Kevin Gorman: For players like Steelers’ Ola Adeniyi, preseason finale an open audition

September 23, 2018

Steelers linebacker Olasunkamni Adeniyi celebrates after sacking Titans quarterback Luke Falk Saturday Aug. 25, 2018 at Heinz Field.

His name is one of the longest on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, but Olasunkanmi Adeniyi hopes it’s on the short list of players with a shot to survive the final cuts.

“I’ve been thinking about that since I first got here, just making the team,” Adeniyi said. “That’s been my goal, just to do what I’ve got to do with the opportunity that I’ve been given. I don’t look at this last game any differently because that’s been the goal from Day 1.”

A 6-foot-1, 248-pound outside linebacker from Toledo who signed as an undrafted free agent, Adeniyi has drawn comparisons to Steelers all-time sacks leader James Harrison, not just in terms of stature and pass-rushing ability but also for wearing his No. 92 jersey.

Yet, Adeniyi would like to avoid the path Harrison followed to fame. Harrison was cut four times, spending two seasons on the Steelers’ practice squad and in NFL Europe before finally finding stardom. But Adeniyi knows the practice squad is among the possibilities.

But bubble players can’t do what the rest of are doing, counting the number of spots available on the final roster before NFL teams finalize their 53-man rosters by 4 p.m. Saturday. Adeniyi knows the preseason finale is his last chance to show he belongs in the league.

“I don’t really look at the roster because when you start thinking about that, your mind starts going all over the place and you can’t really focus,” Adeniyi said. “I just try to enjoy every moment and play my hardest, and I’ll let my agent deal with the rest of it.”

That’s why Mike Tomlin called the final preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday at Heinz Field a “final exam,” one with weighted grades for players on the bubble of making the 53-man roster.

The evaluation process started with rookie minicamp, followed by voluntary OTAs and mandatory minicamp and training camp practices and three preseason games.

To borrow offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s term, decisions are based on an accumulation of those practices and games, not one magical moment. If a player hasn’t made an impression by this point, it’s going to take something extraordinary to make the team.

Undrafted receiver Damoun Patterson did that in the preseason opener, with a touchdown catch and celebratory back flip. Adeniyi also had a strip sack against the Philadelphia Eagles. Running back Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick, might have solidified a spot with his 77 yards rushing and receiving Saturday against the Tennessee Titans.

But Steelers bubble players have sealed a roster spot against Carolina in the past, from Stefan Logan on returns to Ryan Mundy on a pick-six that ended the preseason with an exclamation point. That’s why the final of the four preseason games is both meaningless and meaningful, as most starters don’t play and many reserves are playing for their NFL lives.

“You want to see how they perform under duress or anxiety or pressure because that’s reflective of this journey that we’re about to get on that is the regular season,” Tomlin said. “I don’t mind drawing them all in and telling them how important this game is because it is. Seeing how they perform knowing all of that, I think you’re learning a little bit about them in the midst of that, and that’s OK.”

Steelers inside linebacker L.J. Fort has been released eight times since 2012 but knows the preseason finale is an open audition that can leave a lasting impression.

“You can’t think about (cuts),” Fort said. “You’ve just got to go out there and put your best performance out there and realize that the rest of the league is looking at the video, too - not just the team you’re playing for. Just go out and show what you can do and, hopefully, you catch somebody’s attention.”

Somebody with room on their roster, no matter how long your name.

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