PITTSBURGH — The biggest news item from the first day of Steelers OTA’s is that starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is going to be around a lot more during the team’s 10 early summer training sessions than he has in the past.
Roethlisberger thinks that his participation will help from a leadership standpoint, and also from a functional one, so that he can get on the same page as his new receivers.
But there’s a secondary benefit that doesn’t even have anything to do with the Steelers’ offense.
When Roethlisberger is slinging the ball to his new targets with the first-team offense, that’s giving the Steelers’ first-team defense quality reps against one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
Even a veteran like Joe Haden, who is in his third season of OTAs with the Steelers, appreciates the chance to face one of the league’s top passers in a practice setting.
“It’s amazing, man,” Haden said. “You can’t get any better practice than by going against Ben. Whenever we get those ones versus ones reps, I’m always super locked in and focused, because he puts the ball on the money. He does a great job of just touch. Wherever he’s got to put the ball, the ball gets there. He can make every single throw. A lot of people say that, but Ben literally can, so I enjoy going against him, because I feel like if I can make plays on him, it doesn’t matter who the quarterback is.”
Of course, Haden felt comfortable saying that on Tuesday, because he intercepted Roethlisberger’s first pass of the session.
“I just told Joe I did that on purpose to get him ready for the year,” Roethlisberger joked.
“Man, I doubt it,” Haden responded, laughing. “I doubt it. I think it was more of a good play on my side. I always love going against great quarterbacks. He puts the ball on the money a lot. He’s going to get me, you know what I’m saying? This was just the first day. I started off one up.”
Passing against the Steelers defense might be tougher across the board for Roethlisberger this summer, thanks to the addition of Steve Nelson from Kansas City. Nelson led the Chiefs with four interceptions a year ago, and adding him to play opposite Haden should give the Steelers a pair of corners that can make opposing quarterbacks pay for wayward passes.
Nelson thinks he can learn from Haden — and not just the first pick of practice on Tuesday.
“It’s great just having someone in the room like that, in his 10th year at a high level,” Nelson said. “It definitely helps me elevate my game. I’ll definitely ask a lot of questions just to see from a different perspective. A guy like that has a lot of experience. You just kind of want to see how he sees things through his eyes sometimes.”
What Haden sees so far is a cornerback group that can be among the best during his time in Pittsburgh, with a little bit of hard work. That’s going to be the focus for his unit over the next nine practices.
“I feel like it’s just everyone doing great communication, creating turnovers, hustling to the ball, catching the interceptions that come hit us in our hands,” he said. “Basically, a lot of fundamentals.”
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.