When the Steelers signed veteran defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi in 2022, they knew they were getting a guy coming off a serious foot injury.
After all, Ogunjobi had been injured in Cincinnati's playoff win against the Raiders in January. So, head coach Mike Tomlin – working on the advice of the team's training staff – took it easy on Ogunjobi during training camp, slowly adding him to the mix.
But, as can happen when a player is dealing with or recovering from one injury, another happened. Ogunjobi wound up dealing with back, knee and toe injuries that kept him from practicing a lot during the 2022 season.
Ogunjobi, however, toughed things out and missed just one game.
The Steelers strongly took that into consideration when they re-signed the 29-year-old this offseason.
They liked the player, one they've seen plenty of in his previous six seasons, all spent in the AFC North. They liked his toughness. They liked the tone that he set for younger players, one that showed there is a difference between being hurt and injured.
Lots of players are hurting over the course of a season. But you only miss time if you're injured.
Still, Ogunjobi's overall stats took a dip in 2022, as his sack numbers fell from a career-best 7 with the Bengals in 2021 to 1.5 last season, even though his tackle numbers were nearly identical to what they've been in each of his previous seasons in the NFL.
That's why I asked Tomlin at the NFL Meetings in Phoenix earlier this year if we got to see the true Larry Ogunjobi in 2022.
"I don't believe that you did," Tomlin replied in March. "That's the perspective that I have. I think that's the perspective that he has. I think that makes both of us excited about his return and what that might mean. I just think there's a benefit in him being here and knowing what to expect and having been a lap around the track. To go through an offseason where he's not rehabilitating coming off a surgery has exciting prospects, as well."
That trust in the best still being out there for Ogunjobi is one thing that led him to return to the Steelers this year.
"The energy of the team, going through the injury last year and how they took care of me and welcomed me with open arms, it was super important," Ogunjobi said this week at the Steelers OTA sessions.
It will be very important for the Steelers to get the best from Ogunjobi in 2023. Despite his struggles, he played 636 defensive snaps last season, which worked out to 63 percent of the team's defensive plays.
Because he's good against both the run and pass, Ogunjobi can do more. And if the Steelers, who had their NFL-record streak of five consecutive seasons of leading the NFL in sacks snapped last season, are going to get back to being a 50-plus-sack team, they need Ogunjobi pushing from the middle just as much as they need a healthy T.J. Watt coming off the edge.
Certainly, lessening the load on 13-year veteran Cam Heyward wouldn't hurt, either. But the Steelers have spent premium draft picks on DeMarvin Leal in 2022 and Keeanu Benton this year to start that process.
Despite adding those two young bodies and veterans such as Breiden Fehoko and Armani Watts to the defensive line room, things work best if Ogunjobi is completely healthy and effective.
It's a much deeper defensive line room. But the front-line players need to be at their best.
Ogunjobi feels that is coming.
"Last yeast, I couldn't run into July," he said. "This year, I started training in January. I feel great just moving around, getting back onto the football field. I'm really excited."
• Speaking of excited, the Steelers cornerbacks aren't the only ones feeling that way about the team's addition this offseason of potential future Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Patrick Peterson.
All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick mentioned this week working with Peterson and the potential that brings for him to improve his already impressive above-the-neck game.
"Me and him, we're already talking about high-level stuff and the coach has to tell us, 'Hey, bring it down a bit.' That's really cool," Fitzpatrick said. "It's an honor to play with a guy like that."
It's an area of his game Fitzpatrick, who tied for the league lead with six interceptions last season, is working hard at which to improve in 2023.
"I wanted to really improve my IQ of the game," Fitzpatrick said. "I've been watching a lot of film, sitting down with a lot of coaches, whether it be the linebacker coach, our assistant DB coach, I'm just trying to advance my football IQ game. I like to be in the right position, but I also don't want to be a robot. I want the quarterback to not know where I'm going to be at. I want to make plays that are made because of my IQ."
That sounds a lot like another former Steelers longtime safety.
In addition to helping mentor young cornerbacks Joey Porter and Cory Trice, if Peterson can help have a profound effect on making Fitzpatrick, a three-time All-Pro, even better, he's worth his weight in gold.
• There has been plenty of grousing lately regarding the NFL's policy regarding its players and staff gambling, with some saying it's hypocritical since the league now has partnerships with gaming websites and ventures.
But employers have long been telling employees what is and is not permitted in various ways. And this is no different.
In most states, for example, bartenders are not legally permitted to drink behind the bar while serving alcohol.
The NFL doesn't hide its rules on gambling. It's on a sign and is one of the first things players see when they walk into a locker room. Players are told about it from the time they join a team.
And it has to be that way – even though gambling is now legal in many states.
The integrity of the games can't be questioned.
• The Steelers have made it through their OTA sessions without making any news.
And that's a good thing.
At this time of year, the news that comes out regarding a team is usually bad – unless you're signing a guy to a contract extension.
For example, the Falcons lost leading return man Avery Williams to a torn ACL earlier this week, while in Miami, center Connor Williams skipped mandatory minicamp because he apparently wants a new contract.
Injuries and contract distractions certainly qualify as bad news.
With three days of minicamp next week, the Steelers haven't made any kind of news like that – knock on wood.
That's something that didn't happen for them last year in the preseason, as Najee Harris, T.J. Watt and Calvin Austin all got nicked up during camp or in the preseason.
Avoiding those kind of issues again this year is massive. Step one is in the books. Step two comes next week, with the final piece of the puzzle coming into play starting July 27 when players report to Saint Vincent College.
• Minicamp next week is the only offseason program that is mandatory for players to attend.
But the Steelers have had excellent turnout throughout their OTA sessions, which are optional.
"You see Cam Heyward and T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick running around out there going 100 percent and you know you've got to do the same," said Fehoko, signed in the offseason as a free agent from the Chargers.
"There are family obligations that come up, but for the most part, everyone has been here."
The leaders set the tone.