Demarcus Ayers, Brian Allen vie for jobs with Steelers while worrying about families in Texas
Trying to secure a roster spot in the final week of the preseason is a daunting enough task for an on-the-bubble NFL player. Add the distraction of worrying whether loved ones are safe in the storm-ravaged Houston area, and you get an idea of what Steelers players Brian Allen and Demarcus Ayers are facing this week.
Allen, the team’s fifth-round draft pick, grew up in La Marque, Texas, which is about 30 miles south of Houston and near the Gulf of Mexico areas hit hard by Tropical Storm Harvey. Ayers, a seventh-round selection in 2016, was raised near Dallas but spent four years at the University of Houston.
Both players will be trying to win spots on the 53-man roster or practice squad after the final preseason game Thursday night. But they can be forgiven if not all of their attention this week is on football.
“It’s definitely hard,” Ayers said Sunday afternoon. “People throughout that city have helped me grow. I spent the most important years of my life there, so I’m worried. I know my teammates (from Houston) are safe, but in terms of the friends I’ve made and people I know from growing up, it’s mind-boggling not knowing if they are going to be OK.
“I’ve reached out to several people and haven’t gotten responses, so I’m definitely worried and somewhat crushed inside.”
Other Steelers players with ties to the flooded Gulf Coast areas of Texas are running back Knile Davis, who grew up in the Houston suburb of Missouri City; running back Trey Williams, a Houston native, and kicker Chris Boswell, who attended Rice.
Allen said his mother was in Pittsburgh this weekend watching him play in the preseason game Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts. His father, sister and grandparents are among the relatives living along Texas’ Gulf Coast who have been impacted by the devastating storm.
“Just seeing some of those images is hard, and I’m trying to do what I can to make sure everyone down there is comfortable, that my family is comfortable and just stay on top of it,” Allen said. “I called a guy I grew up with from my neighborhood, and his family was evacuated by lifeboat.
“It’s a pretty bad situation in my neighborhood. I heard it’s even worse in parts of Houston. As far as my family goes, everyone is fine for the time being.”
Allen said he is trying to remain focused for the preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers. After attending team meetings Sunday, the Steelers are off Monday and have one day of practice (Tuesday) to prepare for the game.
That makes it imperative for reserve players such as Allen, who played only two seasons at cornerback in college after entering as a wide receiver, to make a favorable impression against the Panthers.
“It’s hard, but at the end of the day, this is my job, and I just have to control what I can control,” Allen said. “There’s nothing I can really do with the situation down that way other than what I’m already doing. When I have a little free time, I’m just checking in.
“I’ve got a job to do here.”
Allen is listed on the third team at the right and left cornerback spots. He had two tackles against the Colts and another on special teams. Allen played the second-most defensive snaps in the preseason opener against the New York Giants and is expected to play heavily against the Panthers when most starters are rested.
“I’m taking the knowledge from the older veterans and coming in and getting some chemistry with those guys,” Allen said. “Getting my first experience in NFL games has been great. I’m looking forward to continuing that and to keep learning.”
Ayers spent most of his rookie season on the practice squad before playing the final two games. He started against the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoff round, but he hasn’t suited up in the preseason because of an injury.
With Martavis Bryant returning from suspension and the Steelers drafting JuJu Smith-Schuster in the second round, Ayers will have a difficult time securing one of the six wide receiver spots on the 53-man roster. He can be re-signed to the practice squad if doesn’t make the cut.
Ayers said he didn’t play against the Colts because of the “quick turnaround” between the third and fourth preseason games. He said he plans to play extensively against the Panthers.
“As bad as I didn’t get into that game, this is more of a big decision in terms of being able to last a whole season,” he said. “Two games in (six days) would have been pressing it. I’m putting all of my marbles in one bucket for this game. I feel comfortable with where I’m at right now to play a full game.
“I’ll be well-prepared to take advantage of my opportunities.”
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review sports columnist. You can contact Kevin by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .