Almost as quickly as it began, the 2011 NFL preseason is coming to an end. Over the past week, we have seen veterans do their thing, underdogs surprise coaches and fans, and rookies getting used to wearing the black and gold. After a humbling start against the Redskins, the Pittsburgh Steelers dominated their in-state rivals with a suffocating defense forcing four turnovers and an offense clicking on all cylinders against the Philadelphia Eagles. That performance was followed up by another winner against the Atlanta Falcons, a game from which both the positives and negatives have already been thoroughly discussed on this site. With the Falcons game being the last preseason contest in which starters are in on an extended amount of plays, it is once more time to carefully evaluate the backups when they take the field on Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers.
Thursday's game presents a final opportunity for the coaches to decide on the 53 man roster for the regular season; on Saturday by 3:00 p.m., 27 players from today's 80 player roster will have to be cut to reach that number. The process was begun early this week, when nine players were cut and running back Baron Batch was put on Injured Reserve to trim the roster to 80. Now, the rookies, backups, and prospects have one more chance to shine and become a Pittsburgh Steeler for the 2011 NFL season.
My posts in previous weeks have detailed players of interest who remain on the bubble now and are worthy check out against Carolina. Players such as Tony Hills, Donovan Warren, Weslye Saunders, and others have had their moments this August, and need to continue proving their worth if their name is to be printed on a Steelers jersey this year. But more players are worth keeping an eye on this week, as they leave it all on the field to secure their roster spots and playing time. Without further ado, here are my Five Players to Watch in the Pittsburgh Steelers preseason finale Thursday night against the Panthers.
5. Wes Lyons, Wide Receiver, #15, 2nd Year
6 foot 8 and 230 pounds - That would be Wes Lyons, who signed with the Steelers in February after not being drafted in the 2010 draft out of West Virginia. Those measurements seem more fitting for a basketball player than a wide receiver in football, so naturally Steelers fans in Latrobe and on this site were excited when they saw his true height on the practice fields of Saint Vincent College. And the potential to be an extra tall red zone target that could win any jump ball is certainly there.
Lyons has flashed his talent in training camp and preseason, both blocking and catching passes. The highlight may have been a touchdown catch in the 4th quarter against the Falcons that was negated by a holding penalty. Curiously, I have yet to see a jump ball thrown Lyons' way save for an overthrown rocket that he nearly pulled down in the preseason opener against the Redskins. With the wide receiving corps being among the strongest positions of the 2011 Pittsburgh Steelers, Lyons' chances of making the roster are slim. But the battle for a spot on the practice squad rages on, and with a strong performance against Carolina, Lyons could go a long way toward spending a season under the close watch of Tomlin and the Steelers.
4. Doug Legursky, Offensive Center/Guard, #64, 4th Year
Doug Legursky is one of those players that every team needs: a solid backup that can step in at multiple positions in a pinch, the type that every team hopes to have filling out the bottom half of its roster. An undrafted rookie free agent in 2007, Legursky has stuck with the Steelers for exactly that reason, and showed his worth when he started for injured pro bowl center Maurkice Pouncey during Super Bowl XLV and didn't miss a beat. 'The Big Legursky', as he is lovingly called around these parts, is nothing if not a consistent and reliable backup.
But his role seems bound to change this year. The competition for the starting right guard spot has been wide open, with youngsters such as Tony Hills, Chris Scott, and Ramon Foster getting opportunities to show their skills in the past weeks. Yet, in an updated depth chart
released Monday, Legursky was listed as the first team right guard; his former backup center position is inherited by recently re-signed Trai Essex. Steelers beat reporter Mark Kaboly reports
that Legursky will indeed start at right guard on Thursday. With the first team generally playing for a series or two in the final preseason game, one can only guess how his minutes will be managed. As the coaching staff looks to evaluate him thoroughly, getting snaps with the second team in addition to the first is not entirely out of the realm of possibilities for the young lineman from Marshall University. The Steelers offensive line needs stability, and it will be interesting to see if Doug Legursky can help providing it.
3. Baraka Atkins, Outside Linebacker, #47, 5th Year
Baraka who? If you are anything like me, the name Baraka Atkins didn't ring much of a bell just a few weeks ago. The journeyman linebacker has spent time with the Seahawks, 49ers, and Broncos after being drafted by Seattle in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft. He got limited game action in his first two years in Seattle, recording two sacks together with 29 tackles. But he was released after the 2009 training camp, and spent 15 days during the 2009 season with San Francisco before getting picked up but not playing in 2010 with Denver. Now, he dons the Steeler black and gold, and is turning some heads.
At 6-4 and 268 pounds, Atkins is an imposing human being that seems to match the built of pro bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley. The Steelers brought him in this spring to serve as a camp body, but solid performances in backs-on-backers drills as well as scrimmages got him some quiet mentions from the media. But it was his game last week that impressed the most. If you saw the preseason bout against the Falcons, you might have seen #47 making plays on special teams, pass rush, and run support. He did make one crucial mistake when lining up wrong on punt coverage teams, giving the Falcons a fresh set of downs in the process. The rest of his play though indicated the potential that this still young player has - and the coaches seem to agree. A minor injury to 2011 fifth round pick Chris Carter has prompted the team to move Atkins to first backup at left OLB
behind Woodley on the newest depth chart, which should give him plenty of time to show his skills to the coaches on Thursday. With Carter and 2nd year LB Jason Worilds playing less than impressive so far, Atkins could be the dark horse that makes the 53 man roster at the outside linebacker spot.
2. Crezdon Butler, Cornerback, #28, 2nd Year
He just doesn't go away. Just when people started predicting that Crezdon Butler would be the odd man out in the battle for roster spots at cornerback due to his lack of playing time this preseason, Butler answered the bell by intercepting a pass against the Falcons and returning it 95 yards for a touchdown. And just like that, he was back in the minds of fans and media. The 2010 fifth round pick repeated what he did last season by flashing his potential at the most crucial time, and might have secured more than just a roster spot as a result.
Ever since drafting him in April 2010, the Steelers coaches have been high on Butler as an athletic, play-making corner that is not afraid to tackle. As early as the 2010 training camp, the media was projecting that a starting job in the near future was possible for the rookie from Clemson. Fans got to see his potential during last year's preseason, when he intercepted a Tim Tebow pass in the Steelers' third preseason game against the Denver Broncos and returned it 40 yards. He would briefly appear in four games during the regular season, but injuries and inexperience prevented him from playing at all in the postseason. When others competed for starting positions in the wake of injuries to Ike Taylor and Bryant McFadden this year, he was forced to sit out once again and watch his competition one-up each other. But when Keenan Lewis went out with an injury against the Falcons, he finally got his first game action and responded with the pick six as well as nine tackles. If he shines again on Thursday night, Butler could make a case for seeing regular playing time as the third of fourth cornerback this season.
1. Antonio Brown, Wide Receiver, #84, 2nd Year
What better way to end this 4-part miniseries about exciting players during preseason than with Pittsburgh's brightest young star this August? I am talking of course about Antonio Brown, who is opening eyes any time he steps on the field during practices and exhibition games. The young receiver has been the conversation topic of the week, whether it is his play making ability on passing plays and returns, his taunting of an opposing player, or his touchdown celebrations which included interpretations of Spiderman and (apparently) a man getting tasered.
Brown was a sixth round selection by the Steelers in the 2010 draft, and fans immediately got a glimpse of his big-play ability when he returned the opening kickoff during Pittsburgh's week two win against the Tennessee Titans last year. He proceeded to be inactive for much of the season's first half, but responded in the playoffs when he contributed with game-sealing catches against both the Ravens and Jets. His helmet reception against the Ravens will be forever entrenched in many fans' minds. This year, with various receivers nursing injuries, he has gotten plenty of reps with the first team offense and has taken full advantage of it. Brown leads all wide receivers in preseason with 230 yards receiving and 3 touchdowns, and has shown both reliable hands and exciting speed. The future is bright for this young man, but why think ahead? The starters may not play much against Carolina, but as I have oftenhad to remind myself recently, Brown is actually a backup receiver. We are lucky to have so much talent at the position, just as we will be lucky to see even more of Brown against the Panthers.
This post concludes my series of Five Players to Watch this preseason, yet there are many players that might be worth at least a glance. Defensive Linemen Corbin Bryant and Steve McLendon have impressed experts this August, and might give Chris Hoke a run for his roster spot. Jonathan Dwyer and John Clay are still battling for the fourth running back spot, though Dwyer has the upper hand. McFadden and Emmanuel Sanders are set to return from their injuries, hoping to pick up where they left off when healthy. DaMon Cromartie-Smith is a young, hard-hitting safety that just might stick with the Steelers. Who are your players to watch for the Steelers' preseason finale Thursday night against the Carolina Panthers?