1. The Basics -
Sweet Lord, the season can't start soon enough. Steeler Nation is fixing to tear itself apart if we don't start getting some answers soon. Opinions are clashing like QB's and Deebo's. One interesting concept swirling around through speculation, is the thought that our 46 man, active gameday roster could include 5 RB's and only 4 WR's and DB's. This is a totally ludicrous idea to the average fan; unfortunately, I believe this is becaue we've been playing Madden too long, and have begun to believe the NFL tells you how many, and which positions, you will carry. (Although, no one seems to mind that Madden doesn't consider LongSnapper a position, just an offensive role. Guess EA sports won't be putting Greg Warren on the cover anytime soon) I will concede that it is unlikely, but after reading 53, after 53, I still believe it will happen this year. I will explain my theories to the best of my ability, starting with some remedial, fundamental stuff; finishing with some formation specific advantages to this roster layout. Even after reading, you may still not agree; but hopefully you will at least recognize the validity of this argument.
First, we need to cover some fundamentals. Most of us already know everything I'm about to say, but I think we start forgetting some of it, as we allow our personal biases get the best of our logical processes. (Ivan's words, not mine :)
On any given offensive play, there are only 11 guys on the field. 5 of these guys will always be Offensive Linemen, and the 6th will always be the Quarterback; this leaves only 5 spots to put RB's, WR's, and TE's. Most NFL teams will carry 5 to 7 WR's, although the last couple are usually there for Special Teams support; meaning only 4-5 WR's are actually there to catch passes from QB's, unless they get hurt. As far as RB's, (and for this article, the FB position is included in the RB count), most teams activate 4: 2 prototypical backs, 1 change-of-pace/third down back, and 1 fullback. Most teams carry 3 active TE's on gameday, participating in offensive, and special teams snaps.
On any given defensive play, there are only 11 guys on the field. Because defensive alignment is often determined by the offensive alignment, the numbers on the field can pendulum between frontfield and backfield. Most teams carry 5-7 DB's, not counting the 3 to 4 safeties. Again, like WR, the last few DB's are primarily special teams, and injury insurance; unless your team believes in playing man-to-man against 5 WR spread offenses.
On any given special teams play, there are only 11 guys on the field. These players can come from any position, as it is more about a player's willingness to participate on Special Teams. Reports say Ochocinco is running with the ST units in Miami. He would never have done this as Chad Johnson, the Bengal. He is suddenly willing to chip in, because he realizes it could mean a roster spot (a la the bottom few WR's/DB's). Considering half of all ST snaps include a kicker w/ longsnapper, you really only focus on finding 9 guys per kicking unit. When receiving, the returner eats up the kicker spot, meaning you need 10 on returns.
2. Personnel -
Ok, we got through Kindergarten. Now, for the next level, the players; because its really the players in question that allow this layout to be a posibility. Let's start off with some comparison shopping.
Who would you want to be your starting running back, Redman or Batch? The 2 most loved, or at least talked about names, in offseason blogging. As much as we love Batch, he is in no way ready to be a primary back in the NFL; he doesn't even have a single snap to his credit, let alone a carry. Redman may not be Walter Payton, but he will be a punisher in the first few weeks. Redman however, in all of his absolute amazingosity, will not be asked to be the primary guy on first and second down, then asked to block down on third. If he ran the first two downs, it is unlikely he will carry a third. In would come Batch, who unless he beats out Dwyer, is looking at third down duty. This means we now have 2 RB's active.
Dwyer's life expectancy revolves around being the second primary back. If Batch can prove worthy to handle this, and third down, then all of this was for nought; but I don't believe this will be the case, because you would still be technically asking a "redshirt" rookie to master the third down offense, plus be able to handle any regular offensive call, when his number is dialed up. I think this is a bit much to ask of Baron, regardless of his potential. Potential speaks to the future; this article is speaking to now, this season. This makes 3 RB's on the roster, toss in a FB (Which Haley definitely wants), you now have 4 active RB's. When Mendenhall is healthy, many people think Dwyer should be cut, or Batch be sent to the practice squad. A lot of people know about Baron Batch, and he probably wouldn't clear waivers, especially if he has shined in regular season action awaiting Mendy's return. If Dwyer has a stellar preseason, and he and Redman become a power running game, would you want to outright cut Dwyer, knowing Mendy could reinjure himself at any point? If so, you would be asking Batch to now learn to be a second string, all around back, again; only now he has to pick it up mid-playoff-push. I'd rather deactivate Dwyer and wait. Better safe than really, really sorry. Redman has yet to carry the ball 20+ times a game for a 16 game season; we have no idea if he will hold up. We'll come back to Rainey in a second.
Is Mike Wallace coming back? Those who actually understand the financial politics of NFL tenders can tell you, he has to, so let's move on to the rest of the squad, penciling Mike in at WR#1. In fact, let us go ahead and scribble in Sanders, Brown, and Cotchery. This makes 4 WRs active. With the need for roster spots to cover a temporarily absent Hampton, and possibly Starks; our best bet is 5 WR on the 53; some of us seem to think all 5 need to be active, to you I pose this question. Who is the best candidate for 5th WR: Derrick Williams, Toney Clemons, or Marquis Maze?
When answering, remember what we talked about in part 1, these guys will have to participate on special teams if they make the active roster. We also have to take experience into account, because these guys will be asked to know special team assignments, and most of the 5 receiving positions on any given play. 2 of your choices are rookies, one is a journeyman vet that has played both WR and ST in the NFL already, and understands what will be expected of him. If you ask me, this eliminates Toney Clemons; he would be Practice Squad bound. Maze has been impressive in camp, and has been involved on ST as a returner. On a roster that already has A.Brown, Sanders, and Rainey; how many returners do you need? Speaking of Rainey, if Maze is on the roster, the need for Rainey decreases, as you only need so many little, fast guys. I don't know if Maze would be used as a gunner because of his size. Williams would provide an Arnaz Battle type to ST's; a role we have plenty of openings for. In my book, Williams wins this 3 dog race, but I leave him inactive on most gamedays, because the roles he provides support for on ST, we have better options already on the active roster. (See next Paragraph) (Maze, see practice squad, and make reservations for Latrobe, 2013.)
Let's get the obvious out of the way in the defensive backfield. Taylor, Lewis, Allen, Brown, Polamalu, Clark, Mundy...these guys are penned in. This already makes 4 active DB's. We come back to the question about ST's, since Dick LeBeau doesn't play a lot of 5 wide man-to-man. Mundy plays special teams, so he's covered both ways. So the question comes down to Frederick, McFadden, Cromartie-Smith, Rolle. I know the title of the article said we are talking about CB's, but you have to understand the safety side to understand the non-need for a fifth CB.
The only DB's you can really call CB's are the two covering the outside receivers...on the "corners". The rest are defensive backs. Some teams bring in reserve safeties in nickel/dime packages, it really all depends on what you're trying to defend against. I know I left Will Allen's name out of this discussion. Sue me. I'm not knocking the guy, but I think someone younger would be better suited to get in there and start practicing with the starters; Polamalu has already stated he will retire when his contract expires, I believe 2 years from now. I don't want the organization to wait till Troy is gone, to try and find his replacement. Get someone you will actually let play safety, understudy Troy, learn from his instinctive perception. Rolle has the brains, Cromartie-Smith has the athleticism. Cromartie's advantage is his performance on ST's last year. I don't think the coaches would be afraid to put him in there again. I've not heard the name "Rolle" and the term "Special Teams" in the same sentence. This is what jeopardizes his roster spot, (although in my book, I made him an inactive member of the 53, in case of injury, and I don't think he has PS eligibility left.) Remember, these guys will have to participate on Special Teams. Cromartie-ST experience. Rolle-unknown. Frederick-unknown. McFadden-unknown.(in fact i've heard so little about him so far through camp, I almost forgot he was there) On the flipside, who has PS eligibility. Cromartie-no. Rolle-don't think so. Frederick-yes. McFadden-yes. So, I have one guy that has ST experience that we have kept around for 4 years on the PS, one genius reserve safety, and 2 rookies. I would give an active spot to Cromartie, deactivate Frederick and Rolle, but keep them on the 53...and invite McFadden back to camp next year. This leaves you with 4 active CB's, 4 active safeties....which is the same number of backs when teams use 5 CB's and 3 safeties.
3. Formations -
A. Offense - The loudest clamour against only 4 active WR's pertains to what we will do when we need to spread the field, which most teams use 5 wr's to accomplish; surely we have to have Clemons or Maze?...right? Nope. Let's start like this. If you're spreading the field with 5 WR's, you obviously intend to pass. Who is our most consistent pass catcher, regardless of catch difficulty, or the amount of traffic around the ball? Wallace? Brown? Sanders??.....Actually, its Heath Miller, and he's not even a WR. Very few offensive huddles are broken without 83 on the field. He can split wide, he can come from the slot. He can protect along the line, and in the backfield. Miller is pretty much a given on every single offensive play, no matter what formation. So, if what we read in the Basics section is true, then we only have 4 more spots to put guys on the field. Let's say that most formations have a RB of some sort, whether its a third down back(Batch), or a sidecar FB(Johnson, Johnson, or Saunders), or simply a route runner disguised as a running back, that can run when needed, and run he can. (Rainey) Now, we have only 3 spots left on the field. This means, of the 4 active WR's on my roster, I'm only getting 3 on the field. Even if I specifically said I wanted all 4 of my top WR's on the field, I still have at least a RB, or a Miller; making 5.
B. Defense - I hear the same kind of rhetoric over the DB's. As I said earlier, defenses change more with personnel, than formation. We've seen Polamalu pulled up to the line, ready to stuff a run or cover a SlotWR/TE. We've seen ILB Timmons cover slot receivers. Besides, we still run LeBeau's zone blitz scheme, though he has added some manblitz monkeywrenches at times. You can attack 5 WR sets numerous ways. You can go with a Quarter D variation, moving Polamalu up, placing Mundy, or Cromartie, as a second FS in the outfield. Spence and Timmons also give you speed to match up with 4th and 5th string WR's or TE's. I guess what I'm getting at, is LeBeau has always attacked offensive problems, with defensive schemes, not defensive personnel. As I covered earlier, most teams have 5+DB's because they need the extra bodies to play ST's, or Man coverage. We need neither.
C. Special Teams - Let's breakdown particular units.
- Punting: After the punter and the longsnapper, you have 9 holes to fill. After you count the 2 gunners, and the Fullback, you have 6 to fill. Usually reserve LB's and TE's.
- FieldGoals: After the kicker, holder, and longsnapper, you only have 8 holes to fill. Throw in an O-line, some TE's....gravy. I'm more worried about the kicker, than the kicking team.
- Kickoffs - 11 minus 1 kicker = 10. These can be filled by almost anyone. RB's(Batch,Dwyer), WR's(Sanders,Cotchery), CB's(Allen,Brown), S's(Mundy,Cromartie-Smith), TE's(Saunders, Pope/McCoy/Johnson), LB's(Worilds,Carter,Spence,Sylvester), FB(Johnson, you guess which)....really, a little bit of everything on most kicking teams. I'm not predicting who will make the ST units, just pointing out who is available in this layout
- Kickoff Returns - Subtract the Returner and the lead blocker, you have 9 holes to fill. See list above.
- Punt Returns - With 1 Returner, and 1 CB(Brown/Allen) and 1 S(Mundy/Cromartie) per gunner, you have 6 holes to fill. See list above.
Now, I realize this has probably lost some of you; others are just too closed-minded to consider anything outside the box. The possibility of the coaches being trapped inside said box, is very high. Teams have been built certain ways for years. However, when you consider the talent on this team, factor in PS eligibility, then divide by individual personnel flexibility. You may just come to the same equation some of us already have. Its not such a crazy idea, after all.