Steelers vs. Panthers: Final audition for many first year players

Vincent Pugliese-USA TODAY Sport

The Steelers have a strong crop of first-year players, but only so many spots. Thursday's game against the Panthers will give them one last argument to stay with the team after the final cut.

PITTSBURGH -- With just one preseason game remaining Thursday night at Carolina, the Pittsburgh Steelers still fighting for roster spots have one more chance to state their case to be on the final, 53-man group.

And with nine first-year players or rookies among the Steelers two-deep list, there can be no doubt that the club will be much younger this season. The starters alone have six players who are third-year pros or less, so even though there are also six starters with at least 10 years experience in the NFL, there is a youth movement on the Steelers.

This has to be a good thing, right? If not for this season, which I'm certainly not writing off -- unless there are major injuries to some of those veterans -- but for the future. History has shown that the Steelers have had difficulty replacing their aging stars, but maybe this group has gotten a jump on the process.

"We're going to be younger this year, overall, there's no way around that,'' 12th-year defensive end Brett Keisel said. "We have a lot of good, young talent, and I'm not just talking about the rookies and first-year guys.''

The Steelers offensive line is a perfect example. The five starters combined have just 11 years experience going into this season. With an average age of nearly 24 1/2 years old, this year's O-line is the youngest and least-experienced for the Steelers in more than five decades.

The starting linebacking corps is a veteran group, but rookie No. 1 pick Jarvis Jones is pushing fourth-year pro Jason Worilds and will surpass him for the starting right-side spot if Worilds does not pick up his game. Rookie sixth-round pick Vince Williams backs up veteran Larry Foote, while first-year player Marshall McFadden is listed as the backup to Lawrence Timmons on the inside. Third-year pro Chris Carter is listed behind LaMarr Woodley at left outside linebacker, but undrafted rookie free agent Alan Baxter is pushing him hard.

"I'm really excited. It's finally getting to the end of the preseason, and I have one more opportunity to really solidify my position on this team,'' Williams said. "I've made some splash plays and have shown some versatility by playing the Mack backer and Buck backer and also contributing on special teams.

"You've really got to go after it on special teams, because you're playing behind guys like Larry Foote, who really doesn't miss much time, and Lawrence Timmons, who's basically a machine out there. So, you've got to find ways to put your hand in the pile and help your team, and that on special teams.''

Baxter believed he has shown improvement since he arrived in the spring, but for a player like him that might not be enough.

"As an undrafted guy, you just have to do things to get noticed,'' Baxter added. "There's a little bit of a disadvantage there, but you just have to show that you can play the game at this level and stand out in some way. You need to do something to get noticed in a good way. That's the kind of approach that I take, anyway. (And) I expect to play a lot in this final game.''

McFadden said the competition was fierce between the young guys for backup roles at inside and outside linebacker. Joining McFadden, Baxter and Williams in the race for those second-team roles are Brian Rolle, Kion Wilson and rookie Terence Garvin, all on the inside.

"The only thing I can say is that the guys who have been around me, the younger and the older guys, have made it a real competitive camp,'' McFadden said. "But you really can't look at what the other guys have been doing.

"You have to make sure that you do the right things, but that competition has really brought out the best in all of us. I know it definitely has in me. I really believe that, and I think we're all playing pretty good ball right now.''

The most elder statesmen on the Steelers play in the secondary with 11-year veterans Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor joining 12th-year pro Ryan Clark. At the cornerback spot opposite Taylor are third-year players Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown, while seventh-year pro Will Gay will be the first corner off the bench.

First-year players Josh Victorian and Isaiah Green are trying to earn backup roles there, but it's going to be difficult. But that's not the case at other spots during this Steelers youth movement in 2013.

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