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Spotlight on Special Teams: Shaping the Steelers 53-man roster for 2019.

The Steelers revealed a lot about their Special Teams units against Tennessee

NFL: Preseason-Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers special teams unit has played very good football so far this preseason. This Sunday, in the third preseason game we got to see the first team offense and defense, and we got to see the primary special teams players in action. The lineups were consistent throughout most of the first half, so it gives a very clear picture of who is going to be playing on ST, and that, in turn, gives us a lot of information about how this roster is likely to be constructed.

I’m not going to talk about the field goal and PAT kicking, that’s a different unit and consists of a lot of offensive lineman, including starters. So the four units covered will be the punt team, the kickoff team, the kick return team and the punt return team.

I won’t be talking about Long Snapper, Punter or Kicker. They take up a total of 3 spots out of 44 (11 on the field in each unit, 4 different units)

Special Teams Stalwarts (3)

Players who played on all 4 special teams units.

  • Tyler Matakevich, Jordan Dangerfield and Roosevelt Nix were in on all 4 units, as they were last season, when they were three of the five players on the field two-thirds or more of all ST snaps.
  • The other two that played all four in 2018 were L.J. Fort, who is not on the team anymore, and Anthony Chickillo who was held out of game 3.
    **This is a big sign that Matakevich and Dangerfield aren’t going anywhere. They are making this roster.

Major Players (5)

Players who played on three of the special teams units:

  • Artie Burns and Justin Layne played everything but kick returns, they were on the outside in all three, gunning and shadowing gunners. This is big for Layne because taking this spot as a rookie says good things for his future. It keeps him active on game days which means he will get at least some snaps on defense, which will aid his development.
    **With Burns and Layne playing on 3 units, this tells us it is highly unlikely that any other fringe CBs are making the roster. It also tells us Johnny Holton and Tevin Jones won’t be making the 53 as WRs to play ST.
  • Ulysees Gilbert III played on everything but punt returns. He’s been very solid on ST, getting through traffic to seal off interior lanes in kick and punt coverage. He’s also thrown some great blocks in both punt returns and kick returns. It was somewhat surprising to see him not on punt returns in this game. I think he’s made the 53 man roster and will continue to play in this spot.
  • Trey Edmunds and Sutton Smith played on everything but the punt team, Edmunds filling what was and likely will be Benny Snell’s spot, as Benny did not play in this game. Sutton Smith, likewise was playing where Chickillo usually plays. Sutton Smith is not Anthony Chickillo, therefore I do not expect him to keep this spot nor do I expect him to make the 53. Chickillo will probably play on all 4 units again.

Part-Timers (4)

Players who played on two special teams units.

  • Jaylen Samuels played on punt returns and kick returns. He’s a solid and smart blocker and he’ll have a valuable role doing that on returns.
  • Cameron Sutton played on both the punt return and the kickoff team. In both units he lines up next to Justin Layne, helping block or moving to rush the punt and playing behind the gunner to corral the returner after the gunner forces them to commit to one direction.
  • Ryan Switzer was the only returner used with the first team. That sound you hear right now is the sound of Diontae Spencer not making this roster.
    **Combined with Holton and Jones not getting ST credit to make the roster, it looks like Eli Rogers is the most likely choice to join Switzer in filling out the WRs on the 53.
  • Robert Spillane played on kick-offs and punts, which was interesting. I do not expect him to make the 53. He is behind 5 other ILBs, so it is likely this spot will be filled by Vince Williams come Week 1. Vince has been a reliable ST player for years, and with Barron and Bush on the team to share ILB snaps Vince can play on half the ST units.

Bit Players (6)

Players who played on one special teams unit.

  • Xavier Grimble and James Washington played on kick returns. Washington can return kicks and his blocking is solid so he joins Nix as the two guys right in front of Switzer. Grimble is a very capable ST blocker and keeps his role from last season.
  • Sean Davis and Tegray Scales both played on the punt team. I expect Scales’ spot will be Chickillo’s in the regular season, Chick plays all 4 and Sutton Smith didn’t play on the punt team. Sean Davis has played on punts since he was a rookie.
  • Mike Hilton played on punt returns, pairing with Artie Burns on the outside where he can either help block the gunner or rush the punt.
  • Terrell Edmunds played on kickoffs. Last year, Edmunds played a lot on ST with almost 50% of snaps, and he played the second most defensive snaps of any Steeler. As good as he looks on defense and as important as he looks to be on this defense, I’m glad to see him down to one unit on ST.

I hope this helps you as you think about the 53-man roster and what players are most likely to make the team. It doesn’t look like there are many battles left.

  • Eli Rogers hasn’t played special teams at all, so his WR spot could be stolen, but no one has shined at WR enough to threaten him yet.
  • Zach Gentry and Kevin Rader do not play special teams, it’s quite possible a new TE will be brought in after cutdowns.
  • ILB looks 5 deep with Gilbert almost a lock to make the team.
  • Lack of ST play tells us Tuzar Skipper is a real long shot to make the 53 heading into the last preseason game, will they keep a 5th OLB just to stash him for a year?
  • Corner looks locked down with Haden, Nelson, Sutton, Burns, Hilton and Layne. All but Haden and Nelson played on ST.
  • Dangerfield is making the roster, and while that leaves one safety spot left, Kam Kelly was the #3 safety on defense this week, and played in the big nickel package. It’s very unlikely any other Safety can make this team.