PITTSBURGH — The Steelers are off on Monday morning, as the team traditionally takes one of its 10 OTA sessions off to do some team-building activities away from the practice field.
Later in the afternoon, the rookies will head over to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh to visit with the patients there, play games and hope to brighten some days.
Most of the team is probably happy to have the day off from the tedium of OTAs, which stretch over three weeks in June.
But Steelers wide receiver Ryan Switzer might be the exception to that.
Switzer, 24, is going through his first offseason with the Steelers after being traded to Pittsburgh by the Oakland Raiders on the eve of the 2018 season.
Despite his late start, the 5-foot-8, 185-pound Switzer made an impact in his first season in black and gold.
After catching just six balls in his rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys, Switzer broke out for 36 catches for 253 yards and a touchdown. He also had seven carries, 30 punt returns and 30 kickoff returns.
He finished fourth on the team with 1,133 all-purpose yards, behind only James Conner, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Antonio Brown.
But the former fourth round pick out of North Carolina feels like he has more to give than he showed in 2018, and that starts with establishing the kind of foundation this summer that he wasn’t able to a year ago.
“For me, these reps are so precious,” Switzer said last week. “I didn’t get this time last year with this team and with Ben, so I’ve got to take advantage of everything I get.”
Switzer isn’t the only one going through his first set of OTAs with the Steelers, as free agent Donte Moncrief and rookie Diontae Johnson have arrived, and hope to build the same type of rapport with Roethlisberger.
Switzer doesn’t see them as competition (both have mostly played outside, while he plays in the slot), but also sees a deep and more-balanced wide receiver room.
“I think it’s going to be so big and important to them to get on the same page with Ben and the other quarterbacks as well so that when September comes, we can hit the ground running.”
One of the areas that Switzer might be in line for more targets this season is the red zone. Small, slot receivers aren’t what most people might think of when considering a prime-time red zone target, but after Roethlisberger found Switzer open for a score two times in a red zone drill last week, it’s certainly something that shouldn’t be ruled out.
“You see a lot of zone, usually, in the red zone,” Switzer explained. “They try to zone, bracket or combo. I think with my skillset, obviously, I’m not going to go over top of someone or win fade balls, but I can use my speed, quickness and intelligence to pick out holes in the zone and work my way open to give Ben a nice target.”
Interestingly enough, the area that was Switzer’s calling card coming to Pittsburgh might be the area that he wants to improve upon his 2018 numbers the most. A feared return man in college — ask any Pitt fan — Switzer had a touchdown and averaged 8.8 yards per punt return with Dallas in 2017. He didn’t score and his average fell to 8.4 in 2018. On kickoff returns, he averaged just 20.2 yards per return, the lowest in the NFL of any qualified return man.
“I’ve got a lot to improve on on last year,” Switzer said. “It wasn’t a terrible year for us as a unit, but certainly room for improvement. I’ve take some good steps this spring. I’m looking forward to that, as well.”
If Switzer can continue to develop within the Steelers’ offense at receiver and increases his production on returns to something approaching his collegiate level, they’ll have gotten a steal for the fifth-round pick they used to acquire him.
NBC’s Mike Florio Predicts Dim Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Free Agency
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is not so sure Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to get the pay day he believes he deserves.
Florio joined The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Friday, and painted a dim picture of Smith-Schuster’s free agency prospects.
“If Juju wants to be paid like a No. 1 wide receiver, he’s going to be waiting a long, long time,” Florio said.
Smith-Schuster has expressed a desire to remain in Pittsburgh, but their dire salary cap situation had a made a continuation seemingly impossible.
Now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has signed a new contract and provided the club additional financial flexibility, there may be a path for Smith-Schuster to return. Still, there will not be enough money available to pay him like one of the league’s elite wideouts.
If that is what Smith-Schuster wants in Pittsburgh, he may be in for a rude awakening as Florio predicts.
Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 97 receptions in 2020, while also tallying 831 yards and nine touchdowns.
Selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Smith-Schuster has 293 receptions, 3,565 yards and 24 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was selected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2018.
Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger
Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.
Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.
There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.
Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.
“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”
Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.
“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”
Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.
“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.
He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.
“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”
While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.
Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.
“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”
Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal
The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Steelers sign center J.C. Hassenauer, an exclusive rights free agent, to a one-year deal, per source.— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) March 4, 2021
An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.
Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.
Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.
He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.
Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.
Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.