Skip to main content

5 for Friday: Smith's vision beginning to take shape

One of the biggest questions regarding the offseason for the Steelers was what new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith's scheme might look like?

A couple of weeks into the team's OTA sessions and we're beginning to get an idea. And to anyone who was paying attention this offseason, it shouldn't come as a surprise.

When the Steelers signed MyCole Pruitt earlier this offseason, it gave them five tight ends on their roster who have NFL experience, as he joined Pat Freiermuth, Connor Heyward, Darnell Washington and Rodney Williams in a crowded position group. Then, this week, the team signed Izaiah Gathings, a college wide receiver who transitioned to tight end in the NFL and spent time on Kansas City's practice squad in 2023.

Here's the thing: You don't have five veteran tight ends on your roster and six overall unless you're planning on using the tight ends – a lot.

"I feel like everybody's role has changed with the offense," Heyward said this week. A lot of tight ends, usage with the receivers, fullbacks and quarterback mobility. It's a change for everybody, but it's a good change."

Regular readers of this particular weekly column on won't be surprised by this. After all, Smith does have a track record of using his tight ends. Two years ago, Kyle Pitts recorded a 1,000-yard season as a rookie at the tight end position. Last season, both Pitts and Jonnu Smith both surpassed 50 receptions and combined for more than 1,200 yards with six touchdowns.

For whatever reason, Freiermuth and the Steelers tight ends in general were underutilized in 2023. Freiermuth did miss time because of injury, but even when he was healthy, outside of one game against the Bengals, he just wasn't a big part of the team's passing game, getting just 47 targets, the fifth-most on the team.

With Diontae Johnson (87 targets) and Allen Robinson (49 targets) both gone, two of the players who finished ahead of Freiermuth in targets, there's an expectation both Freiermuth and the rest of the tight ends will help replace those looks in the offense in 2024.

It's not all that much to ask, especially with a coordinator in place who knows how to utilize the position. After all, from 2013 through 2018, Smith was a tight ends coach with the Titans before becoming the team's offensive coordinator.

Smith understands the value of the tight end well. He also knows how to design a dangerous running game.

Those two things can be foundational pieces to an offense.

Run the ball. Create mismatches with tight ends with varied skillsets. That plays in today's NFL.

• Being awarded the NFL Draft in 2026 isn't just a big deal for the Steelers. It's a huge thing for the city of Pittsburgh and the region, as well.

The draft drew 700,000 spectators over three days in Detroit this year. Given how easy it is to get to Pittsburgh from a number of NFL cities, it wouldn't be a stretch to see that number demolished in 2026.

There's still a lot of planning to be done, but it should be the biggest event in the history of the city of Pittsburgh.

• Seeing many of the alumni that attended the Steelers' first OTA session last week brought back a lot of great memories of some fantastic players and some equally fantastic players.

Most of the players who returned to Pittsburgh did so to take part in the Resilience Bowl as part of the Neighborhood Resilience Project, an charity with which Troy and Theodora Polamalu have been working closely.

To see so many of Polamalu's former teammates return to Pittsburgh and give their time not just for Polamalu but for the city, as well, shows just how meaningful he was as a teammate to them and how important their time with the Steelers was for them, too.

It created a buzz for the opening of OTA sessions like few we've ever seen. And I've seen them all.

For this current group of Steelers, seeing the stars of Super Bowl teams from the early part of this century was a bit like the Steelers from the 1990s seeing the Super Steelers of the '70s come back and watch practice.

"It was amazing," said rookie center Zach Frazier, who grew up in nearby Fairmont, W.Va. "Getting advice from them. It was cool to see legends like them, get advice and soak it all in."

Very few NFL teams have a history to match that of the Steelers. And it's never a bad thing to be able to lean on that.

• Some wonder why Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin likes to acquire players who have NFL pedigrees in their background.

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

Look no further than what cornerback Joey Porter Jr. had to say this week to The Athletic's Mark Koboly.

When asked who the top cornerback in the NFL happens to be, Porter said it was him.


"There are a lot of good DBs in this league," Porter said. "Nobody was doing what I was doing, going against WR1s the entire year and locking down. I don't care if I am mentioned or not because they are going to hear my name eventually."

Porter has that same swagger to him that made his father such an effective player. Now, he might still have that swagger even if his father hadn't been an NFL star. But he would have had to learn it on his own, the way his dad did. In this instance, his father laid out the blueprint for the son to follow, allowing him to step in and become an immediate impact player.

And Porter is 100 percent correct. There were few cornerbacks who did what he did in his rookie season, when he consistently followed the opposing team's best wide receiver. Despite that, his completion percentage allowed was among the best in the NFL.

He's already a very good player. He has a chance to be a really special player.

• The biggest improvement a player often makes in his career is between his first and second seasons. That's why it's going to be so much fun to watch Porter, Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig and how they fit into the defense this season.

All three were integral parts to the defense in 2023. All three should be even better this season, much the same way offensive tackle Broderick Jones and tight end Darnell Washington, two other rookies a year ago who got plenty of playing time offensively, should also take big steps forward.