Wexell: Monday Morning QB

The so-called most important preseason game is out of the way and we have a much better understanding of what makes the Steelers tick.

Um, how about a mulligan?

Right. The game against the Redskins will skew the view, if you will. The Redskins came into the game 0-2 this preseason after a dreadful first season under coach Joe Gibbs. The Steelers, on the other hand, were 2-0 and coming off a great season. With those motivational edges, this should've been a Vegas lock, considering NFL teams that really want to win preseason games do. What held us back was Steelers coach Bill Cowher's insistence he was taking the game seriously. He did, but his players didn't for the reasons stated above.

So we'll try to dance around the last game as much as we can while stamping our analysis on each position:

QUARTERBACK – Ben Roethlisberger is struggling so much he's begun aiming the ball. That's more of a mental problem than a mechanical one and will only be worked out with playing time. The Steelers are lucky their schedule is so easy because he'll need to work through this.

Why not call for hot back-up Tommy Maddox as I did in 2002? Well, the starting quarterback then was going through his – and correct me if I'm wrong – 15th slump and I'd had enough. Let Ben work through his first slump without hanging him from the upper deck.

Keepers (2): Roethlisberger, Maddox.

RUNNING BACK – Frankly, the injury to Jerome Bettis was a blessing. He couldn't beat the New England Patriots, and that's what this season is all about. Sorry for you division brawlers, but it's Super Bowl or bust this year. I called this position a weakness before camp because of the over-reliance on a pair of old backs, but injuries to Bettis and Duce Staley have come quicker than expected. Willie Parker may not be able to carry the ball 20-25 times a game, but he's now going to get 10-15 with the old backs limping. He'll have his chance to prove something with Verron Haynes filling the third-down slot. Staley is the wildcard though. If he's brought along slowly, and peaks at the end of the year, Dan Rooney will buy a round of rings for everyone!

Keepers (5): Bettis, Staley, Parker, Haynes, Dan Kreider.

WIDE RECEIVERS – Cedrick Wilson will eventually get his act together. Honest, he really did have two great weeks of practice. Perhaps the plan to teach all three receivers all three positions is biting off more than a guy like Wilson can chew. Hines Ward just had a great week of practice and will show everyone the so-called double coverage Plaxico Burress drew last year was simply safety help over the top on deep patterns. Antwaan Randle El has disappointed so far this preseason, but has natural skills that will show soon. Nate Washington is the rookie phenom and should be used as the No. 4 wide receiver now. That means I'm cutting Lee Mays, since he would only stymie Washington's development. That also keeps a spot for Freddie Gibson, who has shown fine natural skills to go along with his size and speed. As we reported a few days after the preseason opener, Gibson made some mental errors, but that was to be expected for a guy drafted as a project.

Keepers (5): Ward, Wilson, Randle El, Washington, Gibson.

TIGHT ENDS – Heath Miller hasn't shown any deep skills, yet. He appears to have enough speed, but so far looks more like Jay Novacek than Todd Heap. Oh, Miller can block -- yay. But he hasn't shown the ability to get open that even Matt Kranchick has shown. Kranchick, by the way, has a knack for getting open and hanging onto the ball. His will to block has improved, but his blocking hasn't. Jerame Tuman remains the starter by default, and for that the choice of a tight end in the first round must be questioned. Walter Rasby makes the roster by default, and for that an argument can be made for the drafting of Miller. Sigh.

Keepers (4): Tuman, Miller, Kranchick, Rasby.

OFFENSIVE LINE – Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca are studs on the left side; Jeff Hartings has plenty left at center (he looks better than he did two years ago when he said he had one year left); Kendall Simmons doesn't look nearly as good as he did in last year's preseason opener, so I'm willing to give him more time; Max Starks remains inconsistent, but could be the finishing touch on a great line by mid-season. Behind them, Chukky Okobi gives them a quality center and average guard; Chris Kemoeatu, like the Bettis and Parker dynamic, could provide better play at RG if Simmons goes down; Trai Essex is much better at LT than RT, so that means Barrett Brooks needs to make the team.

Keepers (9): Smith, Faneca, Hartings, Simmons, Starks, Okobi, Kemoeatu, Essex, Brooks.

DEFENSIVE LINE – Casey Hampton played well against the Redskins but should add a few pounds. Hampton was as low as 316 this camp as the Steelers fretted about the combination of his bad knee, sway back and tendency to put on weight before giving him the big contract. Again, Hampton should feel free to add weight and play his game. Aaron Smith is still a stud, but one with Pro Bowl experience. That achieved goal won't set him back any. Kimo von Oelhoffen didn't play a great game against the Redskins, but it wasn't bad. Again, give the Redskins all of the motivational edges, which will show up most at the point of attack. Back-up Brett Keisel hasn't distinguished himself on the second line the way I thought he would, but he's much more active than Eric Taylor. Taylor, for the first time, flashed against the Redskins, but he's just a guy. If anyone needs a big final game, it's him. Cowher will probably give Taylor serious playing time at Carolina. Chris Hoke is the most valuable back up and Travis Kirschke could either go the way of Chris Sullivan with his back problems or come on in his second year in the 3-4.

Keepers (6): Hampton, Smith, von Oelhoffen, Keisel, Hoke, Kirschke.

LINEBACKERS – Alonzo Jackson sits by himself in the cafeteria, with his I-pod, and sings out loud. His final days remind me of Jeremy Staat's, except Staat was meaner. I thought he was going to pop someone. I just hope Jackson doesn't hurt himself a few years down the road. Dedrick Roper hasn't beaten him by much, but is more stable, more agile for special teams, and was helped by Andre Frazier's injury. James Harrison provides great depth and would start for a truly hungry coach; Clint Kriewaldt provides solid depth both inside and out; and Rian Wallace is a rookie who's flashed lately. The starting backers are light, but smart and quick. It's an underrated group, but then again, any group with James Farrior will be underrated.

Keepers (8) : Farrior, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Larry Foote, Harrison, Kriewaldt, Wallace, Roper.

DEFENSIVE BACKS – For all I care, throw the names of the top five corners into a hat and pull two out for each game. That's how close all of these guys are. Ike Taylor and Ricardo Colclough are … just … reaching … their … potential, but then give it up with a single poor play. Bryant McFadden, when he reaches their current level, will never look back. Willie Williams is still quick enough and the coaches love his alertness as a starter. Deshea Townsend is a No. 2 corner on most teams and hopefully can be kept cheaply when his turn to talk contract comes up. At safety, Mike Logan offers an alternative if Chris Hope leaves next off-season. Hope is playing great ball (give Chris Cooley credit for a great catch – now that's they kind of mid-round TE pick I'm talking about) and Logan has turned back the clock; he has a year left if they need him to play free safety. Tyrone Carter is pushing Russell Stuvaints at strong safety, and perhaps even Chidi Iwuoma and Sean Morey for the last special-teams spot. I forgot to mention Troy Polamalu, whom Dick LeBeau has built this defense around, but we all see how well he's playing.

Keepers (9): Williams, Townsend, Taylor, Colclough, McFadden, Hope, Polamalu, Logan, Stuvaints.

KICKING GAME (3): Jeff Reed hasn't performed as well as rookie Shaun Suisham, but they haven't been working in mud and swirling winds. That past gives Reed the big edge. Chris Gardocki is coming off a terrific season. Long snapper Mike Schneck was pushed by Greg Warren, but it looks like Schneck will survive.

Keepers (3): Reed, Gardocki, Schneck.

OK, so the rough draft gives us 51 players. That leaves room for two more players. The candidates are Charlie Batch, Noah Herron, Lee Mays, Sean Morey, Jim Jones, Eric Taylor, Andre Frazier, Chidi Iwuoma and Ty Carter.

The wide receiver position is thin, but do we throw Mays back in front of Washington? Nah. Keep Morey.

They should be able to keep Frazier on the practice squad, even IR him since he needs to put on weight. Iwuoma is injured, too, so perhaps the Steelers could also keep his rights. Batch has shown good mobility, but probably couldn't win it for you anyway; he or Brian St. Pierre will be available in an emergency. That leaves Herron, who has disappointed in preseason games, but the running back position is thin and he's the only guy left.

Whatever happened to Dante Brown?


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