From the Notepad: Sleepers Who Are Making a Case for Steelers Roster

The Pittsburgh Steelers might bounce some veterans for names most haven't heard of this.
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PITTSBURGH -- It's Week 2 of training camp and the underdogs impressing in Pittsburgh Steelers uniforms have gone from early impressers to real sleepers.

As the team prepares for the Hall of Fame game on Aug. 5, they'll begin looking at who they want to give an extra shot to. Head coach Mike Tomlin isn't using the extra preseason game to find out what Ben Roethlisberger can do, but rather what the bottom of the roster does in-game situations.

There are players on this team with a fighting chance to earn a 53-man roster spot. It doesn't guarantee any playing time, but it does change the structure of this team and might force some veterans out the door a little sooner than expected.

Five players have stood out so far as real contenders to earn a spot.

Kalen Ballage, Running Back

Ballage's time to earn his place in Pittsburgh is now. With Jaylen Samuels sidelined with an injury, the running backs coach Eddie Faulkner has four backs to work with, which means more reps for Ballage.

At first, the efforts of Ballage weren't highlighted as much as the lack of growth from Samuels. Since the team moved to Heinz Field, Ballage has had a few noticeable runs during team drills.

This one will come down to the Steelers' faith in replacing Samuels. As little of a contribution as he's made in three years, 459 rushing yards, 550 receiving yards and five combined touchdowns, Tomlin and company have trust in the veteran.

As that fades, Ballage's chances of making this roster grow.

"He's a veteran and I think that's what's showing," Tomlin said on Ballage. "This guy's been in the league. He's not new to the NFL and training camp-like competition and it shows, particularly with some of the groups that he's working with. We're not surprised by it. As a matter of fact, we expect it, and we looking forward to giving him more reps with of the more senior groups as we proceed through the process."

Mark Gilbert, Cornerback

The Steelers are still in search of a second cornerback option behind James Pierre. Justin Layne should've been it. Layne should've also been a better competition as the primary backup on the outside. As of today, he's looking like a third-year player who's proving he isn't built for the NFL.

Gilbert is doing enough to keep himself relevant. He's running with the second team alongside Layne. He's forcing pass breakups in one-on-ones.

Gilbert is quiet on the field. He's not making a ton of noise or any read headlines. But he's consistent and carries potential. That might be enough to earn him a spot.

Rashaad Coward, Left Guard

As crazy as this will sound, Coward is going to start in the Hall of Fame game.

With Kevin Dotson still dealing with an injury Tomlin described as a "tweak," Coward has taken every first-team rep. EVERY SINGLE ONE.

And he's played pretty well. There hasn't been a noticeable miscommunication or a drop-off in protection coming from left guard. Now, that's with Coward working alongside an injury-filled, plug-in offensive line, but still - not getting pulled for B.J. Finney says something.

The converted defensive tackle will probably be the Steelers depth piece alongside Finney and J.C. Hassenauer. Truthfully, he might push Finney closer to being cut than himself.

Stephen Denmark, Cornerback

Thursday and Friday, Denmark was making plays all over the field. Then, after practice on Friday, he was working with the coaches while the rest of the team headed towards the tunnel.

His extra work shows he's ready to compete. It also shows he believes there's a chance he's capable of making this roster, and knows the coaches might feel the same.

He's competing with Gilbert, Layne and all the other outside corners who want that last roster spot. Right now, he might be third in that battle, but there's plenty of camp left to move up.

Shakur Brown, Cornerback

Brown hasn't done as much as many believed he would heading into camp, but he's making some noise - enough to be competitive.

There are plenty of times he's a liability in coverage, but truthfully, all three of the nickelbacks lack on-ball skills against receivers. Brown is no less of a risk in the secondary than Antoine Brooks Jr. or Arthur Maulet.

Brown does blitz well. Inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky went over to congratulate him after back-to-back pressures on Josh Dobbs in team drills Friday. That's newsworthy - I guess.

Until Brooks or Maulet can convince the Steelers they're the next Mike Hilton - which they won't - Brown is just as much of an option as the rest of them. 

Noah Strackbein is a Publisher with AllSteelers. Follow Noah on Twitter @NoahStrack, and AllSteelers @si_steelers.

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