The Steelers were back on the football field on Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, holding their first OTA session of the 2021 offseason.
After much talk and back and forth discussion as to whether or not players would participate in the voluntary offseason program, the team got a turnout on the first day that veteran defensive tackle Cameron Heyward was pleased with.
"I am happy with the participation," said Heyward. "I am happy with whoever shows up. It doesn't matter who shows up. If we are going to be here, we are going to take advantage of this time. It's going to change constantly. We learned from last year that you have to be able to adapt to different situations. We'll keep going. Guys are going to come in and out. It's a voluntary period.
"When we get to minicamp, I think we will have full, 100 percent participation."
Heyward said players spoke with Steelers management, including team President Art Rooney II, about the different guidelines for OTAs, getting to a point where everyone felt comfortable.
"When we first came out with the statement, if we had stayed under the old rules, not having that cooperation with both the organization and the players, we couldn't have gotten it done," said Heyward. "A month later we were able to iron out some things. We were able to work through stuff. I appreciate everybody for working with us.
"We had our leadership council talk to our higher ups, Coach (Mike) Tomlin, Mr. (Art) Rooney, Kevin Colbert and we just talked about safety. We understood things have changed. Now we are playing a 17th game. Our main thing was let's not beat our bodies up. Let's approach this the right way where we have a ramp up period where guys are learning, guys are taking advantage of this time. I wanted to make sure we never ostracize the guys that went in. We had a lot of guys who love being in. We had to show a front that we didn't want to jeopardize that. I think we did a great job of being open and honest with everybody and making sure we didn't have a lot of contact. Right now, contact is not a big thing. Minicamp is a different thing.
"OTAs is a big time for learning. A lot of young guys, it's about getting those guys up to speed. Teaching these guys. Coach T's main thing was I want to see guys, how well they're conditioned. We are able to run, coach, listen and learn. When you have those ingredients, it will benefit us."
Heyward didn't have OTAs his rookie season because of the NFL lockout in 2011 when he was drafted, but he knows this is a good time for young players to get their feet wet and interact with veterans like himself and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
"For me and Ben, we try to cultivate relationships right now," said Heyward. "We try to learn different guys at positions. That just comes with time. I think there is growth that can happen for a younger guy talking to an older guy. Younger guys try to emulate older guys during this time."
Heyward also understands that not everybody has to be there and feels good about the fact that guys who aren't there are still working toward the same goal.
"Going forward, I tell my guys this is voluntary," said Heyward. "I know everybody is working which puts me at ease. This is a time to learn. Every guy in this building and outside the building I know is putting their best foot forward. If a guy is not here and chooses to go elsewhere, that is not a big deal to me. The guys that aren't here are usually veterans that are in the system.
"Guys have gotten accustomed to training elsewhere. Everybody has great routines now. The pandemic has created that. Now more than ever players are having that freedom to really choose. We are the only league that has this type of participation in an offseason program. You can learn so much here, but it doesn't hurt to learn something from somebody new. I love our guys, because they understand what is going to get you better."
Stand by your man: Heyward and Roethlisberger are two of the longest tenured Steelers, Heyward in his 11th season with the team and Roethlisberger his 18th. They know each other well, know what makes the other tick, and go to bat for each other at all times.
That is why Heyward recently spoke out in defense of Roethlisberger, who has faced some offseason criticism. Heyward said defending his quarterback was an easy thing to do.
"The dude went 11-0 to start the season," said Heyward. "How many other quarterbacks did that? We can sit up here and talk about we lost the game last year, we lost to the Cleveland Browns, okay so be it. We fell off at the end, we still made the playoffs. I am not here to say here to say my quarterback's not able to do it. I've seen this guy win Super Bowls on TV. You just get frustrated. I know Ben puts in work. I know how much he cares about this game. if he didn't want to do it, if he was just here for the money, that is one thing. I don't think we will ever have to worry about that. But when he steps in this building, he is 100 percent dedicated to this.
"When I hear the bad mouthing about him being a not great quarterback and everyone is ready to elevate other quarterbacks, I am like what have they done? This guy is a proven winner and yet we are ready to discount him.
"All I was saying is I think having a greater balance is going to make him that much more dangerous. You bring in guys, and I know our offensive line is in flux, but they are going to be better because they are learning another system. We are bringing in another running back, receivers are a year older, we are bringing in another tight end. All of these things are going to help Ben. I am excited for him. As a defense, when the offense can stay on the field that lets us know that we are okay. When the offense isn't on the field, we have to kick butt. When the offense is on the field, we can totally get after it."
The Steelers participate in day 1 of the 2021 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex