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Keith Butler outlines why special teams had a large hand in the Steelers roster cuts

The Steelers had some tough decisions to make on cut down day, and it was special teams which was the ultimate deciding factor.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Training Camp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL mandated all 32 teams get their rosters to 53 players by this past Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and the Pittsburgh Steelers obliged. But it wasn’t as if there weren’t questions surrounding the decisions were made.

When fans got their first glimpse at the Steelers’ 53-man roster, many were wondering why some players were on the list, like Ulysees Gilbert III, and some were off the list, like B.J. Finney.

For Finney, he just had to bide his time until Zach Banner, Stephon Tuitt and Anthony McFarland were placed on Injured Reserve (IR) before he could be brought back on the roster. As for players like Gilbert, there must be some value to his game, despite what fans think.

When Keith Butler met with the media Wednesday, he was asked about the Steelers keeping so many linebackers, and if it changed how the team might do things entering the regular season. As Butler pointed out, the decision to keep so many linebackers was largely due to special teams, not needed depth at any one position.

“It’s always been the case here, since Mike [Tomlin]’s been here, and Bill [Cowher] too. The guys who are backups are kept because of how they can help Danny Smith. That’s the way it should be.” Butler told the media.

“Linebackers are premium for playing special teams. We need guys who can run down and make tackles on special teams. Field position’s gonna be big for us, big for everybody, really. Those guys making the team means they’re good at what they do in terms of special teams. That’s what we tell our guys all the time. Buy yourself time. If you’re not a high round draft choice or something like that, buy yourself time on the roster by playing well on special teams because the longer you play on special teams, the more you make yourself valuable, then you give yourself a chance to one day become a starter.

“If you don’t do that, if you don’t hang around long enough, then it’s very hard to become a starter. And if you’re not a starter, then you’d better be playing special teams, or you’re gonna get cut, as y’all saw with what happened with ours. That’s the way it’s always gonna happen with us.”

The Steelers kept more linebackers than usual, but they also kept more players at different positions too, like along the defensive line. When a player like Carlos Davis makes the team, don’t think it is just to be added depth with Tuitt on IR. Special Teams coordinator Danny Smith told media why he wants Davis to have a role on special teams.

“That guy can run.” Smith said. “It differs, it’s all about matchups. We have some big guys that can run. Coach always says, “Big men run and little men hit.” That’s become a creed here that’s developed and that’s who we are. We get those kinds of guys, and it’s situational. Carlos [Davis] has not blocked this preseason. The next step is to make those plays. He’s a great penetrator. People are half-shouldering him. With today’s rules, there aren’t any chop-blocks or cut-blocks. It’s my job to put them in those situations in terms of where we penetrate from; where people are running the ball; what are the percentages of right returns, left returns, middle returns; matchups. He has to do the damage right now; he’s not going to chase after his returners and catch them. His damage must come immediately. We’ll move him around for matchups and he’s a lot of fun to be around. He’s a great player and a big man. I wouldn’t want to block him. Hank [Henry Mondeaux] and Carlos have done well there. We’ll get into that if there’s room for both of them on the kickoff team, and some games there will be and others there won’t. I have to decide that. It’s based on the scheme that we’re playing and where they can be most useful.”

Special teams being a deciding factor on roster cuts is nothing new, but it is always interesting to hear coordinators talk about how the ultimate deciding factor for many of these fringe roster battles doesn’t come down to the X’s and O’s of the team offense or defense, but how they can help the team on special teams.

As the saying goes, ‘The more you can do...’

Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the black and gold as they prepare for the Buffalo Bills in Week 1 of the 2021 regular season.