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Six Points… on the end of the preseason

This week’s six points looks back at Pittsburgh’s final preseason game as well as the final cuts made on Saturday afternoon as the team prepares its final roster with opening day just over a week away.

Turns out Weslye Saunders was this year’s Sly Sylvester. In his pre-game press conference, Mike Tomlin referenced Sylvester’s impressive fourth preseason game last year as a key factor in the team’s decision to keep him onboard as a rookie. The point was that a borderline player would certainly be able to help or hurt his case in the team’s final tune-up this year.

Saunders was one of the names to watch in a crop of undrafted rookies that had an uphill climb to make a roster, both because of his own pedigree and because the team needed a third tight end to fill out the roster. Pittsburgh brought in veteran John Gilmore as a free agent, but the former Buccaneer had a lackluster camp and was nearly invisible in the preseason.

Either way, the thought was that Gilmore’s experience would win out over Saunders’ potential, and that probably was the case leading up to Thursday’s matchup against the Panthers. Unfortunately for Gilmore, Saunders shined in what was a statement game for the rookie, hauling in three passes for 32 yards and a touchdown. That performance turned out to be the spark Pittsburgh needed to see and Saunders survived final cuts at the expense of Gilmore.

Time ran out on Tony Hills. Hills arrived at training camp on the bubble and stayed there for the first part of training camp. Then, for a period of one week, Hills was the most talked about lineman in Pittsburgh. A string of great practices made the fourth-year pro look like the favorite to win the open spot at right guard.

However, Hills’ star fell as quickly as it rose, as the lineman flashed potential but never looked like a starter. Unfortunately, players should be capitalizing on their potential, not flashing it, in their fourth seasons. With the offensive line already a crowded mess, the Steelers just couldn’t wait for Hills to develop any longer. The former fourth-rounder’s release is another black mark on the 2008 draft, the same crop that produced notable whiffs in Bruce Davis and Limas Sweed.

Cortez Allen was worth the wait. This year’s fourth-round pick was a no-show through much of camp, as an injury sidelined him for the entire month of August. Allen finally had a chance to play in the team’s final preseason game and to give the Steelers a glimpse of things to come. Pittsburgh had to love what it saw.

On his first snap in the game, which occurred late in the third quarter, Allen blanketed his receiver on a sideline pass, eventually executing a perfectly-timed jump which deflected the ball into the waiting arms of safety Will Allen (no relation). Cortez continued to shine throughout the fourth quarter, nearly getting his hands on another ball and displayed great instincts and athleticism for a rookie tasting NFL action for the first time.

Allen’s roster spot wasn’t truly in danger going into the final game. The Steelers weren’t willing to risk moving the rookie to the practice squad, as the general feeling was that his potential would lead to a waiver claim by an outside team and, as such, were planning on keeping the fourth-rounder on the big club. Cortez might not see much of the field this season, but his star looks bright for 2012 and beyond.

Jason Worilds’ performance wasn’t the best of the night, but it was the most important. Jonathan Dwyer was the clear game-ball winner at the end of the Panthers game, but his performance pales in importance to Worilds’ showing. While Dwyer shined for sure, he’s still Pittsburgh’s fourth running back behind Mendenhall, Moore, and Redman. Worilds, however, is viewed as the eventual replacement for All-Pro linebacker James Harrison, who is now 33 and struggling with back issues.

Those back issues appeared to slow Harrison down in the preseason. The former Defensive Player of the Year just hasn’t been exhibiting the same strength that has made him one of the league’s fiercest pass rushers in years past. While a complete breakdown by Harrison is unlikely, the backer may need to be spelled more in 2011.

That’s where Worilds comes in. If Thursday’s contest was any indication, the second-year player will be just fine subbing in for a series of two. That action, though not much in the grand scheme of a football game, will help keep Harrison fresh while simultaneously accelerating the development of Worilds.

I’m still not sold on Dennis Dixon, NFL quarterback. Charlie Batch pretty much wrapped up the backup quarterback job on the opening series of the Panthers game, but his injury history is always a concern, leaving Dennis Dixon as a probable contributor if Ben Roethlisberger goes down with an injury of his own.

Dixon’s night started with an abysmal series of passes, as he completed the hat-trick of overthrowing, underthrowing, and flat-out missing his receivers on a three-and-out. Dixon settles down a bit later in the contest, but he still didn’t show much against the back-end of a roster that went 2-14 last season.

Dixon has a bit more pocket presence this year and holds on longer before deciding to cut and run. Unfortunately, his reads aren’t up to par and his accuracy, especially on deep passes, is sub-par. More than once, Dixon threw to the wrong shoulder of his deep receiver, pretty much ensuring that the corner would be in perfect position to deny a completion. This is the quarterback’s fourth season as a professional, meaning what you see is likely what you get with Dixon.

Here are my predictions for the practice squad. For those who are unfamiliar of how the practice squad is formed, here’s a brief summary. Not all players are eligible, just primarily young players will little activity on an NFL roster. Pittsburgh can choose to fill the eight slots with their own releases or could add other team’s talent following the waiver deadline. The practice squad usually works out to include a running back, a receiver, a tight end, an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman, a linebacker, and a defensive back with one of those groups getting an extra man.

Offensively, sixth-round pick Keith Williams and John Clay are the favorites to stick around as the team’s practice squad offensive lineman and running back respectively. 6’8” Wes Lyons will battle incumbent practice squadder Tyler Grisham for the wide receiver spot, though Lyons’ unique frame could give him an edge. With Weslye Saunders making the main roster, the team could eschew the tight end spot in favor of another defensive talent.

Defensively, cornerback Crezdon Butler should be a lock for the squad if he clears waivers. I have a strange theory that the team holding on to DE Jarrett Crittenton until the final five cuts is a smoke screen to sneak fellow-DE Corbin Bryant, who had a strong offseason, onto the practice squad. Local product Mortty Ivy and the talented Mario Harvey could both make the roster if the team doesn’t keep a tight end around. NT Anthony Gray might reappear as the eighth man.

Of course, waiver claims and other team’s discarded talent make this particular batch of players hard to predict. My list is just a wild stab that will probably land way outside the bullseye.

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