Steelers TE Saunders moving on after suspension
Weslye Saunders remains puzzled about his four-game suspension, but he'd rather put it behind him now that he's back in the Steelers' locker room.
The second-year tight end has shifted his focus toward working his way back onto the active roster. Even if the Steelers activate him for Thursday night's game at Tennessee, Saunders is likely to play only special teams.
Saunders familiarized himself with offensive coordinator Todd Haley's playbook during training camp. Now he must reacquaint himself with it.
“I really feel good, but I don't know what coach (Mike Tomlin) is going to decide,” Saunders said. “But I feel good and confident that I'm ready to play.”
Saunders spent the past five weeks training in Arizona. He maintained contact with several players, including tight ends Heath Miller and Leonard Pope. But he was prohibited from talking with the coaching staff during his suspension for violating the league's performance enhancing drug policy.
Perhaps the biggest challenge during his suspension, Saunders admits, was watching the Steelers play without him.
“Especially with the two losses,” Saunders said. “For the most part, (the suspension) went real fast — except on Sunday. I can't wait to get on the field.”
Saunders said he attempted to persuade the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to shorten his suspension even after two failed attempts.
“We talked, but they weren't having any of it,” said Saunders, who was allowed to play in all four preseason games. “Zero tolerance is zero tolerance.
“I couldn't speak on it before. It was frustrating for me, especially knowing that even with an illegal drug there's no suspension for a first offense, let alone four games. It's over with, so I'm ready to move on.”
Saunders was hesitant to accuse the commissioner of overstepping his bounds, a criticism hurled at the commissioner after the suspensions of several New Orleans players accused in the bounty scandal.
“I can't really say if he did because I don't know how much say he had in the final ruling,” Saunders said. “I feel if you looked at it on a case-by-case basis, some things might be different in some instances. The rules have to be upheld. I guess he made the right decision.”
The Steelers must decide how and when to make room for Saunders on the roster. It seems likely that either veteran Pope or rookie David Paulson will be released. Paulson appears to have leaped ahead of Pope on the depth chart, considering he's played more minutes — including special teams — the past two games.
Haley will continue to progress through the playbook. So Saunders will be pressed to catch up.
“Like everybody else across the board, the guys that give us the best chance to win each and every week, those will be the guys helping us,” Haley said. “(Saunders) is just trying to get back in the flow right now.
“There are plays and situations, packages that certain guys will be in. It just so happened that last week the package we were in had David and Heath in it.”
Saunders is perhaps the best blocker among the tight ends. He was expected to fill the void of H-back after David Johnson was lost for the season with a knee injury.
“There will be a slight learning curve because we are doing a few things differently,” quarterback Byron Leftwich said. “I know he's happy to be back to contribute any way he can.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.