PITTSBURGH, PA – The Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Detroit Lions in their final exhibition game before the regular season. With the preseason winding down, roster cuts are almost upon us – and for hundreds of players around the league, this is their last shot at earning their place on a team this season.
In Pittsburgh, there are five players with a 53-man roster spot hanging in the balance this weekend. They’ve set the stage for themselves with their play the last two weeks, and now, they need one final showing to solidify that they belong.
These five players are carrying the most weight into the Steelers’ preseason finale.
This one is obvious. It’s not a given that Jaylen Warren will make the team, but it feels very likely he will. Here’s the thing, he needs to prove he’s 100% better than Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell Jr. or Derek Watt.
“Just prove that I can stay on top of the little fundamentals and just do the little things right,” Warren said on what he’s looking to show this last preseason game. “Be consistent with my work.” He’s done plenty during his time on offense, and with an offensive line as poor as the Steelers, it’s difficult to say anyone is going to put up big numbers on the ground. Where he needs to impress is special teams. Warren told me he hasn’t played special teams before Pittsburgh, but he’s finding it more comfortable by the day. His goal this weekend is to secure another tackle and hold his own during punt protection.
“It was a huge adjustment. Just learning. It isn’t just running down and making a tackle. It’s all the little things. Everybody has their own jobs on special teams. You start to realize how important it is the more you go into it, and how important your job is because the next man, if he does his job then it all ties in together.”
With Calvin Austin hurt, the Steelers are likely looking for a backup punt returner and another reliable wide receiver. Sims seems to be at the top of both of those lists, but it’s a matter of ‘is he worth creating a roster spot for?’ The Steelers tend to keep six wide receivers on their active roster. Right now, including Austin, there are likely five spots already filled. He’s impressed in both preseason games so far and has earned plenty of love from the fans.
Now, it’s about finishing what he started and showing the coaches they need to keep him around. “It’s a big game for me just like it’s the regular season,” Sims said. “I have to perform week in and week out. That’s my only goal. “This is my fourth year in the league so I know that the last game is big for a lot of guys trying to earn a roster spot and solidify themselves. Just like my rookie year, it’s the same for me – do what I’ve got to do, make plays and let the rest handle itself.”
Now, it’s about finishing what he started and showing the coaches they need to keep him around.
“It’s a big game for me just like it’s the regular season,” Sims said. “I have to perform week in and week out. That’s my only goal.
“This is my fourth year in the league so I know that the last game is big for a lot of guys trying to earn a roster spot and solidify themselves. Just like my rookie year, it’s the same for me – do what I’ve got to do, make plays and let the rest handle itself.”
He’s not the only receiver fighting, though.
If the final receiver spot came down to two players, Sims and Boykin would be those two. Each has been flashy, and consistent, and provides quality work on special teams. For Boykin, what might give him the upper hand is that he plays special teams as a gunner instead of a return man. The Steelers love their gunners, and with Boykin’s speed, athleticism and size, it’s hard to beat his stature at the position.
“I definitely love the approach here that Danny [Smith] brings,” Boykin said. “I’ve learned so much from him already. I think that I’ve shown that I’m capable of doing anything that they asked me to do, whether it’s receiver or special teams.”
He could do little on offense and a lot on special teams and still make this roster. He’d like to do both, though.
It’s been four years of Justin Layne holding down the final roster spot at cornerback. This year, it’s a deep position room, and if it comes down to Layne and James Pierre, it’ll be an interesting battle.
Pierre has the advantage on defense. The Steelers have turned to him during training camp to take over for injuries to Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton, and he’s played well in those situations.
This game is going to be about showing that consistency against another team and providing work on special teams. “Staying on my detail,” Pierre said on what he has left to prove. “Being better than I was last year. Being more detailed on my work. Get better every day. Every day there’s something you have to get better with.”
The Steelers are searching high and low for an answer to their outside linebacker depth, and they might like what they’ve found in Hamilcar Rashed. Heading into this final preseason game, he said he still has everything to prove, and truthfully, he’s right.
The Steelers won’t use a week’s worth of work as a reason to keep a player, but two impressive weeks – and strong special teams play – and he might have made his way onto the 53.
“No matter what, I still think I have a lot to prove,” Rashed said. “Defensive wise, special teams wise, run stopping, obviously pass rushing. The whole thing.”
Rashed brings special teams experience and a year in the NFL. The saying in Pittsburgh is you make the team if you become ‘Danny Smith’s best friend.’
Rashed admitted he doesn’t know if he’s there yet, but the special teams coordinator has been getting on him about ways to improve – which is a good sign.
“It’s still little details about going from the Jets to here,” Rashed said. “I’m comfortable. I’m going out there and doing what I have to do. I feel like that little instances of getting to play faster, just the little things like little details, where my hands are, where my feet are.”