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Steelers OTAs Takeaways: QB Competition is Real, Roman Wilson Heats Up

The Pittsburgh Steelers held their first session of offseason training activities on Tuesday. What did we learn from that?

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Pittsburgh Steelers QB Russell Wilson
Pittsburgh Steelers QB Russell Wilson at the team's first OTAs practice, May 21, 2024 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — Usually, off-season training activities (OTAs) could be more enlightening. After all, these guys are in just helmets, their practice jerseys, and shorts, and without pads, and most of the work is done on air, so it is hard to evaluate what the plan is at this stage in the offseason. But the Pittsburgh Steelers took the field for their first OTA session on Tuesday, and in the four years I have covered OTAs, this is by far the most insightful first day from these. All across the team, I received a few surprises, but a takeaway that did not stun me was Justin Fields and Russell Wilson.

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Justin Fields

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Justin Fields during OTAs at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on May 21, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

QB Competition Is On, and It’s Real

This quarterback competition is not a farce. Wilson might have the pole position designation from Mike Tomlin, and that’s all fine and dandy, but not only does logic tell you this should be a competition, but Tomlin’s actions scream it out loud. Tomlin referred to the ‘appropriate times’ for the competition to kickstart into high gear. That likely means training camp and preseason games. Fields is ready to go, however. The fourth-year quarterback is not backing down from the challenge, even if Wilson is a mentor figure and former Super Bowl Champion.

“I’m definitely competing,” Fields said. “Russ knows that. We’re competing against each other every day. I definitely don’t have the mindset of just sitting all year. I’m coming in here every day giving it all I got and pushing him to be his best, and he’s pushing me to be my best every single day.”

Fields is not trying to drive a wedge between himself and Wilson (who downplayed this competition), but he is trying to establish a nature to this entire puzzle. Wilson is the one with the public clout, thanks to Tomlin’s flattering statements, and while the compliments have shown upon Fields at times, there is no compliment quite like hearing you will start as the QB1. Wilson has the upper hand, and Fields plays from behind. 

 It’s the mindset anyone in competitive sports should have. But Fields has that, and this competition should heat up significantly when the Steelers arrive in Latrobe. For now, it’s more about instruction. 

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Roman Wilson

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Roman Wilson at the team’s first day of OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Roman Wilson Catches Fire

At rookie minicamp, I coined Roman Wilson as a ‘speedy dot.’ The more I watch Wilson, the more apt that description becomes for him. Wilson’s instant acceleration and speed stand out among veterans. If there was one receiver who had the best day on Tuesday, count me in as saying Wilson was Tuesday’s best. That’s an excellent first impression for your quarterbacks and veteran teammates.

Wilson stands out in how smoothly he operates in the middle of the field. The Steelers have no one else on this roster that can claim that to their skill set. Wilson’s toughness and football smarts allow him to make tough catches in man coverage while identifying the soft spots in zone coverage. To win over the middle like that is a distinguishing skill set that made Wilson bank at Michigan on those crossers.

Pittsburgh will still have to use him in specific areas to start. Bunch sets, motion, and other condensed formations to get Wilson free and away from contact are appreciated for him at the start of his career. But his tape at Michigan lines up with a few solid days to start his career. 

Pittsburgh Steelers WR George Pickens

Pittsburgh Steelers WR George Pickens at the team’s first OTAs session, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

George Pickens’ Next Step

Coming off a season where he dazzled but was up-and-down, George Pickens was asked a simple question on Tuesday — what is the next step? 

It’s a fair question when considering Pickens’ dynamic physical traits and his elite contested catch ability. When Pickens took a step forward as a route runner a year ago, that soared his production into sustainable WR2 territory, but this could be the year he elevates into the echelon of elite wide receiver. Pickens wants to work on his play at the line of scrimmage and diversify his route tree.

“I worked on quicker routes,” Pickens said. “You know, I feel like I’m already dominant at the line, so it’s about getting quicker, really.”

In other words, Pickens wants to become an all-around player. He is a deep threat who can win on go-balls and post routes. We know that. Last year, Pickens proved he could win on dig routes and comebacks. Now? The next step is winning in the quick game to become an actual three-level threat as he embraces the WR1 role on the team. 

My biggest takeaway is that Pickens still needs to defeat press coverage better. There were plays a year ago where Pickens let defenders get into his body and stifle him at the line of scrimmage. At other times, the hand fighting was there, and Pickens created easy separation. This player has all the traits to become a three-level stud; he has to click those final pieces together. 

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ryan Watts

Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ryan Watts rookie minicamp, May 11, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Ryan Watts, Do It All Guy

I know the hype centered around other players, but I wanted to talk to sixth-round rookie Ryan Watts. Listen, it’s not every day that a guy with this type of athleticism and size is billed as a chess piece in the secondary. Watts has tremendous explosiveness and, even at 6-foot-3, put up solid times in the agility tests. But his 4.52 40-yard dash raised eyebrows about a possible move to safety. It’s early on, but through rookie minicamp and one OTA practice, Watts says his role is as a chess piece.

Watts confirmed that on Tuesday, the Steelers used him as a box safety, but at rookie minicamp, he played outside cornerback. He even received some work as an overhang nickel prospect. That is not counting his special teams versatility, which Watts also boasts on his resume. This well-rounded player has a path to the roster through special teams first, but the versatility in the back half is intriguing. 

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith

Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Arthur Smith during rookie minicamp on May 11, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Details 

When talking with players on the offensive side of the ball, Arthur Smith’s name came with one word after it almost ad nauseam — details. Matt Canada repeatedly had become stagnant and complacent when getting into the thick minutiae of his playbook. But Smith seems like the opposite. Does that magically make him the answer at offensive coordinator? No. But it does mean one clear difference from someone who could pass as the worst offensive coordinator in the NFL to someone who helped engineer an offense that went to an AFC Championship. 

“Arthur, I mean, he’s very meticulous in the way he explains the offense. Very detailed, and we’ve kind of been focusing on setting the foundation, not really getting too far ahead of ourselves. Just setting that base and not working too far ahead, but also getting a good amount to where guys can learn their processes and know the why behind certain things,” Fields said of Smith.

Again, this is not the end all be all, but that is a drastic shift from what they wanted to do. Other offensive buzzwords mentioned today that it felt were absent from discussions under Canada? Play action, condensed formations. In theory, this all sounds great. After his tenure in Atlanta, the right approach is for Smith to show it. But the details are being taught, which is a natural step forward from the previous regime.