The Pittsburgh Steelers kicked the 2016 preseason off on Friday night with a 30-17 loss to the Detroit Lions. Which Steelers players have the most to prove going forward?
The NFL preseason serves a number of purposes. It gives new coaches and players a chance to adjust to the in-game atmosphere of their new teams. It replenishes the starving football receptors in our brains. And, most importantly, it gives bubble players a chance to cement their spots on the depth chart.
Some are late-round rookies. Others are homegrown talents who’ve yet to reach their expected potential. The rest are veteran journeymen. The common denominator for each, though, is simple: become a member of the Steelers 53-man roster.
The following Steelers are facing a critical preseason. Will they do enough to keep their spots?
Tyler Matakevich, LB
A seventh-rounder out of Temple in the 2016 Draft, Tyler “Dirty Red” Matakevich has been praised as the prototypical Pittsburgh Steeler. Grit, passion, a do-or-die attitude on every play – it’s all there.
However, Matakevich is facing an uphill battle to make the roster. With Vince Williams, LJ Fort and Steven Johnson already serving as backups inside, the Steelers linebacking corps is dense. Additionally, Matakevich has a long line of doubters to prove wrong when it comes to his adjustment to the speed and physicality of the NFL.
Prior to the Draft, an AFC North executive described Matakevich as “Not big, not fast and not strong”, and it’s no lie that Matakevich’s instincts outweigh his natural athleticism. Recording only one tackle against the Lions, Dirty Red still has work to do to shed the overachiever label. His path to the main roster may start by winning a job on special teams.
Demarcus Ayers, WR
Another seventh-rounder, Ayers will need to define his role if he wants to make the Steelers main roster. Originally thought to be the new return man, Ayers saw limited opportunities versus Detroit. He finished the game with one catch for five yards and one rush for 14 yards.
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Sammie Coates returning kickoffs instead of Ayers is an inconceivable move, but it’s what the Steelers have chosen. Ayers did have the opportunity to field one punt, although he was forced to wave for the fair catch.
Otherwise, Ayers’ role offensively looked oddly parallel to that of Dri Archer a couple years ago – the small speedster in need of the open field. Cobi Hamilton (two catches, 22 yards) had the best outing out of the Pittsburgh fringe receivers.
If given the proper opportunities to return kickoffs, and with consistent usage on offense, Ayers could open some eyes within Steelers management. If he’s restricted to just splash plays on offense, however, he may be forgotten sooner than later.
Shamarko Thomas, SS
This is getting old now, isn’t it?
Every season, Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas ends up on one of these lists, and the cycle repeats itself. Thomas logs some impressive practices, speaks with optimism to the media, and then disappears when it’s crunch time.
Thomas tallied two tackles against the Lions and provided solid coverage in a few instances. But his failure to create big plays is something that he’s never been able to shake off. In the remaining weeks of the preseason, Thomas must register something noteworthy, be it a big sack, timely interception or forced fumble.
Strong safety remains an unanswered question for the Steelers defense. Unless Thomas can make noticeable strides in the next three weeks, his time on the roster is going to run out.
Daryl Richardson, RB
Former Rams running back Daryl Richardson was one of the brightest stars for the Steelers Friday night. He finished with 44 yards on eleven carries and added 16 yards on two catches. In the second half, Richardson carried Pittsburgh’s struggling offense.
Still, Richardson faces a potential struggle to make the main roster. Behind Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, Fitzgerald Touissant currently holds the third running back spot. Toussiant has been on the team longer and played a key role in last year’s postseason, so he likely holds an advantage in the opinion of coaches.
Richardson never truly caught on in St. Louis, but he was the most consistent Steelers offensive threat against Detroit. If he can continue to average four yards-per-carry over the next few weeks, he could surpass Touissant as the Steelers #3 back, or justify the team holding onto four.
All stats via NFL.com.