In most years, the Steelers keep 26-27 offensive players on their opening-day, 53-man roster to go with 23-24 defensive players and three special teams players.
However, the defense looks to get even this year with at least 25 likely roster spots going to what is traditionally Pittsburgh’s stronger unit of the two and my lateset opening-day roster projection actually had 26 defensive players. Reasons for this shift are four-fold:
(1) Pittsburgh has a lot of older defensive starters and reserves, but needs to keep and groom youngsters as their eventual replacements; (2) The Steelers are very deep at all three defensive position areas this fall, with eight defensive linemen, 11 linebackers and 12 defensive backs all playing well enough to earn roster spots; (3) Pittsburgh’s defense began showing signs of decline last year and was clearly the team’s weaker unit down the stretch; (4) In contrast to fringe players at all three defensive position units, the players fighting for the last spots at running back and offensive line have not looked as good, meaning those will be easier cuts to make.
In all, Pittsburgh could keep up to seven defensive linemen, nine linebackers, and 10 defensive backs as I have in my latest projection; and that list would still call for releasing rookie DE Doug Worthington, who played very well on Saturday, and special teams standouts Anthony Madison, Patrick Bailey and Renalud Williams, all of whom could aid the abysmal kick-coverage units that kept the Steelers out of the postseason in 2009.
Madison, who the Steelers no doubt regret cutting before 2009, would be the toughest to let go. The Steelers allowed an NFL record four kick returns for TDs over five games in 2009. That was without Madison, who began the season with the Colts. After Madison resigned, Pittsburgh did not allow a kick return for a score.
But if Madison makes the team, either Joe Burnett or Crezdon Butler would likely have to be cut, as Pittsburgh cannot keep seven corners on its roster. Both Burnett and Butler have shown too much potential not to make the roster. It would almost be ideal to hide one of those two on IR this fall, but both are fully healthy.
Regardless, the Steelers’ defensive coaches will have some difficult choices to make, but at last they should finally have a roster the same size as their offensive counterparts, which only seems fair since each unit starts 11 players.