PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers closed their 2021 session of organized team activities on Thursday, and after a year without a normal offseason, and a labor dispute that nearly derailed this one.
Though voluntary, OTAs have had very high attendance rates around the league over the years, but as the NFL moves forward with a 17-game schedule for the first time in its history this fall, and following a spring without OTAs in 2020 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFLPA and individual teams threatened to boycott the proceedings.
In response, the Steelers and other teams across the country modified their practices during OTAs in order to get players to come in for the technically voluntary programs.
“If we had stayed under the old rules, and not having that cooperation of both the organization and the players, we couldn’t have gotten it done,” Steelers defensive tackle and union rep Cam Heyward said.
“But a month later, we were able to, iron out some things. … This is an ever-growing process. I don’t think you ever just plant your feet down and say, ‘we’re not going to do this.’ We were able to work through stuff. And I appreciate everybody for working with us.
“Things have changed. We’re playing a 17th game, and our main thing was, let’s not beat our bodies up. Let’s approach this the right way where we have a ramp-up period. In that, guys are learning, and guys are taking advantage of this time.”
The learning is the thing the Steelers have emphasized. The team entered OTAs with new starters at running back, left tackle, left guard, center, right tackle, right outside linebacker, left cornerback and Nickel back, along with a host of players either new to the team entirely or in different places than they were a year ago.
The Steelers also have a bunch of new teachers, with offensive coordinator Matt Canada joined by new coaches for the team’s tight ends, offensive line, quarterbacks and the secondary.
“Being able to have the opportunity to come in this year and coming in physically and working with the new guys, instead of going into camp, no preseason, things like that, you’re obviously able to experience more, you’re able to put guys in different situations to see what guys can do what guys can’t do,” cornerback Cam Sutton said. “
Sutton is in a new role himself, moving to outside corner after primarily playing Nickel and Dime. But it’s his former role of a roving fourth corner that the team has spent the three weeks of OTAs trying different players at to see who fits.
“That’s how you continue to build your team,” Sutton said. “You know what I mean? We’re never going to put a guy in a bad situation, knowing that he can’t perfect that technique or that coverage or that route or whatever it is. So we’re able to see how that guy fits in scenarios of schematics.”
For young players like those auditioning for the Dime role, OTAs always carry high levels of importance, but even for those like Sutton and tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who is moving from the right side to the left side, they’re meaningful reps and chances to hone fine details of the craft.
“I feel the more reps we get, the better we’ll be able to mesh,” Okorafor said. “[Left guard Kevin Dotson] knows what I like to do. I know what he likes to do. … I personally feel like it helps me. Obviously, if you’re a nine-year, 10-year vet, I don’t think it makes sense for you to be here, but for us, we’re still new and we’re learning a whole new offense.”
Most importantly, the compromise between the players and coaches seems to have worked. The OTAs were well-attended, but the team appeared to have avoided significant injuries, as well.
“I was talking to a coach, usually the first day, there’s already a separated shoulder, or, a torn hamstring,” Heyward said. “But that’s always been the nature of the game. But that doesn’t prevent you from growing and attacking this game to make sure everybody stays healthy and is ready for Week 1.”