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Steelers Minicamp Takeaways: Gunner Olszewski, Return Man and More

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Steelers WR/KR Gunner Olszewski Guardian Cap

PITTSBURGH — When the Pittsburgh Steelers signed free agent wide receiver Gunner Olszewski this offseason, it looked like mostly a special teams move.

In three seasons with the New England Patriots, he caught just nine passes, and he had only two in 16 games in 2021. But the Steelers don’t have a lot of depth or experience at the wide receiver position.

Chase Claypool said he is going to play in the slot more this, year and George Pickens is working there as well. Rookie Calvin Austin III seems tailor-made for the slot. But of the players that seems to be locks to make the 53-man roster and have a helmet on game days, Olszewski probably has the most NFL experience at the position. The Steelers are treating him like it, too. Olszewski has been a regular part of the first group of receivers in drills and hasn’t looked out of place at all.

NO RETURNING RETURNER

The Steelers fielded 38 kick returns and 40 punt returns in 2021, and of those 78 total returns, Ray-Ray McCloud handled 73 of them. With McCloud having moved on in free agency, the team needs to identify a new return man.

Of course, one of the reasons that Olszewski appears to be a lock to have a helmet on Sundays is that he is a quality, experienced special teamer, and that includes returns. Olszewski led the NFL in punt return yardage and yards per return in 2020, when he was named a first-team All-Pro special teamer.

He had a better kickoff return average than McCloud did in 2021 (23.1 vs. 22.2) and a better punt return average (11.9 vs 9.7). Olszewski can also play on coverage units, giving him a huge leg up on locking down a roster spot.

But Olszewski isn’t being handed the return job. Rookie Calvin Austin III, Anthony Miller, Cam Sutton, Anthony McFarland and others have been taking regular reps during return drills.

“To be honest, we’ve got more choices than we’ve ever had,” special teams coordinator Danny Smith said. “I haven’t been in game with these guys yet. But we have more choices than we’ve had with [Austin] and Gunner. I don’t like saying names because guys will ‘but what about me,’ Tyler Vaughns will hear this and say ‘what about me’? It’s their nature. So I hesitate to use names. We just have more choices than ever.”

MORE TIGHT END LOVE

After Pat Freiermuth was a red zone menace and Connor Heyward made a diving, one-handed catch on Tuesday, the tight end position made an impact again on Wednesday.

Kevin Rader made a catch on a crossing route over excellent coverage by Devin Bush, with Mitch Trubisky having to elevate the ball over the linebacker to give Rader a chance to go up and get it and make a catch that might’ve qualified Bush for a “You Got Mossed” segment in the regular season.

“I’d have to check the tape,” fellow tight end Zach Gentry said. “It looked like it from my angle, for sure.”

The tight ends continue to be a big part of the offense through minicamp, particularly in situational football like two-minute drills, third down drills and goal line situations.

“When you’ve got tight ends [in patterns], you want them to be able to make those tight-window catches,” Gentry said. “When the field gets short, you want to be able to have combat catches and put it on the top shelf. Those are things that we’re asked to do and so far — you’ve seen Pat catch a ton of those — the guys in our room are catching them consistently. Hopefully, we keep throwing those.”

NEXT MAN UP

Veteran defensive tackle Cam Heyward was off on Wednesday, and as Mike Tomlin likes to say, one player’s absence is another player’s opportunity. The player taking advantage of that opportunity on Wednesday was second-year defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk.

In the team’s base Nickel defense, it was Loudermilk lining up next to Tyson Alualu with the first-teamer on Wednesday with Heyward and Chris Wormley both not participating. One practice in May doesn’t mean a job is won, but it seems clear that Loudermilk has earned the faith of the coaching staff

“It’s great to have the opportunity to be up there with those guys,” Loudermilk said. “It feels good for me. It’s nice to get a chemistry down with those guys. It’s a different feel when you get out there and get reps. I want take advantage of everything I get. So I’m going out there and playing hard. It’s great to play next to Tyson and T.J. [Watt] and those higher level guys.”