PITTSBURGH — The Steelers lost Stephon Tuitt to retirement on Wednesday, due a tragic series of events that transpired over the past year. That will put more onus on some of the young defensive lineman, but also mean a lot of reps for vets such as Tyson Alualu and Cam Heyward.
Alualu is 35 and coming off a major injury. Heyward is 33. Those aren’t young guys to be shouldering a major load, and most of the depth behind them struggled to hold up when Alualu missed most of 2021.
So when Alualu stumbled to the ground during a drill at Thursday’s OTAs sessions, alarm bells started to ring. Luckily for the team, Alualu seemed to be OK. The brief scare at voluntary workouts should not be too much of a concern moving forward. However, it is a gentle reminder that injuries can change the outlook for a team in a second.
With Tuitt now into retirement, Alualu will have the onus placed upon him to be a regular starter, not just at nose tackle, but also in the team’s sub packages, where his versatility will be a key factor in allowing the defensive line to flourish. Alualu has proven to be able to handle that role in Pittsburgh and projecting him into a starting job is not a stretch. Neither is it one to think they Heyward can continue to build off a career year in 2021.
The depth at the position has promise. Isaiahh Loudermilk and DeMarvin Leal could very well represent the future of the line for when rest of the elder statesmen in the room step aside. But unless they go outside the organization to a make a move, those older guys will need to maintain a clean bill of health for the foreseeable future to keep additional pressure off their young defensive linemen.
Steelers Tight Ends Get Gritty in Blocking
When the coach calls out one player and specifically says that they like their blocking, it can be great for that player and a kick in the behind for the others. Well, leave it to Mike Tomlin to do just that. Excited about the reps he was seeing from Zach Gentry, the Steelers head coach knew who he was going to call on if he wanted someone to block for him. For Gentry, who is 6-foot-8, that is not all that surprising.
“If I need some grass, I’m gonna dial 81’s number, because he looks different than the rest of them,” Tomlin said as the drill was ongoing.
After he said that, Pat Freiermuth had to follow it up. Then, it was Connor Heyward’s turn. Tomlin even took a fun jab at Kevin Rader, who appeared motivated by that statement.
“Rader is over there looking mad,” Tomlin said. “I love you Rader. Don’t take that shit personally.”
The Steelers’ entire drill regiment here was based upon working two types of blocking — reach and down blocks. Naturally, as a tight end who plays in-line, there will be down blocks. Freiermuth has to work on that especially in 2022 as he was only used on split flows in 2021. The technique is all about being precise and keeping those elbows tight and the hands inside. The feet have to be choppy but direct. The tight end’s back should be flat, but not to where they lose their base of power.
The reach blocks are a different story. The hard lateral stride will change the kinetic chain of the block, but somehow, the player has to keep their shoulders square and drive to create space. It is all about getting in front of the end man on the line of scrimmage for the tight end. They have won their rep to perfection if they can turn that end man. That signals a small shift towards outside zone for this team, which is something that was not plentiful in 2021. That fact that they are practicing it this early signals that there could be somewhat of a shift in philosophy.
Jet Sweeps Galore
Hey, remember all the talk about jet sweeps last offseason? Well, it never came to fruition in much of the actual live games, but that could change in 2022. Ben Roethlisberger is gone, and that means Matt Canada may fully get to implement what he wants on the offensive side of the football. It could bring some full radical change, with the rampant motion and jet sweeps Canada popularized across football being heavily incorporated.
The Steelers continued to work this action throughout Thursday’s practice. That was everything from the snap itself to the mesh point to the exchange, and then the reads associated with it. As such, it is easy to see the Steelers really trying to flesh this part of the offense out a little bit. It could open up some options off play action, and with the speed of guys like Calvin Austin III now in the fold, it is an option to get playmakers in space.