PITTSBURGH - For more than a few Steelers starters, it will be a case of waiting until next week. After all, there’s no reason to take a chance on a season-ending injury in the less-than-meaningless final preseason game.
For three dozen or so of the 75 players still left on a roster that will get trimmed dramatically less than a day later, the Steelers’ game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday at Heinz Field is all about whether there will be a next week.
Derrick Williams, Corbin Bryant, Jake Stoller, Ryan Lee and Al Woods don’t know if there will be. John Malecki, David Paulson, Brandon Hicks, DuJuan Harris and Will Allen don’t know, either.
Even old reliable Charlie Batch, the 15-season quarterback who always seems to have one more season left in him, doesn’t know if there will be a next week for him.
Think this game isn’t meaningful to them?
“We’ve got a lot of guys still trying to make this team, and we’re still in the evaluation process for a lot of specifically young guys who are fighting for their NFL lives right now,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “We’re going to try to give those guys as much as we can to give them a chance to be at their best.”
With numerous returning players from teams that went 12-4 each of the past two seasons, the Steelers’ cutdown to 53 players on Friday would seem to be an easy job. It won’t be.
Complicating matters is that at least two players on their active roster, rookie guard David DeCastro (knee) and running back Rashard Mendenhall (knee), are weeks away from returning. And there is no assurance that linebacker James Harrison, who recently had arthroscopic knee surgery, will be ready to play in Denver on Sept. 9. Linebacker Jason Worilds (wrist) hasn’t played or practiced since camp started.
DeCastro had knee surgery Wednesday to repair a torn medial collateral ligament and a dislocated kneecap, and the Steelers may decide after evaluating the post-operation medical report whether they can carry their first-round draft pick for weeks to come.
The roster crunch might weigh against Batch’s chances of spending an 11th consecutive season with his home-city team.
Coach Mike Tomlin kept a number of starters — including Roethlisberger, Mendenhall, Harrison, Hampton, James Farrior and Troy Polamalu — out of the final preseason game at Carolina last season.
Receiver Mike Wallace, who ended his 35-day holdout and returned to the team Tuesday, cannot play because of the rule that restricts contact for a player in his first three days after reporting. But nose tackle Casey Hampton (knee) could get a few snaps after returning to practice Monday.
As for which starters will play — if only for a series — Tomlin said, “It’s going to be done on a case-by-case basis. Some of those guys who are nicked up and dealing with stuff, obviously we’ll err on the side of caution.”
For the on-the-bubble players, Tomlin hinted there can be no caution. He related to the team this week how players such as running back Jonathan Dwyer and linebacker Stevenson Sylvester secured roster spots with strong performances in the last preseason game.
“We talked openly about the recent history of the game and what it’s provided certain men … (who) represented themselves well in this game and really staked a claim on a position and a spot. I want the guys to know this is a very tangible thing,” Tomlin said.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, whose team is playing its second game in five days, estimates a dozen Carolina roster spots will be decided.
For those who don’t make it, this game could be their last — preseason or not — in the NFL.
“There’s always a problem getting to that 53,” Tomlin said. “There are some tough decisions to make.”
This article was written by Channel 11’s News exchange partners at TribLIVE.