Tyson Alualu is happy to be working on football in Pittsburgh, and Zach Banner is just happy to be working on football, period.
The National Football League entered Phase 3 of its offseason at the start of this week, which means teams were holding a series of OTAs that will culminate in a three-day mandatory minicamp that will signal the end of the program and set the stage for the start of training camps in late July.
The Steelers are holding their organized team activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, and different players reap different benefits from attending the three-day-a-week voluntary sessions.
For some, such as Banner and Devin Bush, it's about continuing to work themselves back from a significant knee injury so that they're in top condition to resume full-scale football activity come training camp. Both players opened the 2020 regular season as starters – Banner as the offense's right tackle and Bush as the defense's all-situations inside linebacker – and both are going to be critical components to the Steelers' success in 2021.
The Steelers participate in day 3 of the 2021 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex
"Coach (Mike) Tomlin has asked me to step up my game in all facets of my career, on and off the field," said Banner on a Zoom call with the media following Thursday's on-field workout. "I'm a like a dog on a leash right now. They keep pulling back and pulling back, and one thing you're not going to have to tell me is to give effort and be there. (Taking part in OTAs) is not only for those other guys (on the offensive line) and to be around the team, it's to get the visual reps for myself because I'm not perfect and we all need to get better every day. At the same time it's a good thing for myself to get through this (rehabilitation) mentally. Them pulling at the leash bugs me, because I feel good, feeling better every day."
Banner has said all along that he will be full-go for the start of training camp, and he isn't backing off that statement one bit, but as Tomlin often says, "I'd rather say, 'whoa,' than 'sic 'em,'" and right now the Steelers sometimes are telling Banner, "whoa."
"If we get to camp and they pull (me out for) a day, pull (me out for) a rep, it's out of protection, and I have to get that in my head at this early stage," said Banner. "I'm trying to lead by example, but I'm also trying to motivate myself by my actions every day."
Alualu's offseason was decidedly different than Banner's. There was no potentially career-changing injury to rehabilitate, but there was a decision that if made differently would've changed the course of his career.
An unrestricted free agent, Alualu reportedly agreed to a contract to return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, which is where his NFL career began as a first-round draft choice in 2010. But ultimately he changed his mind and instead re-signed with the Steelers.
"It was stressful during that time because me and my family knew we wanted to stay here in Pittsburgh, but we weren't reaching an agreement," said Alualu. "Then I got COVID, and that gave me more time to think about wanting to stay in Pittsburgh. I talked to some of my teammates here and decided to switch over. It was nothing that Jacksonville did to change my mind. I am thankful and grateful that Jacksonville was a team that came after me heavy, but at the end of the day I'm just happy and grateful to be with the Pittsburgh Steelers and to try to chase a championship here."
Alualu had owned a home in Jacksonville where he and his family lived before coming to Pittsburgh, but he said that home was sold late last season. With no roots in Jacksonville, and with his Steelers teammates and defensive line coach Karl Dunbar working the telephone lines to convince him to stay, Alualu found himself in a quandary.
"I did have a place in Jacksonville, but I just sold my home there late last year. Maybe that played a factor in it – having to start all over after I had left," said Alualu. "But my teammates here made me feel wanted, (told me) that they wanted me back and needed me back. There were a lot of emotions that played into it."
Then fate intervened in the form of a positive test for COVID-19.
"I was supposed to fly out to Jacksonville the next day (and sign the contract), and then when I got tested I found out I had COVID. I didn't even know I had it," said Alualu. "But since I tested positive, I wasn't able to fly out to sign the contract. Throughout the whole process, even before I agreed to terms, my teammates and even Coach Dunbar were calling and checking on me, wanting to me to stay. My wife and I had a lot of conversations about what choice we wanted to make. Even after we agreed to terms in Jacksonville, after we talked about it and prayed about it, we felt (staying in Pittsburgh) was the best decision for our family."
And so at the end of the first week of OTAs, the Steelers still had their starting nose tackle and were working toward getting back their starting right tackle.