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Steelers roster analysis: Depth, experience lacking behind starters

| Sunday, Sept. 1, 2013, 11:54 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Jarvis Jones plays against the Chiefs on Sat., Aug. 24, 2013, at Heinz Field. Jones and fellow backup linebackers Chris Carter, Kion Wilson and Vince Williams have a combined three starts and 150 snaps of NFL experience.

When it comes to their starting 22, the Steelers should match up with just about any team in the NFL.

After that, all bets are off.

That was quite evident when the Steelers whittled their roster to the league-mandated 53 Saturday afternoon.

The top 22 — maybe as many as 25 — are quality and proven NFL players with the rest being minimum-salary type young guys with virtually no experience.

Nowhere is that more noticeable than on defense.

Sure, the front office shaved nearly two years off the average age of the starting defense since 2011 (31.1-29.3), but it's still the third oldest in the league.

Age doesn't necessarily mean experience.

Remove one of the few non-starting veterans, William Gay, from the equation, and the 12 backup players on defense have a combined three career starts and 1,032 snaps. That breaks down to 86 snaps, or one full game, per backup defensive player.

Backup linebackers Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, Kion Wilson and Vince Williams have a combined three starts and 150 snaps of NFL experience.

Same goes with the secondary.

Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark and Gay are as veteran as they come. But behind them, Shamarko Thomas, DaMon Cromartie-Smith, Robert Golden, Isaiah Green, Curtis Brown have no starts and 110 career snaps between them.

The Steelers have nobody to blame but themselves for their lack of depth because they consciously constructed their roster that way. The Steelers have $71.5 million of their $123 million salary cap space tied up in 10 players — Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Antonio Brown, Ziggy Hood, Taylor, Clark, Polamalu, Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons — leaving less than $50 million for the final 43 players.

Quarterback (3): Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Landry Jones

Analysis: The Steelers wanted to get younger at the position, and that's what they did. Roethlisberger has missed only seven games over the past seven years, but three of those came down the stretch last year and ultimately prevented the Steelers from qualifying for the postseason. Gradkowski is an upgrade over Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch with Jones, a fourth-round pick in April, being a long-term project.

Runningback (4): Isaac Redman, Le'Veon Bell, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones

Analysis: The Steelers had one of their worst rushing seasons in franchise history a year ago. The overhaul of the position was completed with the release of last year's leading rusher, Jonathan Dwyer, leaving only Redman from last year's opening 53-man roster. Second-round pick Bell, when healthy, is expected to contribute significantly along with offseason acquisition Stephens-Howling.

Fullback (1): Will Johnson

Analysis: Johnson could be one of the most undervalued players on the roster. Although he is listed as a fullback, Johnson is as adept at catching the ball out of the backfield as he is at being a lead blocker. With the tight end position in disarray, the Steelers plan to use Johnson much more in the passing game, especially in the red zone.

Wide receiver (5): Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jerricho Cotchery, Markus Wheaton, Derek Moye

Analysis: The position was one of the deepest on the team until Mike Wallace signed with Miami in the offseason. Now the unit is one of the biggest question marks on offense. Brown needs to turn into a No. 1 option for Roethlisberger, and Sanders has enough talent to be a top receiver if he can stay healthy. The veteran Cotchery is a security blanket at the No. 3 receiver until rookie third-round pick Wheaton is ready to take over full time.

Tight end (5): Heath Miller, Matt Spaeth, David Johnson, David Paulson, Michael Palmer

Analysis: Miller is due back in a month or so after completing his recovery from offseason knee surgery. Until then, the Steelers will scramble for production at the position. Spaeth is out indefinitely with a foot injury, leaving the position in the hands of Johnson, who is coming off ACL surgery, along with the youngster Paulson and journeyman Palmer. The Steelers won't be getting 81 catches and 10 touchdowns from the position this year.

Offensive line (8): Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams, Cody Wallace, Kelvin Beachum, Guy Whimper

Analysis:The Steelers have one of the youngest offensive lines in the NFL. But with youth comes inexperience, and that's what the line will have to overcome early in the season. Adams never has played left tackle in the NFL, and last year's first-round pick DeCastro has 138 career snaps. That inexperience bleeds into the backups. The unit is talented, but it is also young. And with youth comes mistakes.

Defensive line (6): Brett Keisel, Steve McLendon, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Al Woods, Loni Fangupo

Analysis: The versatility of the unit is its biggest strength. Keisel can play end and move around as a roving linebacker type; McLendon can play outside or inside; Hood plays tackle in sub-packages; Heyward plays left and right end, and Woods can be shuffled in at all three positions. However, it's not like the group doesn't have issues. Keisel is about to turn 35, McLendon never played more than 17 snaps in a game last year, and Hood has been inconsistent. Heyward will contribute more than his 17 snaps per game last year.

Linebacker (8): Larry Foote, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Jason Worilds, Chris Carter, Vince Williams, Kion Wilson, Jarvis Jones

Analysis: Timmons could be one of the best linebackers in the league, and Woodley is primed for a bounce-back year. After that, the linebacker position gets a little muddled. Foote is in the best shape of his career but is still 33. Worilds has the potential to replace James Harrison, but if he can't, there's not much experience behind him. Jones is a rookie with potential, and Carter has played sparingly over his career. As for the inside, neither Williams nor Wilson has taken an NFL snap. An untimely injury here could be devastating.

Defensive backs (10): Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, William Gay, Curtis Brown, Isaiah Green, Robert Golden, Damon Cromartie-Smith, Shamarko Thomas

Analysis: It would be tough to find a more talented and experienced group than the Steelers' starting secondary. Taylor is coming off a rare injury but is still one of the better corners in the league. Allen replaces Keenan Lewis and probably has as much talent as anybody in the group. The strength of the defense lies with Polamalu and Clark. If Polamalu can stay healthy and get back to form, the defense will benefit. Brown, Green, Golden, Thomas and Cromartie-Smith will be main special teams contributors.

Specialist (3): Shaun Suisham (PK), Drew Butler (P), Greg Warren (LS)

Analysis: The only real question with the specialists was between Butler and veteran Brian Moorman. The Steelers were concerned with Butler's placement and hang time, so they brought in Moorman for competition. Moorman had the hang time in the preseason, but Butler outkicked him by more than 5 yards per punt, making the decision easy.

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib

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