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The path to making the Steelers 53-man roster lies with special teams play

While fans may be focused on offensive output and defensive stops, the coaching staff will be critiquing the special teams in order to fill out the Steelers’ roster

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are about to step on to the natural surface of Heinz Field to square off against a new opponent for the first time in over seven months. While the reason the NFL plays four preseason games is to give more players a chance to make the final roster, there are a limited number of plays each game for players to show what they can do in their primary role should they make the team. While many of these players will be spotted on the field Friday night, especially during the second half, it will be the few plays on special teams which will give them the greatest opportunity to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.

Don’t get me wrong, players need to show they can perform as capable back-ups at their designated positions on offense or defense in order to be considered to make the squad. But if two players at the same position are fighting for one last spot on the team, special teams will ultimately be the deciding factor. So don’t go grab a beverage every time the Steelers line up to punt this preseason, because you might be missing a key play in determining who is going to earn a number for their helmet.

There are some interesting numbers to help determine how special teams play shapes the roster. In 2018, there were 56 players who played at least one regular-season snap for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Remember players such as Mason Rudolph and Zach Banner where on the 53-man roster all season but do not qualify since they never took the field. Of these 56 players, 14 of them played the majority of their snaps on special teams. This equates to exactly 25% of the players who logged snaps in 2018.

While 14 players with the Steelers where primarily special teams players, they certainly all weren’t used every game. Matt McCrane kicked in one game for an injured Chris Boswell. Players such as Brian Allen, Matthew Thomas, Trey Edmunds, and Nat Burhe were only on the active roster part of the season. On the other hand, Marcus Allen and Olasunkamni Adeniyi did not make this list because they actually played a few more snaps on defense than on special teams in their very limited action. So determining the number of active players who primarily played special teams each game is not an exact science.

If going with the figure of 25%, approximately 13 positions on the Steelers 2019 roster will be filled by players whose primary role is special teams. After subtracting the three specialists (kicker, punter, and long-snapper), there are 10 positions left, with probably only six or seven being active on game day.

Last season, the Steelers had six players who would be considered “core” special teams guys. These are players who played more special teams than their listed position, and they each logged over 200 special-teams snaps. Of those six players, four are still with the team in 2019.

In Wednesday’s press conference, Coach Mike Tomlin addressed these four players.

“I feel like we’ve got great veteran presence on our special teams units. With guys like Tyler (Matakevich), and Rosie (Nix), and (Anthony) Chickillo, and (Jordan) Dangerfield, and others who have been core components of our unit still returning. Younger players who contributed in a big way last year like (Terrell) Edmunds. I’m comfortable with that unit and I’m looking for some young guys to work their way into the fray.”

To be specific, the Steelers lost their snap leader on special teams in L.J. Fort along with veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey. So while a core group of special-teams players are still in the mix, there is an opportunity for players to make the team and earn a helmet on game day.

“Some guys have displayed some skills that might be in line with that. It will be interesting to see them perform,” Tomlin added.

What has yet to be determined is how players are going to be given an opportunity to show their special-teams ability during preseason games. In the 2018 regular season, the Steelers averaged less than 29 special team plays per game. With so many players fighting for so few plays, Coach Tomlin stated he won’t be giving those snaps to his veteran special-teamers.

“Some of the guys that have been around, like I mentioned earlier, that we know have an established skill set in that area you won’t see playing (special) teams in a game because we’re so interested in what some of those younger guys- some of those unknown guys- are capable of. I know that Tyler can cover a punt. I know Rosie can cover a kick. Et cetera, et cetera. You won’t see those guys doing that on Friday night.”

So what path does a young player take to earn a spot on the Steelers roster? First of all, they’ve got to make the most of their special teams opportunities. If a player hasn’t been given a chance in those situations, they need to shine at their regular position in order to get noticed. If a player is being considered to earn a spot within their position group, you can guarantee they will be given plenty of opportunities to show their special teams talents.

So make sure you are glued to your TV set by 7:30 PM Friday night! If you miss the opening kickoff, it might just be the play which makes or breaks a player when it comes to their future with the Steelers.