Steelers will face tough decisions with linebacker cuts
Marshall McFadden has one more audition to prove he deserves a full-time job with the Steelers.
The second-year linebacker looked good in training camp and has played relatively well during the preseason. But he'll need to make a lasting impression in the exhibition finale against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
McFadden, though, seems to have a significant advantage over seven others vying for the remaining three or four linebacker spots on the active roster. The South Carolina State product has excelled on special teams.
“I feel like I've got a good chance of making the team, but I've had to come a long way,” McFadden said. “Obviously, special teams might determine my fate. I've got to go out this last game and prove I can make splash plays.”
If coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert hold true to form, the Steelers likely will begin the regular season with eight linebackers — including starters LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, and Larry Foote.
Jarvis Jones, a first-round draft pick, and fourth-year veteran Jason Worilds are battling to replace James Harrison at right outside linebacker. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the Steelers is deciding which young linebackers to keep as backups.
The active roster for last year's regular-season finale included nine linebackers, but gone are four: Harrison, Brandon Johnson, Adrian Robinson and Stevenson Sylvester. McFadden spent 14 weeks on the practice squad last season but was activated for the final game when Chris Carter was placed on the reserve/injured list.
Now McFadden and Carter appear to be ahead of the pack with the final cuts slated for Saturday. But the others — rookies Vince Williams, Alan Baxter and Terence Garvin and veteran free agents Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson — played well in a 26-20 overtime loss to Kansas City to bolster their chances.
“Right now, they really don't know the defense completely,” Timmons said. “It's more about what kind of heart they have. They're hungry, and I like the way they're playing.”
Timmons, who arguably has become the Steelers' most dominant defensive player, is impressed with the steady progression of the young linebackers.
“It's been a test every week for them during the preseason,” Timmons said. “We had three different linebackers make sacks (against Kansas City). I think that shows the competition is heavy, which is good. I'll be interested see how it goes when we make out cuts.
“I thought they all played well with the exception of some unfortunate calls. For the most part, they were physical, which is what I'm most concerned about.”
Carter said he hasn't been pushed this hard since his rookie season in 2011.
“I don't think we've had this many talented guys in one room,” Carter said. “You have guys with great ability, speed and knowledge of the game. All the young guys are turning the heads of the coaches.
“Ultimately, we have to do something to make a difference. I think that's going to decide who's going to be around come cut day. I feel good where I'm at, but I'm never satisfied because of the competition.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ RalphPaulk_Trib.