Three weeks of training camp over, two weeks of the preseason to go. Two short weeks, too, given the Steelers play exhibition games each of the next two Thursdays.
As coach Mike Tomlin said last week, if a player is down on the depth chart, this is the time to make a move because there is no third-team offense or defense once the season starts.
The Steelers shifted operations back to their South Side headquarters on Monday and there was a full house in their locker room; the first player cuts won’t occur until after the Thursday night game in Philadelphia.
So, who among those 90 players who are crowing into a room designed for far fewer has made a move since training camp opened July 25? Who is in better position to make the roster now than he was after the three-day minicamp finished up June 19?
Here are three who have made a major push to work their way onto the 53-man roster for the Sept. 7 opener against the Cleveland Browns.
JOSH MAURO, DE, 6-6, 282, Stanford. Mauro was very surprised when he wasn’t drafted. Going into the draft, he referred to himself as the most “tenacious” defensive end among all those available in the draft.
Mauro was a late-developing player at Stanford, where he was a fifth-year senior a year ago; he didn’t begin starting until 2012. He was on the scout team when Steelers RG David DeCastro played for the Cardinal. Last season, starting 11 games, Mauro made 51 tackles and was chosen to play in the East-West Shrine Game.
He was known at Stanford for his relentlessness, and defensive coordinator Derek Mason called him “a bull in a china shop.” Mauro has repeatedly practiced well for the Steelers and he had two sacks Saturday against the Bills. Given how playing time is divided among so many players in August, the Steelers sometimes don’t have a single player with multiple sacks in an entire preseason.
Mauro, by the way, has done some long snapping, but the Steelers apparently did not consider him as a fill-in during long snapper Greg Warren’s projected four-week injury layoff.
Mauro is listed behind Brian Arnfelt on the defensive end depth chart, but he appears to be getting more playing time than either Arnfelt or Nick Williams, who were with the Steelers last season.
HOWARD JONES, LB, 6-4, 238, Shepherd. Think he’s not getting a long look? The Steelers have been deficient in taking the ball away for several seasons, and along comes a Division II player who recovers three fumbles in two games. Jones alertly returned one for a touchdown against the Giants when every other player on the field relaxed, thinking the ball was dead, and he picked it up and ran it in.
A non-drafted player like Jones usually makes a roster mostly on his special teams play, and that’s been a point of emphasis for him.
“I’m learning from the older linebackers – Chris Carter, Jarvis (Jones), (Terence) Garvin – all the guys,” Jones said. “I learn from them and do what they tell me.”
It was somewhat surprising Jones wasn’t drafted; he was one of the standout linebackers at the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but his age (24) might have made some teams reluctant to draft him. He ended up at Shepherd, which is about a three-hour drive from Pittsburgh in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, after he didn’t qualify academically to attend Virginia or Virginia tech coming out of high school.
I profiled Jones last spring during rookie mini-camp in May as a player who could end up figuring in the Steelers’ plans:
ERIC WATERS, TE, 6-5, 245, Missouri. Waters also felt like he should have been drafted, and he reported to training camp with the attitude of wanting to prove he belonged.
Some NFL rookies privately question themselves during camp, wondering if they truly belong. Waters never has. He practices with a confidence that, it seems, suggests he believes the Steelers would be making a big mistake by letting him go.
With veterans Michael Palmer and David Paulson and seventh-round draft pick Rob Blanchflower all pressing to back up Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, the Steelers have plenty of bodies at tight end. That means Water’s route to an opening day roster is through special teams, and it’s why the final preseason games against the Eagles and Carolina Panthers are very important to him.
“When you can do multiple things, you are so much better off,” he said.