Scouting for Steelers: Making the Case Part 1

Jared Wickerham/AP photo

After yesterday’s speculation about a 53-man roster, the next obvious step is to look at the “x OR y” guys. So I’m going to do that, using what I can glean from the preseason games, particularly Game 3. Those guys would be:

  • RB: Fitzgerald Toussaint OR Daryl Richardson
  • C/G: Chris Hubbard OR B.J. Finney
  • DL: L.T. Walton OR Caushaud Lyons
  • LB: Steven Johnson OR Tyler Matakevic

Happily, none of these guys have been cut yet, so there is still room for speculation. Let’s start with the running backs.

The RB situation is an interesting one. Last year, despite Le’Veon Bell’s suspension to begin the season, they only carried three running backs, and Bell didn’t count against the roster, meaning they played the first two games of the season with only two running backs. However, both of the “flex” players on the roster could function as an H-back—Dri Archer and Will Johnson. There was no fulllback on the 2015 roster at the beginning of the season, but Will Johnson filled that role, sort of. In 2016 we have Roosevelt Nix, which takes some of the pressure off, and Demarcus Ayres, while listed as a wide receiver, can be used as a runner, as we saw in the game on Friday night.

This season the Steelers don’t have the services of Le’Veon Bell for the first three games. Whether, in that case, they are content to manage with only two running backs is an interesting question. If they want three, the “OR” could be taken out of the equation at first. However, someone else would have to be dropped. It might be Ayres. It certainly won’t be Nix, unless he’s injured. He’s an amazing special teams player as well as a better-than-average fullback. (Last season he was tied for 7th in the league, with Baltimore’s Kyle Juszczyk, out of the 22 fullbacks with enough snaps to qualify, according to Pro Football Focus.)

As it is, I already cut back from six wideouts to five, since the Steelers aren’t carrying someone who is suspended for part of the season, as Bryant was. And given the situation at tight end, it’s difficult to see them cutting back any further. When you look at the five, Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton are no-brainers. Sammie Coates represents the long ball, tall receiver Ben has pined for since about 2005, when Plaxico Burress left. Darrius Heyward-Bey is also a core special teams player as well as a good (and blazingly fast) receiver, and Eli Rogers seems to have won a spot in the room with his play in the slot and his punt return skills. So really, there’s no place to cut.

As for the tight ends, I suppose you could roll with two until Ladarius Green comes back. So that’s another potential place to cut, I guess. But I would be surprised if they were to do so.

After all that, let’s assume it’s an “OR” situation for Toussaint and Richardson. Which guy do you keep? Toussaint is someone the coaching staff appears to like. And despite the fumble in the Denver game, in every other way Toussaint answered the bell, if you will, when first Bell and them DeAngelo Williams went down. So there’s certainly a level of comfort there, as Mike Tomlin might say. But Richardson has looked pretty impressive in camp and in the preseason, and this certainly isn’t his first rodeo. (Obviously, I am trying to use as many Tomlinisms as possible for this post…) So let’s look at some stats.

Here are the stats for Game 3, since it was probably the most meaningful of the three games so far. Neither Richardson or Toussaint played in the first half, other than special teams, but it’s worth thinking about that, because Toussaint has been lined up next to Sammie Coates for kick returns during the ‘first team’ series for the entire preseason. Game 3 was no exception, and in fact Toussaint had his best kick return of the preseason—a 28 yard return which netted a 26-yard-line field position—on the opening kickoff.

The next kickoff wasn’t until 9:40 in the second quarter, and the kicker put it down at the PIT 5. Toussaint only got 16 yards that time, although the net result was ending up at the PIT 21. Which brings up a bit of a tangent—when the ball is kicked short of the end zone you have to have a return. I can see that teams who feel confident about their kick coverage units may start kicking short of the goal line to force a return and hope to pin the other team deeper than the 25. Of course, we could also speculate that this particular short kick was due to insufficient studliness of Kai Forbarth, who was the kicker that time. (Conner Barth kicked at the beginning.) In case you’re wondering, Chris Boswell’s kicks were to NO 0, endzone, and NO 0. The net result of the two shorter kicks were a 24 yard return and a 15 yard return. (In the second half of the game he kicked touchbacks in both instances.)

The only other kickoff to PIT was in the second half. Daryl Richardson took the kick and returned it 22 yards (ending at the 30.) Unfortunately a penalty on Jordan Dangerfield, on the opposite side of the field, furthermore, pushed them back 10 yards. Richardson was the only one lined up to take that kick.

And as long as I’m talking about special teams, Toussaint played 13 ST snaps, Richardson eight. I don’t know that we can read anything into that, other than it evens out their totals a bit. Richardson has a total of 27 snaps, Toussaint 24.

As to how they did with their snaps on offense, it’s difficult to make the comparison, because Toussaint never even came into the game, other than the special teams work, until the fourth quarter. He took the majority of his snaps later in the game, when the Steelers really only cared about running out the clock. He was the back for the series beginning at 12:18 in the fourth quarter and for the series beginning at 4:25, which was only three plays and a field goal. (This was after the dfense recovered a forced fumble.) But for what it’s worth, in the first series (seven plays and a punt) Toussaint had the following stats:

  • 3 runs, +2 yards total (+2, +4, -4)
  • 2 receptions, +18 yards (+7, +11)

The other two plays were a Delay of Game penalty on Landry Jones and lining up with Jones in the shotgun. Toussaint had a fantastic block on the defensive rusher on the latter play, and that of course is worth a good bit. The final three plays were all runs, for +2, +4, and no gain.

How does this compare to Richardson? It isn’t that dissimilar, actually. Here are the results of the first series he played in, beginning at 11:46 in the third quarter. (As far as I could tell it was all Bell and Williams before that.)

3 runs, +10 (-4, no gain, +14)

The no-gainer was negated by a penalty, so unfortunately the 14-yard run was on a 3-25.

The next series began at 6:59. His sole run was for no gain, and the play was flagged anyhow. He was split out four times, but targeted just once. As far as I could tell he didn’t really have to block on the first play, (which was a long pass to Sammie Coates,) or on the two plays where he was in the shotgun.  On the occasion he was split out he had a courtesy block (the play was on the other side, and yes, I just made up that term.) The final play was a reception which gained four yards, on a 3-14. But thanks to the Sammie Coates reception they were close enough for a field goal.

Richardson next played in the fourth quarter, and he rushed for one net yard (+1, -2). Finally, he was in for the last series of the game, and rushed for five net yards (+3, +4, -6, +4.)

So what does this mean? I’m not in the know at all, just guessing here. But what I’m guessing is that the staff was giving Richardson the opportunity to show them why they should keep him instead of Toussaint, since they know Fitz better. I didn’t see anything to say that he did so, and unless something changes, either because of an injury to Toussaint or DWill or a breakout Game 4 for Richardson in which he looks like the second coming of Barry Sanders, I think we may be bidding him adieu soon. In case this is true, I’ve headed the article with his picture to fondly remember him by.

And boy am I glad it isn’t me making the decisions…

to be continued



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