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Steelers Analysis

Steelers OTAs Takeaways: QBs Step Up, Intense Rookie Matchup

The Pittsburgh Steelers have Russell Wilson stepping up his leadership while the team has a heated camp battle brewing.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Russell Wilson
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Russell Wilson at the team's OTAs session on May 28, 2024 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — I stated yesterday that this second week of OTAs, especially for the Pittsburgh Steelers, with so many new moving parts, focuses on consolidating leadership in the locker room and installing the new offense. Yesterday, we covered the latter part of that, delving into Arthur Smith, and he is making his presence felt in the offense more than Matt Canada did a year ago. Today, I want to focus more on the leadership aspect of this and the competitive nature of the calendar that we are in, where team building and improvement come first. Notably, it starts at the quarterback position.

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Russell Wilson

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

Justin Fields and Russell Wilson Start Building Leadership

When it comes to leadership and establishing a presence in the locker room, the Steelers have it well. Both Russell Wilson and Justin Fields have experience as franchise guys, and even if the impending talk all Summer between the two is coming (and maybe even starting), they have to lay a base to lead the locker room. So, Fields and Wilson decided to do just that.

Fields and Wilson invited the entire offensive line to The Capital Grille in Downtown Pittsburgh. Even voluntary OTAs can become hectic with a new offense and many different moving pieces. Wilson and Fields called the meeting to lay back and lessen the stress of all the new around town. Not only does that establish leadership skills, but it also actively helps to maintain rapport between the offensive line and quarterback.

“It’s been cool. These guys are so focused,” Wilson said. “They work their butts off in the weight room, on the field, in the film room. Just to be able to share life experiences with one another as much as we can. It’s been hectic; it’s been busy. The more we spend time together, the better. It was a good dinner, for sure.”

It’s a small gesture, but one that any quarterback who has been around the block knows will mean something to the big hogs that will protect him all season. Communication and trust between one another on that level need to be telepathic. If the Steelers want to minimize rust early in the season, off-the-field bonding activities such as this one make a tangible difference.

Regardless, as the team sets into installing the offense, the quarterbacks must be the ultimate facilitators. Wilson and Fields’ clear positions on the depth chart right now help aid that growth and nurturing environment. By the time training camp rolls around, this team should have enough of a base to give Wilson and Fields legitimate chances to volley back and forth if Mike Tomlin’s words of a looming competition prove true.

For now, the two professionals who have acted as the faces of the franchise before are acting like it in Pittsburgh. They do not need much management from Tomlin or Smith, and with so many moving parts, that helps aid the process of growth over these weeks.

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

A Rookie Battle Emerges

I rarely seek to cite a battle this early in the process. Training camp is where those tensions escalate. You could predict the Joey Porter Jr. and George Pickens battle from a mile away last season, but in OTAs, that battle never even lifted off the ground. 2024’s early battle is between rookies Roman Wilson and Beanie Bishop. These guys push each other daily, and it’s fun to watch. Each side has its haymakers, but when it comes down to it, these guys might not have the prototypical size for their positions but play with a lot of bark and back it up with plenty of bite. That means this competition has sizzle.

“I’m looking forward to it, you know. Two young guys coming in and competing for a spot on the team. Like you said, steel sharpens steel,” Bishop said on the matchup with Wilson.

Wilson dismissed it as insignificant, stating that everyone is helping each other grow at this point. He is not wrong, but the stylistic matchup of two feisty individuals really elevates this one. When this goes to Latrobe and legitimate one-on-ones begin, Wilson and Bishop will have plenty of words to chirp about in their matchups.

For now, I am enjoying this as a bystander. Wilson’s speed is excellent, and he still has to iron out the fine details to become a significant contributor this year. For now, he is better in the complementary role. Meanwhile, the more Bishop trots out there, the more I think he rises to the challenge of that slot cornerback battle. There will be others who have a say in that battle, but Bishop’s mentality is converting itself into some splash on the field.

Pittsburgh Steelers OT Broderick Jones

Pittsburgh Steelers OT Broderick Jones at OTAs, May 21, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Broderick Jones = Swing Tackle

Usually, when you think of a swing tackle, that guy becomes the top backup who can play both spots. But the Steelers will do it a bit differently this year. Broderick Jones indicated that he was told he would be the team’s swing tackle this year, with Dan Moore Jr. holding serve at left tackle and Troy Fautanu being able to play both, too, but Jones will seemingly take precedence. If Moore and Jones start and Moore gets injured, for example, I would expect Jones to slide to left tackle while Fautanu would play right tackle.

One note that Dan Moore rang today is that Fautanu seems to be catching on fast at right tackle. If you ask Fautanu, he will say he has not played well. But I would call that hyperbole and in Fautanu’s nature. Fautanu is a staunch perfectionist, and his most prominent critic is likely himself. Moore is impressed by what Fautanu has done quickly, and yes, Moore is a distinguished mentor for the young Washington Huskies product.

“I think Troy’s doing a really good job with his transition,” Moore said. “I definitely wouldn’t compare him to me because he looks a lot better at right tackle than I did (last year), for sure. He has good feet, he’s got long arms, he has a lot of tools that are going to make him a really good player, for sure. I guess the biggest thing for Troy (in adjusting to the NFL), with tackles, is just snap count. That’s the hardest thing to grasp. Edge defenders are so much faster off the ball.”

That will come for Fautanu. His athleticism is elite, and in person, you can see the way he moves in space is rare. It’s not just his mobility in space but precisely how Fautanu can redirect in space and hit his target most of the time. It’s impressive to watch in person. Regardless, it seems the team has a plan for Jones and Fautanu. Jones is playing more on the right side for now, but the closer we get to the season, the more snaps I would expect him to take on the left side.”

Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth at the team’s OTAs, May 28, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Red Zone Bonanza

After Alan Saunders so expertly used bonanza earlier today to describe the renaissance of running back usage in the passing game under Smith, I decided I would steal it to talk about the tight ends. I’ve caught up with every tight end in the room at this point in the season other than Izaiah Gathings, who just signed on Wednesday, and one commonality they all have is that the red zone will be an area where the Steelers will use their tight ends heavily.

MyCole Pruitt has played in the scheme for six seasons. He talked to me about how in the red zone for Smith, it is not just about the motion of running 12 or 13 personnel but more about trading weak to strong side reads and, more importantly, being able to spread defenses out to create mismatches.

Coaches like Kevin Stefanski are notoriously known for pushing the envelope with what they can do in those tight-end heavy looks. Smith follows that beaten path. You could say stock up for every time at that point, but I would say, more than anything, stock up for Darnell Washington. He is a massive player with above-average straight-line mobility. Pittsburgh probably underutilized him last year in the red zone. I do not expect Smith to do the same this season.