Although NFL teams keep and fully pay 53 players on their regular rosters, only 46 are allowed to dress on gamedays, which includes an emergency No. 3 quarterback.
Pittsburgh standout defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) may return for his first action since Week 6, and Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey (ankle) guaranteed he will play in the Super Bowl. Which means that the Steelers could have some difficult decisions two Sundays from now; their final two inactives for the Super Bowl will come from a group of seven players, all of whom are solid and regular game-day contributors.
Charlie Batch will dress as the emergency No. 3 QB. Five other players are easy decisions for the inactive list: RB Jonathan Dwyer (1), OL Tony Hills (4) and Chris Scott (0), DL Steve McLendon (7) and CB Crezdon Butler (4); a group that individually has only been active for a combined 16 games this season.
However, if Smith plays (and he should only dress if he can be counted on for at least 10-15 plays without a great chance of injury), the other two inactives will likely come from a list that includes the following players, each of whom would see action in the Super Bowl if the NFL did not have this stupid rule requiring some fully paid regular roster members to be inactive on gamedays:
WR ANTWAAN RANDLE EL: A nine-year veteran, Randle El has played in 150 of 151 possible games over his career, including every game the Steelers played in both of his stints in Pittsburgh.
Considering this, the Steelers are unlikely to inactivate a savvy veteran who serves as the team’s No. 5 receiver, their top weapon for trick plays, a safety valve as a punt returner, and who was a huge key in the Super Bowl XL win over the Seahawks.
However, Randle El does not play on any coverage units, where No. 6 receiver Arnaz Battle is a key contributor for the Steelers.
WR ARNAZ BATTLE: Battle plays on almost every Steelers’ special-teams unit, which has been a shaky-but-much-improved area for Pittsburgh compared to 2009. Although he did not catch a pass this year, Battle, who has 178 career receptions, could easily fill in at receiver in case of injuries.
The Steelers cannot afford to give up any big special-teams returns to a high-powered Green Bay offense, so inactivating a special-teams standout like Battle would be a major risk.
DE NICK EASON: Since Smith’s injury, the Steelers have often dressed just five defensive linemen but still finished with one of the five best single-season rush defenses in NFL history.
If Smith dresses, Eason appears to be the odd man out on the defensive line, particularly since the Steelers could have only five defensive linemen active, and use (primarily) just two against a finesse Packers offense.
The Packers’ biggest matchup advantage against the Steelers is their Nos. 2-4 receivers against Pittsburgh defensive backs not named Ike Taylor. The Packers will likely feature four-wide sets throughout the game, which Dick LeBeau usually counters with a defense that only includes two defensive linemen.
Eason, however, could be more important to the Steelers for this one game than fellow veteran reserve defensive linemen Chris Hoke, even though Hoke is generally thought to be the better player.
Eason is a defensive end, while Hoke, a nose tackle, has only seen minimal spot duty at the position over his nine-year NFL career. LeBeau rarely uses a nose tackle when playing nickel and almost never employs one when playing dime.
If Aaron Smith does play, though, he could be susceptible to reinjuring his triceps. If Eason is inactive, that would leave the Steelers with only two true defensive ends on its dress roster for the rest of the game.
While Hoke is more stout against the run, Eason is more athletic and probably a better pass rusher from defensive end. The Packers ranked fifth in the NFL in passing offense and 24th in rushing offense. They are no threat to run effectively on the Steelers, but did pass for 383 yards when the two squads last met during the 2009 regular season.
Finally, Eason can also contribute on kick coverage, where he played well in the AFC Championship game. Hoke does not cover kicks.
DL CHRIS HOKE: Hoke has long been an outstanding backup to starting nose tackle Casey Hampton. Both were huge keys to Steelers’ run defenses that have ranked no lower than third among all NFL teams over each of the last seven seasons.
One of the most respected and liked members of the team, Hoke has a knack for providing a spark off the bench. But because he has almost exclusively played nose tackle during his career, if the Steelers were ever going to choose to activate Eason over a healthy Hoke, this Super Bowl would seem to be the time. LeBeau, however, does love his core veterans, and it is difficult to see him deactivating one of his favorite players to dress a career journeyman.
LB JASON WORILDS: Although listed as the only reserve outside linebacker on the roster behind superstars James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, the rookie Worilds is the actually the team’s No. 4 outside linebacker. Starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons would move to the outside if Harrison or Woodley were injured, with veteran Larry Foote then starting on the inside.
That scenario actually unfolded in Week 7 in Miami. Worilds, however, was still a key contributor in that game, mostly as a pass rusher in obvious passing downs.
If Harrison or Woodley went down in the Super Bowl, nothing would be more important than being able to maintain outside pressure on the Packers elusive superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Although still a liability against the run at this point of his development, Worilds is already the Steelers third best pass rusher.
In addition, Worilds is also excellent on kick coverage, where his 4.5-second speed combined with his 260-pound frame makes him an imposing wedge buster.
S WILL ALLEN: Allen is a superb special-teams player on multiple units. Although he could have played if needed, Allen was inactive for the AFC Championship game due to a knee injury. He should be ready to return for the Super Bowl, but will he be given the chance?
While many thought he would be the Steelers’ No. 3 safety (or at least a backup free safety when he signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay last offseason), Ryan Mundy has established himself as the top reserve at both safety spots.
Still, Allen has starting experience in the NFL at free safety with the Bucs, and the Steelers will want to dress all of their quality, experienced defensive backs against the Packers’ potent passing attack. But it may be more important to dress an extra cornerback if it comes down to that choice. However, such a move would weaken the Steelers’ special teams.
CB KEENAN LEWIS: A 2009 third-round pick, it is disappointing that Lewis has not been able to earn regular playing time at corner, the weakest area of the Pittsburgh defense.
Even more surprising was that when starting right corner Bryant McFadden left the playoff game against Baltimore two weeks ago with an abdominal strain, LeBeau inserted special-teams standout Anthony Madison (who is not NFL-caliber as a defensive back) as the No. 3 corner instead of using Lewis on the outside and moving William Gay to his regular nickleback spot on passing downs.
That showed that LeBeau does not yet have confidence in Lewis as a cornerback. Lewis is also a marginal special-teams player, who seems to make as many mistakes (running out of bounds as a gunner when not pushed, for example) as quality plays.
McFadden, though, is still nicked up, having missed time in recent weeks due to an abdominal strain, a sore hip and and pulled hamstring. So if Lewis is inactive, the Steelers are one McFadden tweak away from having to play Madison all game as their No. 3 corner, with no other corners available. That would be a risk against Packers receivers generally considered the deepest in the NFL.
If Smith is active, it is likely that two out of these seven players will not dress for the Super Bowl. And even if Smith does not dress, the Steelers must still deactivate one of these players.
Who that will be is difficult to guess. Still, having too much quality depth is a good problem to have, and it is the No. 1 reason the 2010 Steelers are playing for their seventh Super Bowl title, despite a plethora of injuries during the year.