On The Hot Seat

Tonight's preseason opener for the Steelers in Washington means most to the vets on the hot seats. Jim Wexell breaks it down by position.

Normally it's the rookies who sweat the opening preseason game, but tonight at Washington the hot seats belong to Limas Sweed and Keenan Lewis.

It may already be too late for Sweed. The lack of confidence in his eyes tells us that even he feels he's going, going, gone. So does yesterday's signing of Jerricho Cotchery.

But for Lewis, there's been a temporary stay of execution.

The cornerback was also on the It's-Too-Late-Baby list at the start of camp, but a run of injuries at his position has opened the door. He'll get a long look tonight.

"Yeah, I think it's a pretty big game for him, considering the situation that he's in," said his best friend, Mike Wallace.

Wallace grew up with Lewis, was drafted with Lewis, but his career has gone in the opposite direction. Lewis had a few chances last year but came away embarrassed.

"He was in a situation where he let the emotions get the best of him," Wallace said "But that guy he was going against [Brandon Lloyd] led the league in receiving yards last year. At the end of the day, it wasn't just anybody he was going against. He was going against a Pro Bowl player.

"Keenan knows the situation he's in, but I think he's just as good as anybody out here. You just have to let him play. I think once he gets out there he's going to prove to everyone he can play and he'll be back on the team this year."

There's a quite a hill for Lewis to climb. He's behind the top three returnees, and rising second-year man Crezdon Butler, and rookie third-round pick Curtis Brown.

That's already five cornerbacks, and the team is also enamored with fourth-round pick Cortez Allen.

So it's go time tonight for Lewis.

Here's a breakdown of the rest of the positional derbies heading into tonight's game at Washington (jersey numbers for the new players):

QUARTERBACK – Expect a lot of Dennis Dixon. Right now he's the favorite for the third spot over Charlie Batch.

RUNNING BACK – Jonathan Dwyer has been ripped by everyone except those who watch and grade the practice tapes. If anything, Baron Batch's ACL injury opened the door for big John Clay (38) to make the practice squad.

WIDE RECEIVER – Cotchery won't play, but he'll be the No. 5 man on what's normally a five-player unit. Last year the Steelers kept six because of Arnaz Battle's special-teams resume, so Battle, Tyler Grisham (19) and Kenneth Moore (18) still have hope. In the battle for the practice-squad job, 6-8 Wes Lyons (15) probably holds a slight and early edge over Terrence McCrae (11) and Armand Robinson (14).

TIGHT END – Veteran free agent John Gilmore (89) hasn't impressed, leaving one of the in-line blocking jobs wide open. David Johnson and Jamie McCoy (45) are H-back/fullback types, so undrafted rookie Weslye Saunders (44) has a big opportunity tonight to end the Reggie Kelly talks.

OFFENSIVE LINE – Counting rookie draft picks Marcus Gilbert (65) and Keith Williams (62), there are only nine legitimate names on the roster here. And that's assuming Williams isn't as slow-footed as he appears. OT Kyle Jolly (67) could win the 10th spot. Undrafted rookie OT Trevis Turner (55) and his six kids – three sets of twins – probably need it more. If neither plays well tonight, Trai Essex could be in Latrobe on Sunday.

DEFENSIVE LINE – Rookie nose tackle Anthony Gray (67) is 5-11, 330 and per his team intro benches 525 pounds and squats over 800. Gray's probably a lock for the practice squad, but also keep an eye on the other undrafted rookie, Corbin Bryant (71), a DE. Of course, first-round pick Cameron Heyward (95) is on scholarship. He's been playing behind Brett Keisel in practice.

LINEBACKERS – Chris Ellis (90) has played well this camp, but his opposition for the eighth LB spot is Chris Carter (54), who's got the quick twitch everyone loves in a pass rusher. Carter needs another year to add size, and the team will certainly give it to him.

SECONDARY – McFadden and Allen (39) have been ruled out, and Brown (40) and Butler (28) have missed a lot of practice time of late with injuries. CB Niles Brinkley (27) will get time tonight to fight for a spot on the practice squad. He's a physical zone corner from Wisconsin and the Steelers love CBs who can play the run. Undrafted rookie free safety Brett Greenwood (35) is looking to take the practice squad job from Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (42).


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