Striving for a bigger role

In the NFL, when opportunity knocks, you have to answer.

For Steven Sims, that opportunity knocked a little too hard last season.

Sims was inactive for the first four games of the season, getting his first opportunity against the Buffalo Bills in Week 5. He was stepping in as the team's return man after Gunner Olszewski fumbled in the previous few games.

In pregame warmups, though, he almost lost his opportunity. Sims was hit directly in the eye while catching passes from quarterback Kenny Pickett during pregame, impacting his vision instantly.

"It was definitely frustrating," said Sims, who has spent time recently working out in Florida with his fellow receivers and quarterbacks. "I was very upset. But the first thing Coach (Mike) Tomlin told me was you are going to face adversity, just fight through it. But I was like man, if I can't see out of my eye. In a way it was a funny moment. That moment spoke for the whole season and how you are going to fight through adversity."

Sims, who spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2021, fought from the start. While he wasn't able to be out there at the beginning of the Bills game, he didn't let the eye injury keep him sidelined all game, using eye drops to help him get back on the field.

And he stayed there.

Sims played in 12 games in 2022, starting two, and caught 14 passes for 104 yards. He also returned 19 punts for 105 yards, a 5.5-yard average, and 17 kickoffs for 434 yards, a 25.5-yard average that included an 89-yard return against Tampa Bay in Week 6,

He wanted more, though.

"I felt like I left some meat on the bone, as Coach T would say," said Sims. "I wanted to get in the end zone, kick return, punt return touchdown. That kind of upsets me because you never know when an opportunity is going to happen. I broke the one earlier in the year against Tampa. I pulled my hamstring a little bit on that run, but I didn't really get another opportunity to break free like that again. Some teams weren't even kicking the ball to me. It's just kind of upsetting because I know this game is based off production, so I just want to produce, produce, produce. Next year when I do get opportunities before they stop kicking it to me, I want to score touchdowns.

"Overall, though, I feel I had a good year when I had the chance to make a play with the ball. I did what I could. I feel like I played my role is to the best of my ability, which is what the coaches asked me to do.

"I just want to build on it. I am striving for a bigger role. I just keep working every day and let everything else around me handle itself. Just keep working hard. And when I do get my opportunity, make them want to give me the ball more and give me a bigger role."

While Sims admitted he left some meat on the bone in 2022, he also knows the team in general did as well. There were missed opportunities when they started out 2-6, but major growth when they ended the season with a 9-8 record.

"I definitely think we showed growth," said Sims. "We we're a younger group in some areas and I definitely think we showed growth. We came together and said we can do this. We can stack wins and be a team fighting until the end. I definitely feel like we left a couple of games out there, maybe two or three that we definitely should have won. Those are the games that if we win, it's no brainer that we would have been in the playoffs.

"I take all that into the offseason and think where I could have been better, where I could have helped the team try to overcome those."

That is the same kind of attitude the team had at the bye week. Players asking themselves what can they do better, how can they help the team. It was a point when they were 2-6 and undoubtedly not feeling great. But they flipped a switch, a switch that involved talking things out.

"We all hashed it out, at least on offense," said Sims. "I don't know what the defense did, but the offense, we sat in the room as a unit. And we spoke about this is what we need to change. All we need to do is little things, and it was the small things that we were focused on. We did that as well in the wide receiver room. Just talked as a group like, what do you all want to do differently.

"It was definitely good. We needed that. This was a team that hadn't been together for three, four years already. We were all coming together. I feel like that conversation helped us grow. We can talk to each other. We started to grow and come together, and I am just hoping we can build on the momentum next year."

Beyond the conversations with each other, with the position groups, with the offense, there was one other factor that played a role in getting things back on track last year.

It was Coach Tomlin for Sims.

"Coach T is such a player's coach," said Sims. "You'll run through a brick wall for him. He's that kind of guy. We go to his house and eat. He is just welcoming. It's like a family atmosphere that he creates here for us. I love it.

"He has a whole bunch of one-liners like more meat on the bone, he has a whole bunch of those. I feel like he tries to teach us. I can use those things in other ways in my life. I can hear myself saying to my son in a couple of years the things Coach T says to us. It's a great feeling playing for Coach T. I love him so much. He's a great coach."