PITTSBURGH — The official portion of the Steelers offseason workouts for the entire 90-man roster began on Tuesday, with veteran regulars such as Ramon Foster, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Ben Roethlisberger taking part in OTA No. 1 at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side.
It was the first time the full Steelers roster took the practice field since the end of the 2018 season, and suffice to say, a lot has changed in that span.
All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown quit on the team, got himself traded, and seemingly tried to burn every bridge in the city on his way out of town, creating a media firestorm with Roethlisberger in its epicenter. This led to former players and national media talking heads taking aim at the veteran leader of Pittsburgh’s offense.
That didn’t sit well with the rest of the team, and it got to the point that Pouncey felt the need to make a statement on social media to try to get former players to settle their issues in house.
PSA. Contact me or @MaurkicePouncey or anyone else that you feel comfortable with about anything else next time. I passed this through a few guys still in the locker room and they are ok with this. pic.twitter.com/4xBpm9JWZH
— Ramon Foster (@RamonFoster) April 11, 2019
It got to the point that the situation regarding the team could rightly be described as circus-like.
This season, things seem destined to be at least a little bit calmer than the offseason. Brown, is of course, gone — no-showing Oakland’s first OTA on Tuesday. But Heyward, speaking with the media after practice on Tuesday, wanted to make sure to point out that despite the intensity of the criticisms levied toward the team, it was starting from a small number of people.
“We’re talking about the few, not the many,” Heyward said. “We have a great group of guys that are hard-nosed and just trying to get better.”
Heyward also stuck up for his quarterback and feels that Ben’s side of the conflict didn’t get nearly as much traction as Brown’s did.
“Things were misconstrued and you only hear one side of the story,” Heyward said. “Not having the full sides of everyone’s story was kind of baffling to me. The media went to one side, and I’m not saying you guys (the local media), but it was just a big, big thing that was only projecting one side.”
But that doesn’t mean that the team’s leaders are ignoring the issues that have been brought to light. Heyward said he’s taken a larger-than-usual role in speaking with teammates about issues this offseason.
“As a leader, you want to get to the bottom of it and talk,” he said. “I’ve talked to many. I’ll keep that in house. … Communication is always beneficial. When guys are honest and constructive of each other, take criticism and move forward, that’s only a positive thing. I like that we’re not shying away from it, because when you do that, you can move gracefully. You can move in stride together.”
Both Heyward and Roethlisberger also touched on a common theme. Both seemed to link the Steelers’ drama-filled offseason with the team missing a playoff berth for the first time since 2013.
“We didn’t make the playoffs. You can talk all you want about off-the-field stuff, but if you win the Super Bowl, what are we talking about?” Heyward posited. “The end goal is to win. I don’t care how it gets done. I think we’re ready to get that 9-6-1 out of our mouths. The way to do that is to keep competing right now.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster Asks Fans to Give him Space
JuJu Smith-Schuster is experiencing the negative side effect of living so much of his personal life in the public eye. The Steelers receiver, who is looking for a new NFL contract, took to Instagram to ask fans to leave him alone.
This stems from allegations that fans are showing up to his family home in California while he is there. Obviously, fans have no right to show up unwelcome anywhere to stalk an an athlete or celebrity, but this is just another example of the polarization of Smith-Schuster’s career. While he’s received much criticism, most notably this past season, for his sometimes over-the-top behavior and seemingly prioritizing his brand at all times, he also has many avid supporters who would stop at nothing to defend one of their favorite players.
Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent in March for the first time in his professional career. If the Steelers should try to bring back the receiver has become a hot debate among Pittsburgh fans, so much so Smith-Schuster himself addressed the situation during a live Twitch sessions with fans.
Even Smith-Schuster’s play on the field is often up for debate. He totaled 97 receptions, but for only 831 yards with an average of just 8.6 yards per catch, which is significantly lower than his average from past seasons, including 15.8 his rookie year and 13.1 in 2019.
When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s always best to just stay tuned.
Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.
Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?
The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.
That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.
Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.
The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.
He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”
Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.