with the focus being paid on the area in which they either need the most improvement or experience, or where they will be most expected to play. The above examples illustrate one of the most important nuances of building a 53-man roster.