Steelers relying on practice squad grads to produce
PITTSBURGH (AP) Jordan Dangerfield never lost faith, even as the months passed and the dreaded visits to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin's office informing the safety he was being released from the team's practice squad piled up.
Three times between August 2014 and July 2015 Dangerfield found himself looking for work because the Steelers had needs in other areas. And three times they called back, asking Dangerfield if he wanted to put his hand in the pile one more time. Three times Dangerfield said yes.
''I know guys in the league that I played with that were in the same position,'' Dangerfield said. ''I just had to be patient and wait for my time.''
One that finally presented itself this summer, when Dangerfield made Pittsburgh's 53-man roster as a special teamer then found himself making his first career start last week against Kansas City while Robert Golden nursed an aching hamstring.
Save for a couple - OK, more than a couple - pregame butterflies, Dangerfield proved he belonged, collecting five tackles while hardly looking overwhelmed by the stage. Dangerfield called his performance ''a sigh of relief,'' but nothing more.
''I'm not satisfied from that,'' Dangerfield said. ''I have to develop my game and improve all around.''
And that's kind of the point of having a practice squad in the first place, especially in Pittsburgh. A franchise that prides itself on continuity loves to take fliers on players looking for a foothold in the league and molding them into difference makers.
''I think when guys come here they have that belief, if something happens coach isn't necessarily going to the outside world and pull a guy from a different team,'' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. ''He's going to give a guy here a shot first. That makes guys believe and understand in themselves and the system here.''
The proof is scattered throughout the roster. The list of practice squad graduates who will be in uniform for the Steelers (3-1) on Sunday when the New York Jets (1-3) visit include five-time Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison and starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who now protects the blind side of the man who controls one of the NFL's most dangerous offenses.
At some point, Villanueva could be joined in the huddle by tight end Xavier Grimble and right tackle Chris Hubbard, both of former practice squadders who now find themselves thrust into more prominent roles due to injury. Grimble scored the first touchdown on his career in Week 2 against Cincinnati and like Dangerfield - who was out of football completely in 2013 after failing to make the Buffalo Bills before eventually landing in Pittsburgh - the former USC tight end took a winding path back to being in uniform on game days.
Grimble came out of USC after his junior season in 2013 and went undrafted then bounced between practice squads in New England and San Francisco before catching on in Pittsburgh. There was something about the vibe with the Steelers that was just different.
''From day one when I got here, there was pressure on me to learn the plays and produce and show what I could do on offense,'' Grimble said. ''They call it a developmental group. You're here for a reason.''
And it's not to just serve as a live tackling dummy. They line up with the starters occasionally and are expected to keep copious notes regardless of status.
''We're in all the meetings, basically all the team meetings,'' Dangerfield said. ''They keep you active. We don't just come run, lift, go to practice and use our bodies at practice. They develop us on and off the field.''
Such an existence, however, can be tenuous at best. Any little injury that can keep you from the practice field means your time is up. Living arrangements are on a month-to-month basis. Yet there is also a brotherhood among the 10-man practice squad that is hard to replicate. When one of them gets promoted, in a way they all do.
''You're always rooting for everybody but practice squad is what it is, it's an uphill battle,'' Grimble said. ''You're happy to see guys fight through that adversity and make it on a 53-man roster.''
The opportunities are coming quickly for Pittsburgh's current group with injuries piling up quickly. Grimble only survived cut day because free agent signee Ladarius Green is dealing with an ankle injury that's kept him on the physically unable to perform list. Whenever Green gets healthy, Grimble may become expendable.
Dangerfield has become a special teams ace, likely making his spot a little more secure. He's nowhere near ready to say that he's made it but he did make at least one small change to his lifestyle. He signed a six-month lease before the season. It's not a permanent address, but it sure beats those lonely workouts in the fall of 2013 waiting for the phone to ring.
''Before the game on Sunday night I was definitely thinking about the time I was sitting at home for a whole year of football,'' he said. ''I'm thankful for the opportunity I got.''
NOTES: G Ramon Foster (chest) was limited in practice but expects to play after missing last week. ... RT Marcus Gilbert (ankle) did not practice. Hubbard filled in. ... T Ryan Harris (shin), LB Jarvis Jones (ankle), LB Ryan Shazier (knee) did not practice.
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