OTAs Blog: Getting on the same page

Thursday, May 25

Taking a dip: T.J. Watt had a sheepish grin after the question was asked.

And if you have seen the viral video, you can understand why.

Watt shared video of himself falling into his pool while cleaning it, a video that looked like it could have resulted in an injury, but he came out of the water smiling.

"I am good. I don't know how I missed the step, but I did," laughed Watt. "A lesser athlete would have got hurt."

One thing Watt did quickly do when he went in the water, was save his phone from his pocket.

"I was very calm. I am happy about myself being calm," said Watt. "The dog didn't react like I wanted him to, but that was because I yelled at him two minutes before that because he was digging into some mud. That is the background on that story."

Watt initially shared the video with close friends on a group chat, and they told him he had to share it after they were highly entertained by it and knew he wasn't injured.

"The only reason I posted it is because I wasn't hurt," said Watt. "It was all in good fun. I put it in the group chat, and they are like it's too funny not to post. You might as well just post it."

It wasn't just swimming pool mishaps that was on everyone's mind on Thursday though.

With so many new additions to the Steelers defense this offseason through free agency with guys like Patrick Peterson, Breiden Fehoko, Markus Golden, Cole Holcomb, Keanu Neal, Elandon Roberts, Chandon Sullivan and Armon Watts, as well as through the draft, the defense is expected to take on a bit of a new look.

Watt knows it's just a matter of time before everything comes together.

"It's never going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time," said Watt. "We just want to continue to take each and every step in the right direction. We have a lot of time from here to there. It's about getting everybody on the same page as soon as possible."

And there is no better time than OTAs to get to work on things, learning at a different pace than training camp.

"Every year we are adding people. I don't know if it's any different (this year)," said Watt. "This time of year is always super important. That is why we are all here. We are just trying to get better each and every day. Trying to grow, trying to learn from each other. Trying to learn how we practice, how we do things here in Pittsburgh. Also being open minded to the guys who are veterans and have done things successfully in other places."

Early impression: Receiver Allen Robinson II has been in Pittsburgh for about a month now, coming in for the early phases of the offseason program.

And one thing he noticed right off the bat is the type of quarterback Kenny Pickett is on and off the field.

Robinson, who is entering his 10th season, has been around his share of quarterbacks, including veterans. What he sees in Pickett, who is entering his second season, is something special.

"For a second-year quarterback he is definitely wise beyond his years," said Robinson. "How he leads the charge. His work ethic day in and day out. Very focused. He is definitely beyond his years.

"I was impressed when I got here. Watching somebody from the outside looking in, you definitely see the talent. Once you actually get in the facility and are able to be around Kenny, you see why he is successful.

"I am a person who watches a lot of football, and I was able to watch Kenny in college in some of those big games. When you have a guy like that who has a knack for winning, a knack for being the kind of player he has been, which is leading all of the groups he has been a part of. I don't think that goes anywhere once a guy gets to the NFL. Once you put other guys around him, you start to see that player evolve into even more of a guy."

Robinson doesn't think it matters how much experience Pickett has. In his eyes, a leader is a leader.

"Leaders are born," said Robinson. "It doesn't take a lot of time for a guy who is a natural leader. I think anybody here can tell that from Kenny. I have been here a little over a month and you can already tell his leadership, how he leads the charge day in and day out. For a second-year guy, that isn't easy. For a guy to be able to take a bull by the horns like that, it's pretty impressive."

Learning from the vets: One of the things Cameron Heyward stressed this week was how important it is for veteran players to be there for younger teammates, help guide them through their early days in the NFL. Coach Mike Tomlin always stresses to the younger players to lean on the veterans, and Heyward wants to make sure the veterans are always there for those guys.

"I think Mike T always says it. Find an older guy, attach yourself to him, see how he goes about his workday, how he takes care of his body," said Heyward. "And for veterans to extend that. T.J. (Watt), Minkah (Fitzpatrick), Alex (Highsmith), guys who have been here. Even a guy like Pat P(eterson), you look for him to lead as well. It's about extending ourselves, and then bringing those younger guys up to speed."

It's a tradition rookie seventh-round pick Cory Trice Jr. is already feeling. He said the veterans have been there for him, guiding him through his first few weeks in the NFL.

"It's been great," said Trice. "I am just soaking it all in, day by day. Asking question after question. The older guys are definitely good people. They are just all helping me out."

Trice has been spreading it out as far as who he is leaning on for help, including fellow cornerbacks and the safeties in the defensive backs room as well.

"I go to Pat Pete, I go to Levi (Wallace)," said Trice. "I go to Sully (Chandon Sullivan), even Minkah. Anybody I go to they are always very open."

Trice wasn't sure what to expect from the veterans as far as getting help, and they have already exceeded any type of expectation he could have.

"This team is great," said Trice. "Coming into this I was kind of nervous. I didn't know what to expect. I talked to a few guys in the league, and they told me it would be kind of weird. But coming here, it's all love. Everybody's got the same goal, everybody is trying to win. Everybody is trying to get better."

The big focus for Trice right now is learning the defense and taking what he is getting in the film room onto the field on a daily basis.

"The first thing for me is retaining all of the information from the film room so I can apply it to the field," said Trice. "I want to go out there, do my job and make plays.

"I am learning all the schemes. I and getting rep after rep. I am just trying to get better so that when camp does come, I can just go out there and play football."

Happy to be back: One of the happiest guys to be on the field for OTAs is likely second-year receiver Calvin Austin III.

Austin missed the entire 2022 season after the fourth-round pick suffered a foot injury last year that kept him out of the preseason and regular season and required surgery during the year.

"Just to be back out there is great," said a happy Austin. "Everything went great after the surgery. I spent a lot of my offseason here working, rehabbing. I think it all paid off. I am thankful and blessed to have had a successful surgery. The trainers, coaches, rehab, everybody involved in the process. I feel great and ready to keep on attacking."

While he wasn't able to play last year, he didn't waste any time. He used the time to learn the offense and be around the team as much as possible, making sure he is up to speed on things now.

"I can remember going through rookie minicamp around this team last year," said Austin. "Just being on the field now, it just slowed down tremendously. Being out there it just felt right. Last year, learning everything, watching stuff, it definitely helped."

Austin is hoping to be an asset to the offense this year and said what he can provide is based on how much of an opportunity he gets.

"I can help as much as they allow," said Austin. "I have been learning, and you can definitely tell it's a push for the offense. We have to make some big strides. I think I can help any way they see fit. I am ready to go."

He got some work in with quarterback Kenny Pickett already, and loves the approach he brings to the offense.

"I have prided myself on working, on grinding, but having someone like him who does it even more, it makes you push even more," said Austin. "He is going to make sure you are your A-game. That is the thing about having a quarterback like him. He is going to bring everyone else up with him. You have to be at his level or be left behind."

Can you hear me now: Inside linebacker Elandon Roberts has 107 NFL regular-season games and 76 NFL starts on his resume, but he has yet to play a game or start one for the Steelers.
As a result, he's concentrating on establishing lines of communication with his new teammates during OTAs.

"Without communication, (stuff) won't work," Roberts maintained after OTA No. 2. "Take it from a marriage, you don't have communication in your marriage it ain't gonna work. This is like a marriage out here, you're just married to 10 other people.

"You just gotta make it work."

Roberts is embracing the opportunity to get to know those he's playing with "one day at a time.

"Right now, OTAs, you have a lot of wiggle room for trial and error," Roberts continued. "You can learn your teammates. You can get adjusted to what a guy likes to hear and what a guy doesn't like to hear. And you can just learn that guy from a personality standpoint to know, alright, we have this type of situation on the field, he might not be comfortable at that spot. I'm comfortable at that spot, so let me switch with you. Or, vice-versa, I'm not comfortable right here but he is, hey let's switch right here.

"At the end of the day it's about getting the ball stopped and getting it back to the offense, so whatever we need to do. I feel like that's what this time is about, getting the culture around your team, knowing your teammates, knowing what your coach is demanding out of you day in and day out, and being able to make mistakes out there. I might be going on my eighth season but I make a lot of mistakes. As long as I don't let y'all see it on Sundays I'm good to go."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

The Steelers participate in Day 3 of the 2023 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

Wednesday, May 24

Plenty left in the tank: Cameron Heyward made it clear early in the offseason that he was going to be back for his 13th season in the NFL, but he did do some reflection this offseason. Keep in mind though, that's nothing unusual for the veteran and leader of the Steelers defense.

"The reflection period was long," said Heyward. "For me it was understanding I have more years in the tank. Excited to keep attacking it and trying to figure out this puzzle and win the Super Bowl.

"I think I used that to give myself some space to look at the situation. It's not retirement, it's more of a reflection. Just focus on the season. Every year I have to focus on that because I put so much into it, you need that time away to really stand back and see what's happened and what you want to do."

Heyward had a bounce in his step during the start of OTAs, happy to be back amongst his teammates, even learning a lot of new names and faces as a lot has changed in the locker room.

"It's great," said Heyward of being back. "We have a lot of new guys. You have to take advantage of this opportunity to get to know guys, let them know what we do here and just create a rapport. That's offense, defense, special teams. Everybody is just looking to grow and find different ways to make sure this team meshes well."

One way for the team to mesh is veterans taking the rookies and younger players under their wing. It's a tradition that has gone on in the Steelers locker room for decades and continues through the leadership of Coach Mike Tomlin.

"I think Mike T always says it. Find an older guy, attach yourself to him, see how he goes about his workday, how he takes care of his body," said Heyward. "And for veterans to extend that. T.J. (Watt), Minkah (Fitzpatrick), Alex (Highsmith), guys who have been here. Even a guy like Pat P(eterson), you look for him to lead as well. It's about extending ourselves, and then bringing those younger guys up to speed."

Heyward knows every position on defense has young blood ready to make their mark, and he also knows it takes time for those young players to get the point where they truly can make that impact.

"We have young guys everywhere," said Heyward. "For us, how close are they going to be ready to play for the first game. There's a lot of things that go into it. I don't like putting too much stock into those guys, but hopefully they can catch up pretty quick and we'll give them every opportunity to do that."

It's not just young players who dot the Steelers roster, but also an influx of new veteran talent signed this offseason. It has many rightfully excited about the Steelers prospects this season, but when the words Super Bowl came up in a question after just the second OTA practice, Heyward had to smile.

"Everybody wants to freaking talk about it in May and June," said Heyward. "I am talking about taking kids to school and everybody else is talking about Super Bowls in June. Do we have a good team, I think yeah. But time will tell where we are at."

A new beginning: The Steelers 2023 draft class has been in town since the team's rookie minicamp, but things picked up a bit for them this week with OTAs now underway.

"It was amazing being out there with all of the guys," said Joey Porter Jr., the team's second-round pick. "Seeing everybody compete together. It was cool to be out there."

Porter said he is already benefitting from the input of the veterans in the defensive backs room, all of them sharing tips, giving advice, and helping him as he feels his way through his first month in black and gold.

"They are helping me a lot," said Porter. "The first day I got in they started to help me, teaching me the ropes and how everything goes around here. Obviously, I have been here since I was a kid, but as an actual player there is stuff that I don't know. They have been helping me with that."

Porter said in particular Minkah Fitzpatrick and Patrick Peterson, who signed with the team this offseason, have been invaluable.

"All the old heads like Minkah and Pat Pete teaching me how to watch film in a different way," said Porter. "Just get actual work in after practice, little things like that to help my body.

"Minkah is something else. He is not the most outlandish person. He is not going to be the most vocal. He is going to pull you to the side and tell you this is what you need to work on, or you need to do X, Y or Z to get better at this. He is really understanding of the growth that we have to do as young players."

Minkah being Minkah: While Joey Porter Jr. was singing the praises of Minkah Fitzpatrick's willingness to help younger players, safety Damontae Kazee was on the other side of the locker room talking about how Fitzpatrick can even help a veteran like himself.

Kazee, who is in his seventh season, has a locker right next to Fitzpatrick's and soaks in all the knowledge on and off the field.

"You have to let Minkah be Minkah," said Kazee. "You don't move him too much. You just have to let Minkah be Minkah."

Kazee said working him on the field last year, and this offseason in a different setting, has made a difference for him.

"It's good," said Kazee. "This year was the first time I did an out of the facility workout with Minkah. I see what type of stuff he does. I see why he is that type of player. He is a good leader. Minkah is going to be Minkah at the end of the day.

"It helps a lot. He knows how to break it down. Different people learn in different ways. He can break it down and teach everybody and do his job as well."

It's that type of relationship with Fitzpatrick and other teammates that made Kazee want to re-sign with the Steelers this offseason, after originally joining them in 2022.

"The coaching staff and the brotherhood we've got up here," said Kazee. "I love everything about here. The brothers here. The coaches."

Welcome addition: New Steelers cornerback Patrick Peterson's resume speaks for itself. A 12-year-pro, Peterson is on a Hall of Fame path in his career.

But when the Steelers signed nickel cornerback Chandon Sullivan, Peterson's teammate in 2022 with the Minnesota Vikings, some wondered about the move. After all, the Vikings allowed 265.6 yards passing per game last season, the second-most in the league.

But Peterson has now qualms about what Sullivan brings to the roster. In fact, he helped recruit the veteran slot corner to the Steelers.

"No doubt about it. I said, 'Chandon, this might want to be a spot for you to come check out.' Sure enough, he ended up signing here," Peterson said Wednesday.

The Steelers signed Sullivan immediately after the NFL Draft to help offset the loss of Cameron Sutton in free agency. They also then released Arthur Maulet, who had shared their slot corner duties with Sutton the previous two seasons.

Sullivan has appeared in 71 career games, including 31 starts, making 169 tackles and five interceptions in his time with the Packers and Vikings.

"Sully is a smart player, a tough player. He's a guy that fits this Pittsburgh mentality," Peterson said. "He's a guy that is going to stick his face in the fan, mostly from the slot. He's a highly competitive guy. Chandon is going into year (six), he's been around the league. He's been in some big-time games. He understands the ramification of games. We're definitely happy to have a veteran presence with Chandon."

Don't read too much into the numbers posted by the Minnesota secondary last season, either. According to Peterson, the Vikings played almost primarily zone coverage, which inflated some of those passing stats.

The Steelers mix things up far more.

"It's night and day. In Minnesota last year, it was a lot of eyes on the quarterback. We were relying on our edge rushers to get there," Peterson said. "Teams started max protecting us and it made it difficult for us to be successful because when you're running a zone defense, all the receivers have to do is get into a hole or window in the zone defense and the quarterback can deliver a strike, especially when we're relying on four pass rushers to get there and they're blocking with seven. It's impossible. We had those things in our playbook, but that wasn't (former defensive coordinator Ed Donatell's) style. He's a (Vic) Fangio disciple. Those guys like to depend on their edge control. That's what they call it, edge control. That was just something coach lived with. What really saved us was turnovers. I can't remember where we landed, but I know we were top 6 in turnovers. I believe that's something that definitely helped us win ball games, as bad as our defense was yardage wise."

-- Blog entry by Dale Lolley

The Steelers participate in Day 2 of the 2023 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex

Moore of the same: The drafting of left offensive tackle Broderick Jones at 15th overall isn't going to influence how incumbent left offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. attacks his daily endeavors, Moore maintained following OTA No. 1

"I'm gonna approach every single day like I do already, that's getting better," Moore insisted. "There's things you can't control, you know?

"Control what I can control, that's it."

Moore has started 33 consecutive regular-season games since the Steelers selected him on the fourth round out of Texas A&M in 2021 (16 as a rookie and 17 last season). He also started the Steelers' playoff loss at Kansas City at the conclusion of the '21 campaign.

Moore said the Steelers haven't clued him in on what they might have in store for him in the wake of adding Jones into the mix.

Moore added such a clarification of expectations was unnecessary.

"It's a professional business," he said. "They expect me to treat it like a professional."
Moore also said he hasn't been approached by anyone on the staff about taking reps at right offensive tackle but has asked to do so on his own.

As for Jones, "Oh, man, he's a smart kid, obviously," Moore assessed. "Crazy athletic, crazy ability, I'm looking forward to watching him grow,"

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Tuesday, May 23

Focused on his goals: Diontae Johnson smiled when the question was asked.

Yes, it's only May and it was only the first day of Steelers OTAs.

But when he was asked if he had any personal goals yet for the 2023 season, he didn't hesitate with his answer.

"Definitely All-Pro," said Johnson. "Pro Bowl. Over 1,000 yards. Over 100 catches. Top 10, top 5. Saying that in the most humble way. Really, that is pretty much it."

For that being 'pretty much it,' they are goals if he achieves the Steelers offense will definitely be headed in the right direction. Johnson has one 1,000-yard season under his belt, when he caught 107 passes for 1,161 yards in 2021. In 2022 he had 86 receptions for 882 yards.

His goals are attainable, but he isn't pressuring himself.

"I pray over my goals," said Johnson. "If I achieve them, I achieve them. If I don't, I just keep working. At the end of the day that is all I can do."

Johnson said the way he attacks his role on the team is what gives him the belief he can achieve the goals, as he is a player that never stops, putting in extra time all season long.

"Really just preparation and how I am feeling," said Johnson. "Being comfortable out there and knowing what I am doing. Everything comes after that. Everything is flowing, going in the right direction, I feel good."

Some of the extra work Johnson puts in happened this offseason when he and others worked with quarterbacks Kenny Pickett and Mitch Trubisky in Florida. He also worked on his conditioning, something that he wanted to focus on.

"I didn't change anything, just trying to stay more conditioned," said Johnson. "I tried to run a little more. Focus on routes, catching the ball. I can get better at every aspect of my game."

An easy decision: Less than a week ago quarterback Mitch Trubisky was signed to a new three-year contract to keep him in the black and gold through the 2025 season.

For Trubisky, it was a no-brainer.

"It was a pleasant surprise," said Trubisky of getting the new deal. "It was an easy decision on my part."

Trubisky cited the Steelers culture as to why it was such a simple decision for him, including Coach Mike Tomlin, General Manager Omar Khan, and team President Art Rooney II.

"It's the family atmosphere," said Trubisky. "It's the teammates. It's the people. It's just a great fit for me, my family. We just love everything about it. We love Coach T, Omar, Mr. Rooney and his family. It's a special place to be a part of. We got really close as a team last year and I felt like I wanted to be here for the next three years. When they asked me to, it was an easy decision."
Trubisky originally signed a two-year contract with the Steelers at the start of free agency in 2022. He played in seven games in 2022, starting five of them. He opened the season as the team's No. 1 quarterback, starting the first three games, and stepped in later in the season when Kenny Pickett was injured.

He said his relationship with Pickett is a great one, even though the young quarterback took over his starting role, and his main focus is to help Pickett and the team any way possible.

"Me and Kenny have gotten so close," said Trubisky. "I want to help him any way I can. We've got a really great quarterback room. We love having Mason (Rudolph) back too. We're going to have a lot of fun and get to work. Anything I can be for Kenny, a soundboard, extra coach, extra eyes on the field, I am going to be here for him, and he knows that. I think that is also why they wanted to have me back, to be in that role and help him any way I can. I am excited about it."

Trubisky said it is that relationship, that willingness to work together, that makes the dynamic work.

"It's just being transparent and being yourself," said Trubisky. "I think we both have personalities. We get along with each other. We are friends inside the building and off the field. We hang out all the time. It's a great dynamic on this team. When you have that chemistry, the honest conversations are easier to have. We go in there and be ourselves.

"We all just want one thing…the Pittsburgh Steelers to win and for ourselves to be the best that we can be. We just come in here and compete and help each other towards a common goal."

Trubisky knew last year when Pickett took over the No. 1 spot that he couldn't dwell on it or let it eat away at him. There was too much at stake for the team for him to let it become personal.

"When things go how they go during the season last year, and you're pushed into a new role, you have some personal feelings you have to put aside," said Trubisky. "You just embrace your role to help the team for a common good. That is what I try to do. I think people see how I come to work, how I am as a person, as a teammate and they appreciate that. It was genuine coming from me that I want this team to win, I want to help the guys be as successful as they can. I am excited to be a part of this team."

Keep on grinding: "I would say that by the time we get to the opening game, the best five offensive linemen will play."

Those were the words of General Manager Omar Khan after the Steelers selected Broderick Jones in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft. Khan said his job was to bring in the competition for those five spots, and now it's in Coach Mike Tomlin's hands as to who the five will be.

But there is no doubt, Jones' name is one a lot of people include in the top five already, even if he is a bit more laid back when he talks about it. Jones isn't putting his name out there just yet by any means, knowing there are veterans on the roster he will be competing against for the role. But he is ready to compete and knows there is only one way to be a starter come opening day.

"Just being the best version of me," said Jones.

And how does he do that?

"Show up every day, give 110 percent and keep grinding," he added.

Jones isn't one who is driven by earning that starting job right now, or at least that is the message he is delivering. He is happy with where his role in at the start of OTAs and just wants to keep on working.

"You just come in ready to work," said Jones. "Grind as much as possible so at the end of the day you can show what you can do and be the best you. Coming from where I come from, just being a part of the team is such a big blessing."

Where he came from collegiately is the University of Georgia, where he was a two-time national champion, started every game in 2022 for the Bulldogs and was an Associated Press All-SEC first-team selection. That background prepared him for the next level, giving him the work ethic and confidence to tackle it head on.

"Georgia prepares you like no other for the next level," said Jones. "I think nobody does it as good as Georgia just because of how hard we worked at Georgia, how hard they pushed you, how hard they stayed on you. Just every aspect. Coming from Georgia and being in that program helps a lot."

Holcomb settling in: New inside linebacker Cole Holcomb was signed to help solidify the position for the Steelers, but he's easing his way into things with his new team.

Holcomb, 26, saw his 2022 season with the Washington Commanders ended by a foot injury after just seven games. So, the Steelers are being careful about Holcomb's workload during OTA sessions. He said Tuesday, he was able to do positional drill work, but watched the team portion of practice. But, as Holcomb noted, he's a player who can learn from watching.

A former walk-on at North Carolina, Holcomb had to learn the defense there by watching as opposed to being on the field early in his career.

"That's been the story of my life," said Holcomb of taking mental reps. "I've learned how to get good at that."

But that doesn't mean the foot injury isn't healing well. The Steelers' medical staff have determined its best to allow the fifth-year veteran to have extra healing time to get him ready for a 17-game season rather than push things now.

"Feeling good. I'm champing at the bit," Holcomb said. "But we're still taking it a little slow. Be ready for September. Our coaches, our training staff, they all have the right mindset. I'm behind them 100 percent.

"Whatever they allow me to do, I'm going to participate. Whenever they tell me to chill out a little bit, OK."

Besides, football is football.

"The more you understand defensive concepts, the more you can just play," Holcomb said. "Teams might have little things they like to do differently, but in the end it's mostly single-high, two-high coverages, quarters. It's football."

-- Blog entry by Dale Lolley