Two days before Christmas, with veteran Mewelde Moore ailing, Steelers rookie RB John Clay was promoted from the practice squad to the active roster. The next day, the Steelers hosted the Rams at Heinz Field, and about midway through the second quarter, with Pittsburgh on the St. Louis 10-yard-line, Clay was sent into the game. The play call was a run, and Clay knew the urgency of the moment. He was about to get his first NFL carry.
“I have to score on this play,” Clay remembered thinking. “I may not get another chance to do it.”
Clay received the handoff about four yards deep. Running behind a wall of Steelers blockers, he cut right, then burst straight ahead. A cut to his left, and Clay was en route to the endzone. He punctuated the moment with a jump-spike, a la the Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw, and Clay was left to receive the congratulations of his teammates — and the ball, which teammate Mike Wallace thoughtfully retrieved for him.
Clay didn’t carry again in that game, but he didn’t go back to the practice squad, either, and he even saw playing time in the Steelers’ AFC wild-card loss at Denver, carrying once. Now, the 6-1, 248-pound Clay sets his sights on making the Steelers out of training camp in 2012, something he could not do a year ago.
“We have a loaded backfield,” Clay told PFW this week, calling the competition for roster spots a “battle.”
One spot will open if starter Rashard Mendenhall, who’s coming off a torn ACL, begins the season on the PUP list, but whenever Mendenhall returns to health, he’ll have a place on this contending team. Isaac Redman, the favorite to start if Mendenhall isn’t ready for the start of the season, also figures to hold down a roster spot.
Those vying for the remaining spots on the Steelers’ RB depth chart are Clay, third-year power back Jonathan Dwyer, second-year pass-catching back Baron Batch and small-but-fast rookie Chris Rainey. None were high picks — Rainey, taken in Round Five in April, was the first of the backs to hear his name on Draft Day — and Clay, in fact, went undrafted out of Wisconsin. All have something to prove on the pro level.
Clay knows that maximizing the opportunities he gets in training camp and the preseason will be key to him sticking on the roster. He wants to be “more precise,” he said, to not “second-guess” himself when it’s his time to show what he can do.
As a backup, he’ll also have to show he can consistently contribute on special teams.
“I know that’s going to be my big key to get my foot in the door,” he said.
Clay got a regular-season audition of sorts last winter. He also learned something about staying ready, making studying his playbook a priority.
On Christmas Eve, it paid off pretty nicely.
“You never know what’s going to happen, so you have to come prepared,” Clay said.