Labriola On

Labriola on special teams, T.J., young guy days

Ready or not, here it comes:

• “If you’re not a starter on offense or defense, you better be a starter on special teams.”

• That’s a verse from the gospel according to special teams coordinator Danny Smith, and he preaches it to the new group of draft choices and rookie free agents each spring as the offseason program gets underway. And if it can be criticized for being self-serving, it also should be heeded because it’s true.

• Most of the players who used their college football career as a resume builder for a shot at the NFL come into it trying to make a roster with little to no special teams experience, and most of them are staring down the barrel of a situation where making an impact on special teams would be their best path to getting onto the team first and then getting onto the field after that.

• A 53-man NFL roster is about half the size of the typical college team, and on game days having only 46 players in uniform is mathematical proof that what Smith was telling them is the unvarnished truth.

• A game day roster will include two quarterbacks and three specialists, and so that means a head coach has but 41 position players at his disposal. Since most offensive and defensive linemen aren’t on the kick return or kick coverage units, you can subtract another 12 from the 41, which leaves 29. That number is reduced further by the offensive and defensive starters who are exempt from special teams, and so special teams coordinators such as Smith find themselves with about a dozen core guys who will end up playing the bulk of the special teams snaps.

• Become one of those 12 and you’ve made yourself into an indispensable part of the game day roster, and if a young player is able to make himself into an indispensable part of a team’s game day roster, it means he has his foot in the door on the way to a career in the NFL.

• During this OTA portion of the offseason program, young guys are getting their first chance to show what they can do during on-field sessions, and because the Steelers have these sessions open to the media, and because the media can interview players after those sessions, there can be a buzz created about certain individuals and what they have been showing on the field.

• Mostly, the focus is on offense or defense. Just to use some examples from the last couple of weeks, storylines have included how sixth-round pick Sutton Smith had his jersey switched from No. 51 to No. 42 in part because the Steelers plan to see if he can line up some at fullback maybe in addition to linebacker. Or how Ola Adeniyi has developed additional pass rush moves that might help him transition from last summer’s camp phenom into a guy who could be part of one of the defensive sub-packages. Or how safety Marcus Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2018, feels so much more comfortable with the defense and his responsibilities within it in his second professional season.

• There are other storylines, too, but the reality for Smith and Adeniyi and Allen, as well as for many others, is that their surest shot to be on the opening 53-man roster and then to be in uniform when the regular season opens on Sept. 8 in Gillette Stadium is to have found a way to make themselves indispensable to Danny Smith.

• That’s their foot in the door, just as it was for Greg Lloyd and Joey Porter and James Harrison and Jerry Olsavsky and Lee Flowers and Jason Gildon, and so many others. Which is why those periods of practice that are devoted to special teams might be boring for fans to watch, but they are more meaningful than just about anything else so many young players will do all day.

• By no definition of the word could T.J. Watt be considered a disappointment. No way. Far from it. But if the Steelers don’t start getting more from him in what will be his third NFL season, their defense has no chance to be what this team will need to get back into the playoffs and contend for a championship.

• The team’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft has been a full-time starter for the entirety of his two-year career, and in 31 career games Watt already has 20 sacks and a Pro Bowl in the hopper. He has learned to play right outside linebacker and then left outside linebacker in a seamless fashion during his two professional seasons, and the manner in which he approaches his profession and conducts himself both on and off the field belie the fact his 25th birthday won’t happen until mid-October.

• The Steelers need more takeaways from their defense, and while it would be unfair to place the onus for this solely on Watt’s shoulders, it’s also fair for a team to turn to its best players when looking to increase the frequency of the kinds of plays that can change the course of a game. Watt is certainly among this team’s best players, and he’s not shying away from the responsibility that comes with such a status.

• “More splash. More plays,” Watt told the Tribune-Review after the Steelers’ fifth OTA. “I think I left a lot of plays out there (in 2018). I feel like I definitely got into a rhythm toward the end of the season and got more comfortable in all aspects of the game, not just the pass rush.”

• In his second NFL season, Watt led the team in sacks with 13, in hits on the quarterback with 21, and in forced fumbles with six. For a guy to be as disruptive as Watt, to be around the quarterback as much as Watt, it’s unfathomable that the Steelers finished the season with only eight interceptions and seven fumble recoveries.

• Watt seems to be in agreement, and he’s turned his focus toward doing something about that. Using his first two NFL seasons as evidence, Watt’s focus is a dangerous weapon.

• Scheduled days off. Maintenance days. Young guy days. Those all are different ways to describe the same thing, which is Mike Tomlin’s method of simultaneously preserving the bodies of some of his team’s critical veterans while increasing the number of repetitions his young players might need to advance their development.

• It’s most obvious when it’s implemented at the quarterback position, and while fans may moan about Ben Roethlisberger getting the kid-glove treatment, Tomlin’s ongoing policy of managing the workload that’s placed on that extremely critical 37-year-old right arm/elbow serves the team in many different ways.

• The value of keeping Roethlisberger fresh over the long grind of an NFL season shouldn’t have to be explained to anyone, but apparently there are still some who need to be reminded that flesh and bone isn’t an indestructible combination. Having an athlete in “midseason form” a couple of months before midseason can result in the piper having to be paid at some point down the road, and if the trade-off for being in midseason form in September is a tired arm in December, well, that too high a price to be paid.

• But beyond protecting the team’s No. 1 asset, resting Roethlisberger also increases the on-field exposure for Joshua Dobbs and Mason Rudolph, and it can increase the on-field opportunity other front-line players have to work with them.

• Should something happen to a team’s starting quarterback, it’s important that the backup has had time in practice, and it’s also important that the backup has had time in practice with the people with whom he’s going to have to be on the field executing the offense.

• As for the actual competition to be the backup quarterback in 2019, that action will heat up once the Steelers report to Saint Vincent College, and those preseason games when Roethlisberger plays little if at all figure to serve as the final exams for Dobbs and Rudolph.

• It would make sense for each guy to get a chance to start a preseason game, and another evaluating tool would be how each guy fares coming off the bench, because that scenario would be the most likely one if either is going to get any real regular season playing time.

• So keep all of this in mind if you happen to be visiting training camp to watch practice and it turns out to be a day when Roethlisberger is primarily a spectator. It’s not a wasted trip, but merely a chance to get a first-hand look at how the Dobbs vs. Rudolph competition is shaping up. And don’t forget to pay attention during special teams periods.

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