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5 for Friday: Steelers grappling with physicality

In the past two offseasons, the Steelers have grappled with ways to get tougher up front.

And it seems they figured out the way to do so is to add players with wrestling backgrounds.

In the past two drafts, the Steelers have added former high school wrestling stars in defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, center Zach Frazier, linebacker Payton Wilson and defensive lineman Logan Lee.

"I just think guys with the wrestling background, they come with balance and body control," Steelers defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said. "And when you play in the interior, whether it be offensive lineman or defensive line, the wrestling background really helps you because of what go through down in and down out."

Wrestling is a tough-guy sport. If you're not tough, physical and disciplined, you won't last very long on the mat.

And you're also out there on your own. There's nobody else to blame when you suffer a loss.

Which is why it's so interesting that wrestlers, who take part in a sport that is so much about the individual, succeed so often on the football field. Football, after all, is the ultimate team sport.

It's worked well for years. The Steelers found that out back in the early 1990s when they transitioned 6-time NCAA champion Carlton Haselrig to the offensive line.

Haselrig didn't play college football after injuring his knee as a football player at Lock Haven before playing a game his freshman year. He transferred back home to Pitt-Johnstown and returned to wrestling – Haselrig had won a PIAA title as a senior despite his high school not fielding a team..

But he won three NCAA Division II championships and followed those up with three NCAA Division I titles at UPJ. At the time, if you won the Division II title, you got an automatic bid to the Division tournament. After Haselrig won his six titles, the NCAA changed that rule.

The Steelers drafted Haselrig in the 12th round of the 1989 NFL Draft. And after briefly trying him at nose tackle, they moved him to guard. By 1991, he was a full-time starter. By 1992, he was a Pro Bowl player.

The strength and balance needed as a wrestler, the ability to win a one-on-one battle, that is something that translates to football.

"It helps a lot, every snap is some form of either hand-to-hand combat or just using leverage, which is why wrestling is so you know from using hands to understand leverage to understanding how to move people that's really what offensive lineman do," Frazier said.

• Based on last season's win totals, the AFC North easily has the most difficult schedule of any in the league in 2024.

In fact, the Browns have the most difficult schedule, with their opponents having a .547 winning percentage. The Ravens (.536) are second and the Steelers third at .533.

Cincinnati's opponents had a .502 winning percentage, which leaves the Bengals tied for the 16-most difficult schedule.

That doesn't mean that will hold up in 2024. After all, last year was last year.

But the AFC North is the league's best division. The entire division was above .500 last season.

That's what makes what the Steelers have done within the division the past few years so impressive. Since 2020, the Steelers are 16-8 within the AFC North, including 5-1 last season. The Steelers are the only AFC North team that has a winning record within the division over the past four seasons. Over the past eight seasons, the Steelers are 34-13-1 within the AFC North. Baltimore is second in that span among AFC North teams with a 26-22 record.

The Steelers' winning percentage within the AFC North over the past eight seasons is nearly 72 percent. They're 12-4 against the Bengals, 11-4-1 against the Browns and 11-5 against the Ravens in that span.

That's how you stay in contention year after year. Division games are doubly important since they not only count as a win for you, but a loss for an opponent you're vying with for the division title.

And understanding your divisional opponents and how to win those games is a big deal.

• By taking offensive linemen with three of their top five picks as the Steelers did in this year's draft, the team did something it hadn't done since 1976.

They also largely rebuilt their offensive line in the span of two seasons.

Of the offensive linemen on the team to begin the 2022 season, only guard James Daniels and tackle Dan Moore remain with the team.

The 2023 draft brought tackle Broderick Jones in the first round and swing lineman Spencer Anderson in the seventh round. Guards Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig, along with offensive tackle Dylan Cook were added as free agents.

And this year's draft brought first-round offensive tackle Troy Fautanu, second-round center Zach Frazier and fourth-round guard Mason McCormick.

"We got a good group in here, like the room itself," said Steelers offensive line coach Pat Meyer. "We have a mixture of vets and older vets and fifth- and sixth-year guys, Isaac is a ninth-year guy, Broderick is going to be a second-year guy, and three new ones coming in. You want to build that and stay as young as you can. Young, healthy, hungry, all that. So, it's going to be a fun process."

• On Day 3 of the draft earlier this month, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin did an interview on NFL Network that is somewhat telling about the state of mind not only of the team, but several key members, most notably, quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Justin Fields and offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

Asked by NFL Network's Peter Schrager how things have gone between Wilson, Fields and Smith, Tomlin pulled no punches.

"It's going really well," Tomlin said. "All three guys, to be really transparent, are somewhat scalded. They've got something to prove professionally. But we as a collective feel the same way. We have something to prove. That is a good frame of mind to be in as individuals and as a collective as we prepare ourselves for the 2024 season."

That's a good place for a team and some of its key players and coaches to be at. When your professional pride has been wounded, as it was for Wilson in being released by the Broncos, Fields in being traded or Smith in being fired as Atlanta's head coach, it often brings out the best.

• The NFL schedule had been rumored to be ready for release this week. But now that is being pushed back to sometime next week.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

No word on what the holdup might be, but we already know the Steelers will host their three AFC North rivals, the Cowboys, Chiefs, Chargers, Giants and Jets.

We also know the Steelers will have road games against their three AFC North rivals, the Falcons, Broncos, Colts, Raiders, Eagles and Commanders.

Who you play is always important. But the when also matters a great deal.

For example, playing early-season games in Florida is never advantageous for the road teams. But for the warm-weather teams, playing outdoor games in cold weather stadiums isn't good from November on.

Add in back-to-back road trips, Thursday night games and other such speed bumps that crop up on the schedule, and the when matters just as much as the who.

We should find it all out next week.