The Toughest Cut

The roster battles at defensive end and punter are too close to call, but the Steelers' most difficult cut Friday will be ...

... outside linebacker Adrian Robinson.

Not that it's a certainty, but the Steelers probably won't have any other choice.

Of course, Robinson hasn't done anything quantifiable, so what's the loss? He's made one tackle in three games and has been credited with only one quarterback hit. He doesn't have a sack, and quarterback pressures aren't kept by the team in preseason.

That barren stat sheet is a bit of a head-scratcher because the tape shows this rookie pass-rusher getting after quarterbacks. If anyone had been keeping track of legitimate quarterback pressures, Robinson might lead the team – or even the league.

So is the barren stat sheet enough to get him through waivers and back onto the practice squad?

That would have to be the hope, because the Steelers right now can't use a raw pass-rusher who can't drop into coverage, or, worse, play special teams.

That was the label thrust upon Robinson by Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who believes special teams are first and foremost for rookie linebackers. And history shows that many former college defensive ends can't cover kicks:

* James Harrison could, but LaMarr Woodley could not.

* Joey Porter could, but Jason Gildon could not.

* Jason Worilds made 16 special teams tackles his rookie year. Chris Carter made 1.

Robinson, according to the Steelers, can't cover kicks, either. He can't "break down" in the open field. He can't "bend," as they like to say. His understanding of "spatial relationships" needs work. And this time the Steelers don't have the roster space for another developmental project. The defensive front seven has most likely used its "redshirt" allotment on a promising-but-raw draft pick (Alameda Ta'amu), a decorated vet who's taken a pay cut (Casey Hampton), and an injured player (Stevenson Sylvester) who'll be back in a couple of weeks.

So while Robinson may have infinitely more potential than No. 9 linebacker frontrunners Brandon Johnson and Brandon Hicks, someone actually has to play special teams for the Steelers in Denver.

Tonight, Robinson will get one more chance to prove to his coach that he's more than a "one-trick pony." Tomlin trotted out that old motivational ploy a couple of weeks ago for TV analyst Cris Collinsworth, who relayed to the audience that while Tomlin thinks Robinson can rush the passer, Tomlin doesn't think Robinson can drop into coverage or cover kicks.

Robinson was asked if the assessment is fair.

"I would just say that I'm trying to work at it," he said.

So, why can't the fast and powerful Robinson cover kicks?

"I can. I have been," Robinson said. "I'll get another chance, so hopefully I can show them something."

Robinson will get a long look at Heinz Field tonight against the Carolina Panthers. He's been the starting left defensive end this week in place of the resting Woodley, so figure the rookie for three quarters of work tonight.

But his most important work will be on special teams, where he's yet to register a tackle and only participated on the punt return and field goal block teams in college.

"I did hear about the ‘one-trick pony' thing," Robinson admitted. "More than anything it moved me more than made me angry at the coaches. It made me angry at myself that I wasn't giving enough."

Even if he can't blow up a return, Robinson can always blow up a quarterback and force the Steelers to find another position to whack. Last week Robinson just missed tackling Vince Young for a safety, and a series later he had Young by the legs but Young got rid of the ball.

Robinson's close. Very close.

"Too close," he said. "It's very frustrating to come so close so many times. I just want to get one before the preseason's over."

It's the last chance for a lot of things tonight.

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