Head coach Mike Tomlin surprised fans of Steeler Nation and its press corps at his Tuesday press conference by announcing the team had no immediate plans to place veteran defensive end Aaron Smith on the season-ending injured reserve list despite Smith undergoing surgery on Monday for a torn triceps tendon suffered in Sunday’s win at Miami.
Typically, a 34-year-old, 3-4 defensive lineman who suffers a torn triceps in the sixth game of the season is automatically placed on IR to open up a spot on the 53-man roster for someone else. This is why the well-respected and connected Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, along with most other local and national media outlets, all reported that Smith was likely gone for the season on Sunday evening or Monday.
However, I see Tomlin’s logic. In a best-case scenario, Smith is back on the field toward the end of the regular season. He sees some spot duty and then arguably the best 3-4 end in the NFL is back in the starting lineup for the Steelers’ defense in the postseason, where he would provide a huge boost even he is not at full health.
Moreover, my guess is Smith told Tomlin that he would do everything in his power to play again this season, knowing this may be his best and last chance at winning a third Super Bowl ring.
If Smith is not progressing at a rate that would put him back on the field this season, he can be placed on IR at any time, opening up a spot on the 53-man roster.
The problem is that now Pittsburgh only has five other defensive linemen on its current roster, which includes the team’s other starting end, Brett Keisel, who missed Sunday’s game against Miami with an injured hamstring and is questionable for this week’s showdown at defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans.
The finesse Saints are the type of team Pittsburgh could dress just five defensive linemen to face, but can they do so if one is questionable entering the game?
Even if they do not re-sign Steve McLendon from the practice squad to the regular-season roster this week, Pittsburgh will likely have to do so in the next couple of weeks just to have a two-deep active depth chart on the defensive line, something even more a necessity since four of the five remaining defensive linemen on the roster are over 30.
However, the expected addition of McLendon would mean that three of the Steelers’ six defensive linemen (Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke and McLendon) will have seen all or nearly all of their NFL career snaps at nose tackle, although Hoke and McLendon will likely get many reps at defensive end over the rest of the season.
Assuming Smith is not placed on IR, I see the Steelers only with two real roster options to create a spot for McLendon. Completely discard those who mention releasing QB Byron Leftwich or WR Arnaz Battle as real possibilities.
Leftwich may still be No. 3 on the Steelers’ depth chart at QB (we do not know), but the organization believes he is their long-term answer as Ben Roethlisberger’s top reserve, a position Leftwich occupied on the 2008 Super Bowl championship squad after spending most of his career as a starter with the Jaguars.
Plus, release Leftwich now with the hope of signing him later, and he may well be starting for Arizona next week. He is certainly better than either of the Cardinals’ current options at QB.
Battle and S Will Allen were signed to upgrade the Steelers’ special teams units, which were among the worst in NFL history last season at covering kicks. Even though Battle is the team’s No. 5 WR and Allen the No. 4 safety, both have been standouts on Pittsburgh’s vastly improved special teams units, with Battle on three different units and Allen on four. Battle is too valuable to this team to release.
That leaves just two more options. As usual, the Steelers could release veteran QB Charlie Batch to make room for McLendon. However, the problem is that this would not be just releasing Batch a week or two, but rather possibly until very late in the season. Didn’t Batch earn a spot on the 53-man roster due to his on-field performance while Roethlisberger was suspended?
Moreover, Batch may still be the Steelers’ No. 2 QB right now (the team will not list an official, updated depth chart at QB) and provides a steady, cerebral sideline influence for Roethlisberger. Batch, like Battle, may be too valuable to release, although he is still a high probability to be released if someone must go.
A better option would be releasing fourth-team, rookie tailback Jonathan Dwyer, who is essentially redshirting this season. (Dwyer, along with Leftwich and rookie defensive back Crezdon Butler are the only three Steelers not to have seen game action this fall.)
Dwyer was a late sixth-round pick who made the team due to strong performance toward the end of preseason after disappointing by showing up to Latrobe out of shape and not playing well early in training camp. He is raw, and does not catch or block very well at this point despite having played fullback in a triple option at offense at Georgia Tech.
Release Dwyer and there is a strong bet the Steelers can re-sign him to the practice squad for the rest of the year and then sign him back to the roster afterward.
In addition, Dwyer was kept on the roster for his potential to develop into a power back, although 230-pound tailbacks who run a 4.6 in the 40 are easily signed in pro football. In the time since Dwyer was kept on the roster, starting tailback Reshard Mendenhall has emerged as a durable and complete franchise tailback, while No. 2 RB Isaac Redman has emerged as the goal-line, short-yardage, power back and situational fullback. All were running back duties that many projected for Dwyer before the season.
I see a spot for another tailback in the rotation for 2011 after no effort is made to re-sign current No. 3 man Mewelde Moree. But that player will be one with more speed and/or shiftiness, and better receiving skills than Dwyer.
Considering their age throughout the roster, the Steelers should be thinking Super Bowl for 2011 and they appear to be doing so with the decision not to place Smith on IR at this point.
The Steelers, however, need to add an extra defensive linemen to the roster ASAP if Smith is not going to be placed on IR any time soon, must keep Batch on the 53-man roster, and should therefore release Dwyer, with hopes of resigning him to the practice squad.