The Steelers need a backup running back for the first two weeks of the season when Le’Veon Bell is suspended. Josh Harris was expected to be that player, but he battled two injuries during training camp and is coming off a poor performance in the fourth preseason game against Buffalo.
Coach Mike Tomlin singled out Harris a few days before the game when he said: “There’s a certain level of urgency coming back for those that are injured, guys like Josh Harris, it’s a big week for him.”
How did Harris respond?
He had 20 yards on 10 carries and allowed two sacks in pass protection. It’s always difficult to judge running backs when reserve offensive linemen are in the game, but not being able to pick up blitzes is the bigger problem for Harris in an offense that passes so often.
And don’t forget, the Steelers did not trust Harris enough last January when they needed a running back for the playoff game against the Ravens. They went out and got Ben Tate off the street and started him four days after signing him.
Don’t be surprised if the Steelers cut Harris and sign a running back after the teams make their final cuts next week. If they started Tate in a playoff game four days after signing him they won’t hesitate to sign one as a backup and prepare him to be the backup for two weeks.
And no, Dri Archer can’t be the backup for a two-week stretch. He’s a liability in pass protection, too. Read into it what you want, but Archer played 65 snaps on offense in the first two preseason games. He’s played 11 combined snaps the past two weeks, including only three against the Bills.
*Where else might the Steelers look for depth when other teams make their final cuts?
The offensive and defensive lines are possibilities.
Of the 75 centers who have snapped the ball in the NFL during the preseason, Chris Hubbard is ranked 69th, according to Pro Football Focus. He is new to the position, having snapped a ball in an NFL game for the first time against the Packers, but the Steelers might want to upgrade if someone better is released by another team.
*The defensive line lacks depth, too. If Stephon Tuitt cannot play against the Patriots, Cam Thomas is likely to start and the top reserve would be rookie sixth-round pick L.T. Walton or Ethan Hemer. Defensive line coaches like to rotate players, especially early in the season when the weather is hot, but if Tuitt cannot play against the Patriots you’d be asking someone with no NFL experience to play at least a few snaps to spell Cam Heyward and Thomas. That’s not an ideal situation.
*The Steelers must trim their roster from 90 to 75 by Tuesday. Let’s take a stab at the 15 players who might be cut: TE Cam Clear, DT Niko Davis, G Miles Dieffenbach, C Reese Dismukes, WR Kenzel Doe, LB L.J. Fort, OLB Shayon Green, RB Braylon Heard, DT Joe Okafor, CB Jordan Sullen, DT Mike Thornton, WR Jarrod West, T Kevin Whimpey and S Alden Darby and TE Ray Hamilton.
Good afternoon from Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium,
Some pregame Stuff followed by Ask Ed:
--- After two practices since the end of last season, Michael Vick reportedly will play today. So much for all that practice that is needed to get into “football shape.’’
--- If it’s me, I play Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell for one series and then retire them. They do not need to play even that much.
--- They have a Ring of Honor at Ralph Wilson Stadium with many of the names you’d expect, such as Jim Kelly, Jack Kemp and Marv Levy. Also included: O.J. Simpson. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has rules that do not permit Simpson to be removed, but surely the Bills could take down his name from their Ring of “Honor.’’
--- James Harrison does not need to play at all today. Jarvis Jones does.
--- One of the Buffalo Bills is running the steps as we write. I have not seen that since Mike Webster did it at Three Rivers Stadium after practice. I’ll bet this guy does nt run the ENTIRE stadium as Webster did.
--- Cortez Allen needs to pick things up to show he can be the cornerback the Steelers thought he would be when they signed him to the five-year, $26 million contract nearly one year ago. Brandon Boykin cannot be far from replacing him as a starter, but the Steelers still need more help at the position.
--- Rookie outside linebacker Anthony Chickillo, star of the first week of training camp, will have to pick things up just to make the team. So, too, safety Gerod Holliman.
--- The major beneficiary of the four-game suspension of Martavis Bryant is not so much Darrius Heyward-Bey or Sammie Coates but undrafted rookies Shakim Phillips or Tyler Murphy. One could make the team because of it.
--- For the record, I saw no Michael Vick protestors anywhere around Wilson Stadium and others I asked did not either.
--- I have been to Napa once and many times driven to Buffalo and it still amazes me the number of vineyards along Interstate 90 on the way here. They are like cornfields in Nebraska.
--- Wilson Stadium’s field is A-Turf Titan 50 artificial surface, just in case some kicker decides to try to tackle someone.
--- Odd fact that means little except that it is, well, odd. Among the 48 stations listed on the Steelers radio network is one in New York, in Syracuse, which is much closer to Buffalo than it is Pittsburgh. (There also is one in South Carolina, Myrtle Beach.)
--- D’Angelo Williams is a big-league runner who should put the Steelers running game in good hands through Le’Veon Bell’s two-game suspension. However, they have absolutely no one behind him who looks right now as if they could spell him. It could be an interesting pickup for the Steelers on that final cut.
--- Ask Ed:
--- YOU: Since M. Bryant has filed an appeal, if the league does not rule on it before the opening game, does he get to play in regular season games until there is a decision?
ED: Yes, although I would assume it will be worked out before then.
--- YOU: Is there a reason why Martavais Bryant is facing a four-game suspension while LaGarette Blount will only miss one game, for what appear to be similar offenses?
ED: Yes, Blount was suspended for his one-time use (caught one time, anyway) under the previous NFL drug rules. Under the current rules, Blount would not have been suspended at all. Bryant was suspended under the new rules, which means he had to have tested positive four separate times.
--- YOU: So, Bryant had to fail four drug tests. Would he have been told about each failure before he failed the next one? If so, not having the discipline to clean up your act is a real problem, right? What are the chances his Steelers career ends up like Santonio Holmes's?
ED: I would assume that, yes, he was informed. As for how his career might end, we can only wait to see.
Now we know why the Steelers drafted receiver Sammie Coates in the third round this year. They had to know that Martavis Bryant was on the verge of a suspension for what was reported by NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport as repeated failed drug tests for marijuana.
What is interesting about this is the new NFL drug policy passed last September liberalized the discipline meted out for marijuana use.
Here is what it is:
--- First positive test puts the player in the substance abuse program with no other discipline.
--- Second positive draws a two-game fine.
--- Third positive draws a four-game fine.
--- Fourth positive draws a four-game suspension.
Therefore, for the NFL to suspend Bryant, he had to test positive for marijuana on four separate occasions. This also would not have been the old “second-hand” marijuana smoke either because the threshold for a positive test of marijuana in the system was more than doubled by the NFL in its new drug policy.
Bryant isn’t the only one who has failed multiple tests. New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson also was suspended this year for four games for marijuana use.
We do not know when Bryant failed all these tests. He had to have failed one last summer and gone into the system because otherwise he would not have been tested once preseason games started.
So he may have been playing his rookie season for a lot less money because since the NFL has now suspended him for four games, the other steps would have included fines of six weeks pay. Perhaps that is why the Steelers did not dress him for the first six games of the season.
He will lose another four games this season of pay this season as well as play for the first time, pending his appeal that is reportedly going on.
His next positive test would draw a 10-game suspension.
Now we know why the Steelers drafted receiver Sammie Coates in the third round.
Ben Roethlisberger offered a sensible solution to the debate about what to do with the four-game preseason that no one seems to like:
Don’t play the vets or starters much at all.
“I think it depends on how long you have been playing,’’ Roethlisberger said. “when you have rookies, you probably want to get them as much time as you can. Like I said, maybe the owners – or coaches, I should say – should say you’re going to play one half of one game and one half of another and call it quits.’’
That is pretty much how Mike Tomlin has used Roethlisberger and many of his veteran starters in the preseason. The quarterback and most key vets did not play at all in the bonus first game at Canton. The key players on offense were in for six snaps in the second game. They played only one series into the second quarter in the third game last Sunday.
Roethlisberger predicted they will play the entire first half or even a little into the second in Buffalo. But when I asked him if he and his offense really needed all that work, he said, “I don’t think so.’’
“I think we’ve shown enough and worked hard. The good thing is that our offense has everybody back. So, we can get that work and pick up where we left off in training camp.’’
Second-year receiver Martavis Bryant has been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. Bryant can appeal the suspension, but if he is out for four games it is a big blow to the offense.
After the Steelers struggled to score against Jacksonville and Cleveland in back-to-back games last season, managing only 27 points combined against two of the league’s worst defenses, the coaching staff made a significant change in personnel.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley inserted rookie receiver Martavis Bryant into the lineup after he sat out the first six games. The Steelers averaged 27 points per game over the final 10 games of the regular season to finish the season among the top offenses in the league.
That one change didn’t transform the offense on its own, but it went a long way toward getting the right balance with personnel.
Markus Wheaton went from starter to part-time player and Bryant assumed the snaps Wheaton had been getting. Wheaton, who averaged 62 snaps per game in the first six games, averaged 40 over the final 10. Bryant averaged 33 snaps and provided the Steelers with the big-play ability No. 2 receivers in the NFL are expected to provide.
Now that balance is compromised in the short-term and perhaps the long-term if Bryant doesn’t adhere to the policy in the future.
Antonio Brown remains the No. 1 receiver, but Wheaton is likely to shift back to the outside. He had been playing in the slot. The Steelers also have veteran Darrius-Heyward Bey and rookie Sammie Coates at their disposal when they play three-receiver sets.
“Someone has to step up, period,” receivers coach Richard Mann said. “You have to be able to play the cards that you’re dealt, and that’s what we have to do.”
Mann said it shouldn’t be a big deal for Wheaton to move back outside.
“I’ve been moving him from outside to inside the whole time,” Mann said.
Earlier in the day, coach Mike Tomlin said rookie Sammie Coates is in better condition than Bryant at this stage of their first season. I asked Mann is Coates could be an option.
“If I’m dealt those cards we’ll figure out the best scenario that we can use to jury-rig it,” Mann said. “We’ll just go with it. We’ve been coaching every one of them. Those guys who haven’t been getting as many reps they have to step up and get more reps.”
Lost amid Michael Vick Watch on Tuesday was the news that Bruce Gradkowski’s season and perhaps his Steelers career could be over.
Gradkowski was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday two days after an errant snap caused two injuries. Gradkowski, who grew up in Green Tree and Dormont, injured a finger that required surgery. He also injured his right shoulder on the play, and coach Mike Tomlin told reporters yesterday that he might need additional surgery to repair his throwing shoulder.
Shoulder surgery is never good news for a quarterback, especially one in the final year of his contract. Gradkowski had been the backup to Ben Roethlisberger for the past two seasons. The Steelers signed Vick to a one-year deal to be the backup this season and are expected to keep Landry Jones as their No. 3 quarterback.
Gradkowski’s future will be determined by his health and what the coaches think of Jones’ development. Gradkowski, 32, had problems with his shoulder going back to the spring. He opened training camp on the PUP list with the hope that rest, not surgery, would cure the discomfort.
That game plan did not work and now surgery is required to fix it. But Gradkowski’s shoulder is only part of the equation. The Steelers did not believe Jones was ready to be a No. 2 quarterback this season, but he did improve this summer.
The question now is whether the Steelers believe Jones can ascend to that role next summer.
When Gradkowski came off the PUP list a couple of weeks ago he took stock of his career and reflected on his NFL journey.
“I’m very thankful to be playing this game, going into my 10th year,” he said. “I’m just trying to enjoy it. There is nothing like being out here with the guys and trying to get ready for the season. It’s truly a blessing. I try to thank God every day. I never would have imagined I’d be going into my 10th year in the NFL. I just want to take advantage of that and have fun while I’m playing. Who knows how long I’ll play? You have to take advantage of that.”
Now Gradkowski will spend his 10th NFL season on injured reserve and his future is unclear. If Gradkowski is done with the Steelers, he played in two games for his hometown black and gold. The only time he got to throw passes for the Steelers was the playoff game against the Ravens in January. He was 2 for 3 for 22 yards.