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Can Steelers afford to cut kicker?

August 28, 2011 - Ray Eckenrode
Journeyman making a case

The Steelers have an interesting (and potentially important) roster dilemma that no one is talking about. What to do with Swayze Waters?

Despite having potentially the best name in the NFL, the UAB product has kicked around (rimshot!) a couple NFL camps but never appeared in a regular season game. Almost certainly, the Steelers brought him in this year as “just a training camp leg,” but Shaun Suisham’s appendectomy has pressed him into extended duty.

While Waters’ placements have been erratic, he’s boomed kickoff after kickoff nine yards deep resulting in touchback after touchback (11 of 13 in the past two games, the returned kicks were brought out from two yards deep and eight yards deep). That’s something that neither Suisham nor Daniel Sepulveda can consistently do, even from the 35 yard line, and it’s something that gives any defense (let alone one of the best defenses in the NFL) a HUGE advantage.

We’ll have to do a little research at, but we’re guessing that giving an opponent an average starting point at the 20 vs., say, the 29, is worth at least a point per game, maybe two points. As we’ve discussed here before in regard to coaches who go for the two-point conversion way too early in games, that’s worth at least one win per season. So if Kevin Colbert, Mike Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers brass aren’t exploring whether their roster can tolerate a kickoff specialist, they should be. And, if they have no intention of keeping Waters around, why let their defense “practice” drives with the opponent starting at the 20 consistently when it’s not going to be like that in real games?

The kicking game, both this situation and the punting battle, looks like one of the biggest things to watch this Thursday night at Carolina.

Gilbert overshadows Hills on line

We thought one of the interesting things to watch in Saturday night’s Steelers-Falcons game was going to be the first extended playing time of Tony Hills at right guard with the first team. Hills protected Vince Young’s blind side on Texas’ national championship team, but has been a washout as a pro, dressing less than a handful of times in four seasons.

However, an offseason regimen of mixed martial arts training helped Hills catch the coaching staffs’ eyes in Latrobe earlier this month and has him in the running for a starting job at a new position. Right guard is generally considered the easiest offensive line position to play from a technique point of view so it’s not unusual for a tackle to be able to shift there fairly quickly.

However (again), our plans to iso on Hills Saturday were sidetracked by another pressing offensive line matter: The fact that rookie Marcus Gilbert handled sack specialist John Abraham on nearly every play in the first half. Abraham did record an early sack but was an absolute non-factor after that.

If Gilbert were able to contribute at left tackle this year it would be a HUGE benefit to the Steelers. Of course, one game doesn’t ensure that, but Gilbert certainly raised some eyebrows Saturday. Hills looked like he held his own at RG, but we’ll wait for a post-film assessment on that from Mike Tomlin.

The QB question settled

When Bob Pompeani and Edmund Nelson went into a long dissertation in the pregame about the Steelers quarterback situation and specifically about how they thought the team would “showcase” Dennis Dixon Saturday in hopes of trading him before the end of the preseason, we thought we were going to pass out from laughing so hard.

Now, Pomps and Big Edmund have a history of saying some pretty clueless things during their exhibition stints behind the mic, but this is right up there with any drivel they’ve spewed before. Apparently, they’re not aware that the market for NFL quarterbacks who can’t pass is a little thin right now – and always. Which isn’t to say some team wouldn’t take a chance on Dixon if he were cut. They would, based on his athleticism alone. They’re just not going to give up anything to take that chance.

The whole point became moot, of course, when Byron Leftwich snapped his humerus in the third quarter, moving Charlie Batch into the backup role and ensuring Dixon sticks.

The injury might prove to be a hidden blessing in another way. Now that the Steelers know for certain who their three QBs are going to be, they can take advantage of the new rule that eliminates the “emergency quarterback” designation (and allows that players to dress on Sundays and play as a normal roster player) to install a series of Slash-type plays that turn Dixon into an “extra” weapon. Even if it requires opponents to use 15 minutes of practice time to prep for it each week, that’s an advantage in the NFL. You couldn’t do such a thing under the old rules because of the fear of injury with only two eligible QBs.

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