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Minicamp Blog: Words of advice

Thursday, June 13

Words of advice: The Steelers wrapped up their three-day minicamp on Thursday, but that doesn't mean the work is finished for the rookies.

They will remain in Pittsburgh for activities with the team's Rookie Development Program for another week, but then it will be time for them to get a bit of a break before they have to report to Saint Vincent College for training camp.

And linebacker Patrick Queen has some advice for them when next week comes to a close.

"Take a week off. Relax," said Queen. "Do whatever you've got to do. Go on vacation. Just take a true week off and then get back to the grind before you get here.

"You don't want to get out of shape, but you definitely need that week off, that little break because they've been playing year-round now and haven't had a break. That would be my advice, take some time off, and then back at it."

Veteran cornerback Donte Jackson knows it's not easy for the young guys, who have been accustomed to being in a team setting for so long in the transition from college to the NFL.

The key Jackson believes is staying on top of things.

"It's hard for young guys once you lose this team setting for a month," said Jackson. "What I would say is stay in the film, watch every practice from OTAs and minicamp and watch yourself and learn.

"Most importantly, take care of your body. Everybody puts such an emphasis on hard training, hard running, hitting the ground, lifting weights. As they get ready for camp, don't forget the massages, stretching and the yoga. Take time to take care of your body, make sure you're taking that time to actually give your body some time to rest because once it all starts again, it's not finished until it's over."

Kicking it into the next gear: The Steelers hit a different gear this week with the team's mandatory three-day minicamp underway, the last step before they head to Saint Vincent College for training camp later this summer.

Quarterback Justin Fields, who was acquired via a trade with the Chicago Bears this offseason, is happy to have put a bow on what has been a productive time.

"I am feeling good. I am getting more and more comfortable each and every day," said Fields. "Just getting better every day. That is the goal, to build that foundation now that will last the whole season. Just focused on the details, the little things and stuff like that. Just growing and getting better every day."

One of the biggest things Fields and fellow quarterback Russell Wilson have been working on developing over the past few weeks is building a rapport with teammates, including receivers who they don't have a previous connection with as both quarterbacks are new to the roster.

"I am with new receivers, getting new connections, so there is some truth to that where guys don't naturally have connections yet," said Fields. "That is why we are out here practicing, building trust with each other. Everybody is kind of rotating in right now. It's good that we are getting different reps with different guys to build that trust with each and every one."

They are also building that bond off the field, using their free time to get to know each other, learn about each other and become more than teammates.

"It's super important," said Fields. "Everyone knows the closer you are as a team, the better you are. That is just the way it is.

"We try to do outside activities. I have done bowling with the receivers a couple of times. Gone out to eat with the offensive line. Anything you can do to build that connection. Kennywood the other day, that was awesome getting to know guys on a personal level."

Picking it right up: Cornerback Donte Jackson has played in 80 career games, starting 76, in his first six seasons in the NFL, all with the Carolina Panthers.

But after being traded to the Steelers in March, he knew there would be a learning curve he would have to deal with.

Now, with OTAs and the majority of the team's minicamp behind him, Jackson is in a good place.

"I have a clear understanding of the defense," said Jackson. "The pace we've been moving at has made it a little bit easier to learn. You get out there and you play with some of these great players we have on this defense, and it makes it a little bit easier to just focus on doing your job. That's really what it's been for me these last few weeks."

Jackson isn't the only newcomer on defense, joining players like safety DeShon Elliott, tackle Dean Lowry, and linebackers Jeremiah Moon and Patrick Queen. And while it helps to have others who are learning the defense as well, it doesn't make things any easier.

"You still have to go out there and take it upon yourself to know your job, do your job and know the nuances of the defense," said Jackson. "As a pro, that's just what's expected of you."

And it appears everyone is living up to their expectations. Queen recently raved about the defense and the speed they are playing at right now.

Jackson added his two cents as well.

"You see it, but you also feel it," said Jackson. "You feel the intensity. You also feel the knack for everybody not wanting to waste days or waste plays. It's been great to be a part of. You see everybody moving around faster.

"The energy's high and just everybody's having fun. That's great to see from a team with high expectations in June. Everyday just keep on stacking and building on that.

"You feel the energy in room. You feel energy on the field. The goal has been to get better every day. It's a team goal. That's great to be a part of."

The Steelers participate in Day 3 of the 2024 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

Ready for what the season brings: With the offseason over, and training camp on the horizon, it's never too early to start talking about playing games.

The Steelers will close out the 2024 regular season schedule with six of eight games against AFC North opponents.

It's not the norm having to wait that long to play within the division, and it's a stretch that will be a true test.

"At the end of the season, it means everything for playoffs and all," said linebacker Elandon Roberts. "The games are very important then, no matter who you play. It being AFC North opponents, makes it more, but the mindset will be the same because of where it falls in the season. It's always heightened at the end of the season.

"You just play them when you play them. So much can happen in the season. You never know. You just take it one week at a time."

Linebacker Patrick Queen, who is accustomed to AFC North football after spending the first four years of his career with the Baltimore Ravens before signing with the Steelers this year, welcomes the challenge.

"Line it up and play. I don't care," said Queen. "It's at the end of the season, that's the best time to play football. You know what type of football that's going to be. That's what I'm all for, so I can't wait."

He isn't alone in that mindset. Pro Bowl special teamer Miles Killebrew knows what the second part of the season means in football, and with six AFC North games on the docket, it won't be tough to be pumped for them.

"I think it's awesome because here in Pittsburgh we always talk about that second half of the season being so important to ramp up and catch your stride," said Killebrew. "You even try and manufacture extra energy. Now it's not going to be much of a stretch to do that. Every game is going to count as two. I think it's a good thing.

"But if you asked me about the opposite thing happening, I would say that would be good too because I don't care too much about the schedule. Every week we are trying to win. If we can go undefeated, it won't matter what order we did it."

Tight end Pat Freiermuth looks forward to that tough stretch, but also knows they have to come out of the gates strong as well.

"In the beginning of the season, we get all of the non-division games out of the way, and we can control what we can with that," said Freiermuth. "Then later in the year we can try and control things within our division when those are some of the most important games.

"Seeing those games the way they are, it gives us motivation. But we do have to start playing our best football Week 1."

Wednesday, June 12

Culture change: Sometimes a change of scenery can be a good thing, and that definitely seems to be the case for quarterback Justin Fields.

Fields, who was traded to the Steelers this offseason from the Chicago Bears, feels energized by the culture in Pittsburgh and the overall feel in the organization.

"Just being around this organization, with this culture, and me being in two different places now, you realize that you don't get this culture everywhere," said Fields. "I think Chicago, they are kind of changing the narrative now. But this has just been the culture here for so many years to where you can see it. It's just the way we attack every day."

Fields said the transition has been an easy one because of the culture, knowing that there is something already established, and you just have to fall into what is set.

"Especially as a leader, as a player on this team, you don't have to try to do your own thing," said Fields. "You come into a place where they've been doing the same thing for a long time, so you go with the flow and get in the mix and learn how we do things here and go from there. It's been good."

While the culture is the same, the Steelers have made a multitude of changes this offseason, including to the offensive coaching staff. New offensive coordinator Arthur Smith is getting props from players on how he expects everyone to be accountable, and that is something Fields thinks should come with the territory.

"We're all grown men in here, so you should automatically take accountability for everything you do on the field, whether it's some good or some bad," said Fields. "I think everybody's responded well to that. I think that does nothing but make everybody better, allows your teammates to put more trust in whoever it is that's taking accountability."

Another change is impacting Fields directly with new quarterbacks coach Tom Arth. Arth spent the previous two seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers where he was the team's passing game specialist. During his time with the Chargers, he was part of a staff that helped the offense rank fifth in passing offense and eleventh in total offense during his tenure.

Prior to joining the Chargers, Arth spent nine seasons coaching in the college ranks, including three as the head coach at the University of Akron (2019-21). He also was the head coach at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (2017-18) and his alma mater, John Carroll, for four seasons (2013-16).

He is bringing his style to the Steelers quarterback room, which starts with his detail-oriented approach.

"Tom is great," said Fields. "Just his attention to detail. The way he comes in each and every day, he comes in as the same guy every day. I don't think I've had a coach that detailed as Tom. He's very detailed in terms of practice review, sending us the information, breaking down each and every play. And just focusing on the details. I think that's the thing that sets him apart. He's been great so far. I'm excited to allow our relationship to grow."

Keeping the energy high: There has been no lack of energy during the Steelers minicamp practices this week, with players celebrating every big play as one side of the ball tries to outdo the other.

It's an energy that is contagious, and one linebacker Patrick Queen loves to see.

"The energy is really high," said Queen. "Everybody is happy because the days are counting down, getting closer to the end of minicamp. Also, it's an opportunity where you've got every single one of your teammates here, everybody's competing. Everybody wants to compete. Everybody wants to go out there and ball and to have fun.

"We want to get the best of the offense; the offense wants to get the best of us. When you've got everybody trying to compete and make it like that, that's when you see that energy."

And the best part of it, Queen thinks it can still get more hyped.

"I think we can still take it up another level," said Queen. "As long as we just keep doing what we're doing, I think we'll still be competitive. We have those days when we are battling back and forth.

"That's how you've got to be. We've been here for so long and you know the end is right there. But it's not the end. You still have to perform and do what you're supposed to do on the field so we can go home for these next couple weeks and feel good about ourselves. Everybody's just taking advantage of the opportunity that we have right now."

Working together: Rookie center Zach Frazier, the Steelers second-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft, has a lot being thrown at him so far in OTAs and now in minicamp.

It's nothing he can't handle, though.

Frazier and the other young offensive linemen, including first-round pick Troy Fautanu and fourth-round selection Mason McCormick, are working as a group to pick up the offense and everything else it entails.

"We're all working together," said Frazier. "We're all going through it together. Learning everything as quickly as possible and working as hard as we can to fix our mistakes."

It doesn't hurt to have the offensive line staff the team does guiding them through it. Offensive line coach Pat Meyer, assistant offensive line coach Isaac Williams and offensive assistant Mateo Kambui are taking them through every step.

"He's been great teaching us," said Frazier of Meyer. "All three of our offensive line coaches have helped us and have done a great job teaching us and putting it in a way we can absorb it and learn it quickly."

And that quick learning process is something he expected.

"That's just what you get going from college to the next level," said Frazier. "I think we all expected that and are ready for that."

Frazier has been working with quarterback Russell Wilson a lot, and the 13-year veteran has been the perfect complement for the rookie.

"It's been great. He's helped out a lot," said Frazier. "As a center it's my job to make sure I get the snaps back there and have a clean quarterback-center exchange. Just working on that and he's been helping."

Trusting each other: Having a completely new quarterback room this year, with veterans Russell Wilson, Justin Fields, Kyle Allen and rookie John Rhys Plumlee means one thing for the receiving corps during OTAs.

Nobody is playing favorites.

The quarterbacks are getting to know the receivers just as the receivers are getting to know the quarterbacks and as a result it means plenty of reps for everyone.

"Honestly, for me that is a great feeling," said receiver Quez Watkins, the veteran who signed as an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. "These guys are trusting us receivers. As we make plays, the trust actually grows. For me, I need to continue to make plays and allow the trust to grow."

In four seasons Watkins has played in 49 games, starting 25 of them. He has 98 receptions for 1,249 yards, a 12.7-yard average, and six touchdowns. Last season he played in nine games, starting eight, while missing five games on the Reserve/Injured List. He finished the year with 15 receptions for 142 yards, a 9.5-yard average, and one touchdown.

Preparing for the 2024 season, he is ready to do whatever is asked of him, even if he doesn't fully know that that role is going to be yet.

"My role isn't identified completely yet, but I know what they brought me in for," said Watkins. "I am here to do that."

And the best way is by working at it daily.

"Day by day, week by week, I am getting more and more comfortable, especially with Russ and Justin," said Watkins. "We are just building that bond.

"As we learn a new system, are around new guys, for me I try make sure I stay on top of everything. I might have a missed step, missed an assignment where I could have done something better. I chalk that up to learning so when we go to Latrobe and its training camp time, I am detailed up."

Lowry fitting in: The signing flew under the radar in free agency, but the Steelers' addition of defensive lineman Dean Lowry could pay dividends for the team down the road.

Entering his ninth NFL season, Lowry spent seven seasons with the Packers before leaving in free agency a year ago for the Vikings. In those previous eight seasons, he's appeared in 120 games, making 84 starts while recording 266 tackles and 15.5 sacks. The 30-year-old might not be a household name, but he's the kind of gritty player teams need to build depth and create competition on their roster.

"I think first is versatility," Lowry said of what he brings to the Steelers. "I can play different techniques across the line of scrimmage. I think in the run game I'm very solid. I have good technique and fundamentals. I think as a pass rusher, I get good inside pocket push and can push the pocket and use my power well. It's a variety of things. But I'm always trying to learn and add to my toolbox."

That's why joining the Steelers was attractive to Lowry this offseason. With veteran players up front such as four-time All-Pro Cam Heyward and former NFL Defensive Player of the Year and three-time NFL sack leader T.J. Watt, the Steelers have their stars up front. And even 120 games into his NFL career, Lowry feels he can learn from players such as that.

"I do always try to be a student of the game. It's a new challenge here in Pittsburgh," Lowry said. "It's great to be around a defensive line coach like (Karl) Dunbar, who's very well respected with his work among defensive linemen, and being around guys like Cam Heyward and T.J. (Watt) to see their approach to the game and their work ethic. You're always learning from those guys."

For Lowry, the learning process has been helped by his season with the Vikings a year ago. Minnesota hired former Steelers assistant coach Brian Flores for the 2023 season, and Lowry said there are similarities between what the Vikings did last season and what he's being asked to do now.

"I think the terminology is similar that he kind of brought from here," Lowry said. "I would say philosophy-wise, you can see he learned a lot from coach (Mike) Tomlin here. A lot of the things coach Tomlin teaches that we go over every single day are things that coach Flo brought to Minnesota."

That should allow Lowry to do what he does best, which is give the Steelers a player who is versatile enough to play anywhere across the line. The former Northwestern star has played all along the defensive line during his career, from nose tackle to lining up outside the tackle.

And he likes what he's seen of the Steelers defense.

"It's just a really high level of defense," Lowry said. "There are really good players on this side of the football at different levels of experience. There's a good combination of young guys and then just proven talent."

— Blog entry by Dale Lolley

Tuesday, June 11

Loving the big moments: Russell Wilson has been in black and gold for a few months now, and the veteran quarterback has had a good look at the offense he will report to training camp with later in July.

And he is happy with what he sees.

Wilson spoke after the team's first mandatory minicamp practice, a practice that was lively and featured a two-minute drill that had both sides talking.

"Two-minute is everything. That's where you win the game," said Wilson. "You've got to love the game and the excitement on the line in the fourth quarter. You've got to love those fourth quarter moments. I look forward to them."

While it's only June and it's early to talk about specifics, Wilson said this is the time of year when you start to build confidence as an offense, and it can carry over.

"You've got to believe because of the confidence in June. Because the confidence you can instill in August. In those moments you're visualizing success and you're always thinking about winning each play, each down, each moment," said Wilson. "If there's time on the clock, we've got a chance. That's what I've always believed in.

"You can't fear the fourth quarter. You've got to love these moments and not fear them."

Wilson feels good about the group the team has on offense to attack those moments and called out a key component of that.

"I think the versatility, the versatility of our players," said Wilson. "It starts with the offensive line, those guys up front, how physical they are. The tone being set on offense in that manner.

"We're just growing. We're getting better every day and that's the key."

And the person who is making sure they are growing in every way is Coach Mike Tomlin, who signed a three-year extension on Monday. Wilson already has embraced everything Tomlin brings to the game and loves playing for his new head coach.

"He's one of the greatest motivators I've ever been around," said Wilson. "I think his ability to communicate, his ability to inspire individuals every day, no matter if you're a rookie, an undrafted free agent, no matter if you're a 13-year vet like myself. The lessons and the things he's taught me along the way about life, about ball. His understanding of the game. He's not just on defense. He's not just on offense. He's on all sides of it. His ability to communicate that as well.

"He stops in particular moments on the field and displays not only his passion, but his ability to communicate certain moments and why they're so significant, important throughout a season, throughout a game. That's why he's a Hall of Fame coach. It's just an honor to be able to play for him and to play for this organization is a blessing."

Exciting time: Linebacker T.J. Watt likes what he sees from the Steelers defense so far this offseason, but he is also a realist.

He is well aware it's only June and he isn't about to anoint this group as the best defense he has been on, despite a wealth of talent up and down.

"It's the offseason," said Watt. "It's super early. A lot of things from now until training camp to see what we're about. It's an exciting time. It really is."

One player who immediately made the middle of the defense better when he signed as a free agent was linebacker Patrick Queen. Queen, who spent his first four seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, is a player Watt feels will make an immediate impact.

"(He adds) a lot of speed," said Watt. "Queen today was flying around, making a lot of plays. Anytime you have those inside linebackers, you have thumper in E-Rod (Elandon Roberts) and one guy that can really fly around (Queen) and make hits, TFLs and create forced fumbles havoc, getting them behind the chains. It's very exciting."

The Steelers participate in Day 1 of the 2024 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

Consistency a key: On Monday, the Steelers signed Coach Mike Tomlin to a three-year extension, keeping him with the team through at least the 2027 season.

Safety and special teams captain Miles Killebrew couldn't be happier to have his head coach remain in place, knowing what he brings to the table.

"That consistency can't be taken for granted," said Killebrew. "It provides us a sense of comfort knowing that is in place. That consistency is key for everybody to know what to expect going into the fall and how to prepare."

Killebrew respects and admires the leadership Tomlin provides, something he has seen in team meetings and beyond on a regular basis.

"He knows how to win," said Killebrew. "He's a great leader. Anyone who's heard him speak will say that he's a great motivator. He is a perfector of his craft. Every time I'm in a team meeting, it's like a masterclass in leadership and preparation. He leads the team well, and I'm honored to be on a Mike Tomlin coached team."

A lot of players who have signed with the Steelers over the past few offseasons have credited Tomlin as the reason why they wanted to join the black and gold.

Killebrew understands why.

"A lot of people will classify him as a player's coach. I don't think that that's necessarily an insult," said Killebrew. "I think that means he can connect with us on a level that maybe is not easy for every coach to do. It doesn't take away from his preparation and his professionalism.

"He does it on par with the greats who have done it before him. And so, it's exciting. It encourages us to bring a level of professionalism so that we can compete in this culture."

Tough and different: The Steelers offense has had several weeks working under new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, and they are liking what they see from the team's play-caller.

"He's a good guy to play for," said tight end Pat Freiermuth. "He expects a lot from us. He is like Coach (Mike) Tomlin in a way where you know what he wants and if you don't execute, you're going to hear it. I think we all appreciate that. Coach T preaches the message, and our offensive coordinator also is."

One word that has been used in describing what Smith expects is accountability, and Freiermuth sees that daily.

"Going into the team meetings, and the offensive meetings, him not being afraid to call people out for lack of execution, or for doing things in a good way," said Freiermuth. "I think it's been great from that perspective."

Receiver Calvin Austin III loves how involved Smith is with every aspect of the offense, including the passing game and making sure they perform up to their best.

"He knows what he wants to see from us, running off the ball," said Austin. "He is always around, talking to us. He is always pushing us, encouraging us. That will continue to help us because we know we have his full confidence."

One thing Smith is bringing to the offense is new energy and attitude and it's quickly rubbing off.

"We just want to be tough and different," said Austin. "To win a Super Bowl and get to where we want to go, you've got to be different. That is really the main goal."

Easy decision: When tight end MyCole Pruitt signed with the Steelers in early April, it was a no-brainer for him.

Pruitt spent two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, where Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith was the head coach.

Reuniting with him was an easy decision.

"I'm comfortable with the way Art coaches and he's comfortable the way I play," said Pruitt. "We mesh well together and that's something that I'm bringing to this team. I'm familiar with that. And being able to help guys along, if that's necessary.

"It was a big part of the reason I decided to come here. We just wanted to extend on some of the success we had in the past.

"I think guys are definitely embracing his offense. Obviously with anything that's new, there are going to be growing pains. We've just got to get comfortable with it and figure it out. But guys are coming along well. This scheme is something that a lot of guys like on this team, so hopefully that pays dividends in the future."

Smith's presence has made the transition to a new team much easier for Pruitt as he has a full head start on the offense, even if there is plenty of other stuff to learn. And playing for Coach Mike Tomlin is something he is already enjoying.

"It's a really good balance," said Pruitt. "Familiarity with Art is a big reason why I decided to come here. It obviously helps a lot with learning the offense. Just finding my role on the team as learning a lot of things from the new coaches. Mike Tomlin is a guy that I respected from afar. But being up close, it's fun to be around. He's a real down to earth, relatable guy.

"Sometimes the head coach, you may not be able to go in his office and talk about certain things, but I can tell just the short time I've been here that Mike has an open-door policy. We've had conversations already about things, not just football, but life things as well. I think that goes a long way."