When the Pittsburgh Steelers take to the grass at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side of OTAs on Tuesday, they’ll be doing so without Ben Roethlisberger as their presumptive starting quarterback for the first time in 19 years.
As such, much of the attention this week will be on the quarterback position, as Kenny Pickett, Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph take the field for the first on-field day of their battle to replace Roethlisberger as the Steelers starting quarterback.
But that battle will likely wage on through the summer, into the preseason, and maybe even into the regular season. The team has three preseason games this year, and I’d put pretty good odds on a different quarterback starting each of them.
So don’t expect to find out a lot about the way the team will lineup this September at OTAs this week.
But there are a number of questions that we’re watching where we might learn the answers to from “football in shorts,” as head coach Mike Tomlin likes to call it.
WHO LINES UP WHERE ON THE INTERIOR OF THE OFFENSIVE LINE?
The Steelers set out to re-make the interior of their offensive line this offseason, signing Mason Cole and James Daniels to free agent contracts. The Steelers will pair those two with incumbent starters Kendrick Green and Kevin Dotson and backups J.C. Hassenauer and John Leglue for a pretty stable two-deep rotation.
But where those players will line up seems totally up in the air. Cole and Daniels have played both center and guard in the NFL. Cole split reps between the spots almost evenly in 2021 after being primarily a center earlier in his career. Daniels split time between center and guard in 2019, but has played mostly guard the rest of his career.
Green struggled as a rookie starter at center in 2020 after spending most of college career at guard with Illinois. He was replaced down the stretch run by Hassenauer, who has also played both center and guard at the NFL level. Not to be outdone, the Steelers have said Leglue is capable of playing all five spots.
Add in a new offensive line coach in Pat Meyer, and how those parts fit together right now is anybody’s guess, but we’ll get some good insight as to the way the Steelers coaching staff thinks might be the best path forward this week.
WILL DIONTAE JOHNSON AND MINKAH FITZPATRICK PARTICIPATE?
It’s been slowly evolving for years, but it seemed like Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt redefined the acceptable standard of behavior for a Steelers player during the offseason while negotiating a contract extension.
Watt was almost always with the team, but rarely was a full participant, especially in anything that resembled a contract drill. There won’t be any of those at OTAs, so will Minkah Fitzpatrick and Diontae Johnson show up and participate as they mostly have in the past? Or will they no-show OTAs and take a more aggressive tact in getting a deal done before the season?
The answer to those questions might tell us a lot about how those players’ futures with the team will play out.
IS STEPHON TUITT GOING TO PLAY?
We might not get the answer to this one, as Tuitt’s absence wouldn’t necessarily preclude him from deciding to attend the mandatory portions of the offseason program and attempt to play this season.
But his attendance at OTAs would all but assure him of doing so for the first time since the tragic death of his brother and a knee injury suffered while rehabbing conspired to end his 2021 season before it started.
WILL DEFENSE LOOK DIFFERENT?
The basics of the playbook go in first, so don’t expect us to be able to break down Brian Flores’ most exotic blitzes on the first day, but the Steelers made significant coaching changes to their defense over the offseason.
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has retired, with senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin promoted to take his place and Flores hired from the outside to backfill Austin’s slot.
Flores has been a head coach. Austin has been a defensive coordinator. Both should have ideas about plans they want to change and tactics they want to implement.
At the same time, the personnel on the defense has largely been static. Tuitt’s return is a question mark, and Myles Jack and Levi Wallace will replace Joe Schobert and Joe Haden, but the defense as a whole should look fairly similar, personnel-wise.
So any schematic changes should stand out.
HOW MUCH DID BEN ROETHLISBERGER LIMIT MATT CANADA?
Matt Canada’s first season as offensive coordinator featured Roethlisberger in his 18th, and both parties said last year that the offense was tailored to what Roethlisberger could do best. What he wanted to do was probably also a factor, as suggested by Rudolph this offseason.
The result was a Steelers offense that didn’t look very much like the collegiate schemes that got Canada noticed at the NFL level in the first place. Tomlin spent most of the 2021 season talking about the importance of mobility at the quarterback position — something that his team clearly lacked.
With an injection of youth into the quarterback room, Canada should now be able to feel free to install whatever type of offense he sees fit.