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Saunders: Steelers Need Young Depth to Step Up

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PITTSBURGH — The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers are not a particularly deep football team in many places.

It took most of the off-season for the team to resolve holes in it starting lineup, with bright guarded Trai Turner a late off-season edition and nickel corners Arthur Mellett and Tre Norwood not being identified until late in training camp.

So it’s not particularly surprising that when dealing with injuries, the Steelers response has been somewhat underwhelming.

As the team enters its Week 11 practice slate, 10 of 22 ideal starters either did not finish the last game or otherwise have their status for Sunday’s game in doubt.

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu, defensive end Stephon Tuitt and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster are all out long-term. Wide receiver Chase Claypool is week to week with a toe injury. Turner, fellow guard Kevin Dotson, outside linebacker T.J. Watt and cornerback Joe Haden were all injured against the Lions on Sunday. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick are on the COVID-19 Reserve List, with their returns uncertain.

That is a significant talent-level depletion for the team. Alualu, Fitzpatrick, Haden, Roethlisberger and Watt were first-round draft picks. Claypool, Smith-Schuster and Tuitt were second-round picks.

So far, their replacements have included sixth-round draft picks Isaiah Buggs and Norwood, undrafted free agent James Pierre, unheralded unrestricted free agents Joe Haeg and Chris Wormley and street free agents Taco Charlton, J.C Hassenauer and Ray-Ray McCloud.

There have been some exceptions to this rule like James Washington and Mason Rudolph, but by and large, this is not a team with a lot of talent waiting in the wings.

It’s hard to get and keep quality depth in the NFL. Linebacker Melvin Ingram, signed to back up Watt, was traded after being disgruntled by his playing time. The 2021 season being played under a reduced salary cap certainly has made that challenge greater than usual.

But the Steelers have a long been a franchise that has done well in the later portions of the draft, with undrafted free agent and in mining the scrapheap of released players for talent.

Kelvin Beachum, Antonio Brown, Dotson, Jesse James and Vince Williams all became starters as Steelers day three draft picks. Matt Feiler, Ramon Foster, Mike Hilton, Chris Hubbard and Alejandro Villanueva were starters as undrafted free agents.

Mike Tomlin likes to say that “the standard is the standard” when it comes to backups stepping up for injured players. Obviously, no one else the Steelers have is going to play as well as Pro Bowl caliber players like Fitzpatrick or seasoned starters like Roethlisberger and Tuitt.

But they can uphold the Steelers’ own standard of low-round draft picks and undrafted players making a positive impact. Buggs, Norwood and Pierre are among those that have that opportunity.

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