Steelers Face Tough Calls on Super Bowl Dress Roster

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.

This entry was posted in 2010 steelers, Analysis, Cool Stuff, Defensive Line, Postseason, Special Teams and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
  • Anonymous

    I would say Lewis and Hoke, though I hate for Hoke to miss the Super Bowl.

  • Mark

    You need Hoke for goal line defense. Must dress Hoke no matter what. Eason sits if Smith plays.

    • Ted

      Mark, JJ, said the same thing. However, the counter to that is no team is more likely to throw on the goal-line against us than Green Bay. Even if we had to push Kiesel or Eason (who has played NT a few plays earlier in his career) inside for a play or two, we would probably be okay.

      No matter what back-ups dress or if Smith plays, most GB rushing yards will come from Rodgers or draw plays. Still, I think you are right that Hoke would get to dress over Eason even if that may be an unwise move for this one game.

  • Saurabh

    Why do you think the “inactive” rule is stupid? It is clearly designed to provide for more competitive balance among teams when one team has a few players injured. If all 53 people could dress, then teams who were completely healthy could come to the game with extra backups at every position, whereas teams with a few injuries would not have those backups. The healthy team could rotate players in much more and keep their team much fresher. This way, a team with injuries is not doubly penalized — both for losing the player and for losing a spot on gameday — because the healthy team will have to scratch healthy players to get down to 46 too.

    If your complaint is that you wish that you could dress more people, then that’s an argument for expanding the size of the roster overall, not taking away a perfectly sound inactive roster rule.

    • Anonymous

      Agreed. I don’t think the rule is stupid either. However I don’t think it’s particularly necessary these days either. In fact I think it could be pretty interesting to remove both the 46 active limit and the 53 total limit. Then the salary cap would be your only limit, and you’d get different teams making different strategic decisions in those regards.

      • GlennW

        I still think that a 45-man active gameday roster is just fine. It’s the overall 53-man roster that might need to be expanded with an 18-game schedule, as more players are sidelined in the shortterm due to injury. But on gameday, the tough roster decisions and tradeoffs are fine with me. I don’t need to see every team with the luxury of dressing two kickers, a short and long punter, 12 DBs or whatnot without having to think twice about those choices.

        I still think there needs to be a fixed roster limit though. The salary cap is pretty flexible in the shortterm and I could see abuses taking place if the salary cap were the only limit to signing and rostering players– like stronger teams loading up for a big run, and then scaling back when rebuilding. I also don’t see the NFLPA agreeing to anything that doesn’t guarantee at least (32 x 53) jobs, as opposed to just a total salary figure.

    • Ted

      Saurbh, good points. They did this, in part, so teams would not be releasing fringe players who are dinged up for a couple of weeks. But 45 players is just too few. Why 8 inactives, which is roughly 15% of your roster?

      And yes, I think that both the overall and especially gameday rosters should be expanded. Those will be pluses of the new CBA as the owners are likely ready to concede expanded rosters and dress rosters for an 18-game schedule.

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  • Cols714

    They should definitely dress Randle El. He gives them some good gadget plays that might be needed near the goal line or in 2 point situations.

    Let Aaron Smith sit again, he hasn’t played in forever and we have no idea if he’d be as effective as Eason and Hoke.

  • Grw1960

    A very interesting and informative article;. Too bad about Lewis. This being the end of his second year he should be showing something. I guess the Steelers should have cut Lewis instead of Burnett.
    Lewis has the physical skills. I can only surmise he is lacking something in the brain department.

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  • DC in ATL

    The Pouncey injury makes this decision even more difficult, doesn’t it? If he plays, do we really want to have only two reserve offensive linemen available for the game? If he doesn’t…who do we add for his slot? Tony Hills? Chris Scott? Dorian Brooks from the practice squad? Not good.

    Who knows how roster rules will work out when the new agreement is signed, but if they continue to have an eight man practice squad, I think the NFL should consider allowing some or all of those eight players to dress and be available to play the last 2-3 weeks of the season without losing their eligibility for the practice squad the following season. It would help teams with a lot of injuries at the end of the season and allow teams to assess what those guys can do. Teams playing out the string could make good use of this roster flexibility. Teams that have already locked into a playoff seed could use those guys to avoid injuires before the playoffs. The players themselves would win via bigger game checks and the opportunity to show what they can do.