PITTSBURGH — Kevin Dotson didn’t have the 2021 season he’d hoped. After starting four games as a rookie in 2020, Dotson only started nine games in his second NFL season and wasn’t the consistent force he believed he could be with the offensive line while playing left guard.
But after the first two days of OTAs with the Steelers in 2022, Dotson feels his biggest growth has come from rethinking how he must operate at left guard, as opposed to right guard where he played most of his time in college at Louisiana. He was open Wednesday after the second day of Steelers OTAs concluded at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex about those challenges.
“It was,” Dotson said of right guard being his more comfort side. “I’m feeling more comfortable at left guard now, but I would always go to right if it came down to it.”
When Dotson got his first starts with the Steelers he had to take left guard while David DeCastro lined up at right guard. But in 2021 the Steelers added Trai Turner in free agency and put him at right guard. Dotson had to stay at left guard and continue adjusting.
Dotson’s growth at left guard was stunted by an ankle injury that led to him being carted off during the Steelers’ game against the Lions in 2021. It would be Dotson’s last game of the season.
“I definitely feel more confident,” Dotson said about playing left guard. “Last year I felt like the two weeks before I got hurt that I was getting used to it and doing smarter things. But as soon as I started feeling comfortable, I got hurt.”
For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus graded three of Dotson’s final four games of the season as his best games of the year.
“I just dwelled on that the whole time,” Dotson continued about his injury. “I needed to learn the position before I could go my hardest It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. I wasn’t able to play, but it helped me wrap my head around playing on the left side instead of the right side.”
Dotson was eager to continue his progress and prove to himself he could make the adjustment. But that eagerness backfired.
“I tried to come back and that’s the reason I got hurt again,” Dotson said. “They told me it would be 3-6 weeks or maybe a little longer. I was at six weeks and I was low-key depressed at my house. I was trying to do everything I can. I told them to tape it all the way up and I went out and tried to practice. But on my first step, I got hurt and had to go back (on injured reserve). You can’t come back a second time.”
But after an offseason to rehab from his injury and focus on his fundamentals at left guard, the 6-foot-4, 321 lbs. third-year guard feels like he’s in a better place to start the season.
“I feel pretty good,” Dotson said. “Pretty much the whole offseason I’ve worked at my left guard position. That’s helped me a lot. I feel more comfortable. Last year I was still used to being on the right side. Going to the left side was hard because your brain has to switch over.”
“On the right side, you take your stance for 6-7 years and my muscle memory was perfect on that side,” Dotson continued. “But when I came to this side, I had to rewire my whole way of thinking. Last year I was pretty much getting in front of people. This year I have confidence.”
When asked about a report from last year that said Steelers management was disappointed in Dotson’s conditioning, he wouldn’t address it outside of flat out denying it.
“I don’t know where it came from,” Dotson said of previous questions on his conditioning. “That was so out of leftfield. I couldn’t imagine why someone made something up like that.”
The Steelers’ offensive line may have only allowed 147 pressures last year, fourth-fewest in the NFL, but that was also because Ben Roethlisberger’s consistently quick release. Pro Football Focus clocked Roethlisberger’s average time in the pocket at 2.26 seconds.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dotson was responsible for 10 allowed quarterback pressures, five hurries, two quarterback hits and thee sacks. As a unit, he feels there’s a clear recipe for him and the rest of the offensive line to improve in their pass protection.
“In pass protection we have to be more vocal,” Dotson said. “If you’re not really vocal, you might know it, but you miss out on making sure everyone knows it. You have to talk more. That’s something we’re starting to do this year.”
Dotson also let that he feels the team said Mitch Trubisky was the team’s number one quarterback, but that it didn’t matter who lined up at quarterback to the offensive line.
“They pretty much said that Mitch is the number one,” Dotson said. When pressed by who he meant by “they,” Dotson expressed it was just what he felt the message the Steelers gave as a team. “We’re going to take what we get. We don’t really care who’s behind us when it comes down to it.”
But when it comes to improving in run blocking, Dotson cites his biggest reason he’ll show improvement in the run game stems from his increased comfort at left guard.
“It’s just being comfortable,” Dotson said what’s better in his run blocking. “I can actually come off now without hesitating about where I’m going. I have more of a mind of what our scheme is and what we plan to do.”
Dotson let on that the Steelers’ offensive line’s struggles in 2021 limited the production of Najee Harris, who Dotson had praised as potentially being a 2000-yard running back.
“Najee has everything he needs to be that guy,” Dotson said of Harris. “We just have to give him more opportunities. If we would’ve been any better than we were last year, he would’ve had 2,000 yards. I want to be able to give him that chance to show his greatness.”
“We’re real cool,” Dotson said of the offensive line’s relationship with Harris. “We might not hang out as much as everyone else but we understand what we need to do and the opportunity we have to look good by making him look good.”
But Dotson doesn’t see himself as the leader of the offensive line in changing it into a better unit to block for Harris. That’s something he saves for James Daniels.
“I wouldn’t say it was me,” Dotson said when asked who had been a leader on the offensive line so far. “We’re more dispersed, not in a bad way, but it’s like we’re all coming up together. James came in and has taken control of it. He doesn’t say, ‘you need to do this,’ or ‘you need to do that,’ but he’s more like, ‘I used to do this when I was over here, so I think this would help us.’ He has some really good ideas when it comes to different offensive things.”
While Mason Cole confirmed to Pittsburgh Sports Now that he’s the Steelers’ top center to start OTAs, Dotson seemed optimistic about Green getting more work at guard after starting at center last season.
“He pretty much knew how to play guard,” Dotson said of Green. “It’s not a thing he has to really learn. He just needs to get out of the mindset of center if that’s what they want. I think he’s ready for that.”
But Dotson seemed even more optimistic about Dan Moore Jr., who became the Steelers’ starting left tackle as a rookie last season. After nine games of playing next to each other, Dotson feels their chemistry has grown to help them work better together.
“I have 100 percent confidence in Dan,” Dotson said of Moore. “Anything that he wants to do or he feels we need to do for a play, I can tell him anything. He’ll go with what I say or if he feels like he has a better plan, I’ll go with him on it. I trust that he knows what he’s doing.”
They’ll continue growing together off the field too, as Dotson talked about their weekend plans together after the Steelers’ first week of OTAs conclude.
“We hang out off the field too,” Dotson said of him and Moore. “We’re about to go fishing this weekend. Somebody he knows gave us access to a lake, so we’re going to go over there.”
Dotson having increased comfort at left tackle and increased chemistry with his teammates on the offensive line could be part of the building blocks that improve the unit to be a dependable group again after struggling mightily in the 2021 season. But headway won’t be made for the Steelers’ offensive line until the pads go on during training camp and both the offense and defense can be physical.
Until then, Dotson will use the time during OTAs and mandatory minicamp to further sharpen his fundamentals so he can prove just how comfortable he’s become at left guard when the pads go on.