Steelers backups focus on special teams
While reviewing tape from last year's exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was drawn toward linebacker and special teams dynamo Patrick Bailey.
"Going into that game, there were guys that were really, quite frankly, on the outside looking in," Tomlin said following Monday's film session. "A guy like Pat Bailey went down and made three or four tackles on kickoffs and not only made our football team, but got a (helmet) every week because of that kind of performance.
"By no means is Pat Bailey the fastest guy on our football team, but by some form or fashion, he seems to beat everybody down the field."
Bailey is among several Steelers entering Thursday night's final preseason game at Carolina as near-locks to make the final 53-man roster primarily because of their importance on special teams.
That group of players includes cornerback Anthony Madison, linebackers Donovan Woods and Andre Frazier and fullback Carey Davis, along with return specialist Stefan Logan. All six joined the Steelers as undrafted free agents.
"This team is talented all the way through," said Woods, a second-year player who's listed as a backup inside linebacker on the depth chart. "Everybody is pretty solid, and we have a lot of established veteran guys. Really, the only way you can break in is through special teams. It's why I'm still here."
Said Tomlin: "We're just trying to find the best 53 to help us win. Special teams is a legitimate phase of our football team. Those that distinguish themselves in that area are going to have a leg up on some others that don't."
Madison, who's listed on the depth chart as a third-team cornerback, led the Steelers with 25 special-teams tackles last season. As a gunner on the punt coverage team, he's responsible for avoiding two blockers near the line of scrimmage and getting downfield fast enough to make the tackle or mess up the return.
Madison considers it an honor to play on special teams.
"Coach Tomlin talks about it all the time," he said. "It's one thing to make the 53-man roster. But why shoot to make the 53-man roster when you can aim to make the 45-man roster• That's the roster when you dress out and play in the game.
"Am I a starter• You're darn right. I'm a starter on special teams. It's a pride thing."
Madison said all of the players on special teams realize that backup inside linebacker Keyaron Fox elevated his playing status after recording 21 special-teams tackles last season. And that Pro Bowler James Harrison was a star on special teams before becoming a Pro Bowl linebacker.
Frazier, who finished with six special-teams tackles last season, is the team's top reserve at outside linebacker.
"Basically, it all starts on special teams," Frazier said. "The coaches see how you play, if you're aggressive. Then, when you get your opportunity to play (linebacker), you have to be prepared."
Bailey was so underrated coming out of Duke last season that he wasn't drafted. But because of his ability to excel at special teams, he beat out fellow rookie linebacker Bruce Davis, the Steelers' third-round pick, for playing time.
"Playing on special teams is just pure will," said Bailey, who recorded 12 special-teams tackles as a rookie. "If you grunt it, if you just go down and be wild about it, that's what we do. We just attack."