NFL from the Sidelines

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O-R Sports reporter Dale Lolley gets you the insider scoop on the NFL.

After hobnobbing around the NFL in the press boxes and sidelines, sports reporter Dale Lolley will let you know the insider scoop. Dale can also be heard on the Steelers radio network pre-game show prior to every game. Follow him on Twitter at dlolleyor.

Tuesday with Tomlin: Kicking off the new season

September 5, 2017

Mike Tomlin held his first press conference of the 2017 regular season and, as is typically, the case, not a lot of information is passed - unless, of course, you know what you’re looking for.

In this case, the team’s first official depth chart of the season was released Tuesday as well.

Much of it wasn’t a true surprise. T.J. Watt is now listed as the starter at right outside linebacker over James Harrison despite it being the other way around in training camp. Joe Haden is now the starter at left cornerback after being acquired just last week. Vance McDonald, also acquired last week, is now listed at No. 2 on the depth chart behind starter Jesse James - at least for now.

The interesting thing was that JuJu Smith-Shuster is listed as the team’s top kick returner, while cornerback Artie Burns is second and running back Terrell Watson third.

Smith-Shuster didn’t get any reps returning kicks at training camp and averaged 11.6 yards per return on 14 attempts in college. Take that for what you will, but Tomlin said Smith-Shuster didn’t get any return work at training camp because he was injured off and on.

Watson told me Monday that he wouldn’t mind doing it, even though he didn’t in college. But he, at least worked as a kick returner at times at training camp.

One darkhorse would be newly acquired safety J.J. Wilcox. Wilcox averaged over 25 yards per kick return at Georgia Southern. But he has enough on his plate this week after being acquired in a trade Sunday just trying to learn the defense to be worried about being the return man.

It also says the Steelers aren’t overly concerned about the position - something that was obvious last year when they continued to run Fitzgerald Toussaint and Cobi Hamliton deep game after game.

@ While Tomlin said the Steelers are still “sorting out” the kick return game, he also said punt returner remains unsettled.

That job, of course, has belonged to Antonio Brown largely since he joined the team in 2010.

But Eli Rogers looked fine returning punts in the preseason and the Steelers would like to see Brown off that unit.

Does the coaching staff trust Rogers enough to give him the job? That remains to be seen, but the guess here is yes. But Brown will still get a return here or there when/if needed.

@ When asked about Le’Veon Bell’s status for Sunday’s game, Tomlin would only say the Steelers will give him as much as he can handle but that they’re not quite sure what that is at this time.

Judging by what Bell said Monday after practice, how his teammates said he looked and how he felt, I would expect a typical Bell workload of 20-25 touches.

@ Tomlin said safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Steven Johnson could be classified as questionable to play Sunday but the team is optimistic on the availability of both.

We’ll see.

Mitchell didn’t practice for over a month after injuring his hamstring in training camp and the team felt the need to acquire J.J. Wilcox on Sunday for a reason.

Wilcox is currently listed as Mitchell’s backup at free safety, but Robert Golden started in his place throughout the preseason.

It might be a big much to ask Mitchell to be ready to play in less than a week and/or for Wilcox to learn a new defense in the same period of time.

That’s especially true on in a defense on which four of the six cornerbacks currently on the roster weren’t with the team last season and one, in Haden, who wasn’t with the team last week.

@ As I have been saying for weeks, that defense also will include a new starter as the nickel corner, as Mike Hilton said he continued to work with the first nickel on Monday.



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