PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers wrapped up their 2023 OTAs on Thursday with the final of nine practice sessions at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side.
So what did we learn about the 2023 Pittsburgh Steelers after three weeks of watching practice? Let’s dive in:
DRAFT STEAL IN PROGRESS?
It might be because they’re both tall cornerbacks, with dreadlocks, playing in mostly the same spot on the field, with a uniform number that starts with a two, but it’s been kinda tough to tell the difference between Steelers second-round draft pick Joey Porter Jr. and seventh-round draft pick Cory Trice throughout OTAs.
That should be a pretty solid sign for the future of Trice, who fell down draft boards after being considered by most to be an early day three pick.
Now, it could be a not-so-great sign for Porter that the seventh-rounder has nearly been his equal so far. But the Steelers knew they were dealing with a player that was going to have to adjust to the NFL after playing a whole lot of one scheme in college.
WITHER THE TWEENERS?
One of the things that we were seeking to learn during these OTA sessions is what the Steelers would do with their players that looked like they could slot at multiple positions.
So far, here’s how the tweeters have shaken out:
DeMarvin Leal is playing both defensive line and outside linebacker, as he did in 2022. Leal started his rookie season expecting to play exclusively defensive line, but then T.J. Watt’s injury forced him to play mostly outside. He feels more ready for that role in 2023, cutting down some weight.
“I feel like I can play from a 3-technique out to a 9-technique,” he said. “I’m here and I know what to expect now.”
The Steelers said when they drafted Nick Herbig that he could play both inside and outside linebacker, and they may still believe that, but it’s been all outside linebacker from Herbig so far, even with the additions of Leal and Markus Golden to the rotation at edge rusher.
New safety Keanu Neal said the Steelers are playing him a little bit of everywhere, including strong safety, linebacker and as a slot defender. But it seems the place that Neal will have the biggest impact is as the Steelers’ Dime linebacker, a role that was less-than-successfully given to Robert Spillane in 2022.
Seventh-round offensive lineman Spencer Anderson has truly been a tweener, playing at every spot on the line, and it doesn’t seem that the Steelers have zeroed in one place for him, leaving the door open to Anderson making the club as a backup at all three spots.
Connor Heyward has been playing all over the offense, but he’s definitely still a tight end by trade. The Steelers will use Heyward, and probably their other tight ends, as well, out of the backfield more now that Derek Watt is no longer a part of the offense. Unlike the others, though, Heyward has ball-carrying ability that makes him a weapon out of the backfield and as a tight end.
The big question the first day of OTAs was whether Steelers outside linebacker Alex Highsmith would work while attempting to negotiate a contract extension with the team. The answer to that was a resounding yes, and Highsmith was there for the final practice in just as high spirits as he was on day one.
There has not been any public update on the status of those talks, but it seems likely that Highsmith will be more involved in the team while negotiating than his predecessors Minkah Fitzpatrick, Diontae Johnson and T.J. Watt were.
PLENTY OF LEADERS
The Steelers defense had some turnover ahead of 2023, especially at cornerback and inside linebacker, but while they have some new faces, they aren’t short on leadership options.
Golden, Neal, Elandon Roberts, Cole Holcomb and Patrick Peterson are players with tons of NFL experience that have already grabbed leadership roles on the defense. Combined with Fitzpatrick, Watt and Cam Heyward, the Steelers should have a big number of strong personalities to lead their defense in 2023, despite the turnover.
The Steelers have been adding to the offense, and while the players are obviously eager to keep the exact details of what’s new quiet, they have confirmed that the offense appears to be positioned to be in a better place to finish ahead of their 26th scoring rank from 2022.
“I’m not going to say we’ve revolutionized the offense,” one returning veteran said. “But there are some new concepts that I think are going to make us better.”