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Steelers Sights and Sounds: Somber Return to Work

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UNITY TWP., Pa. — The Steelers returned to the practice fields at St. Vincent College on Tuesday under dreary skies and an subdued mood as the team worked out for the first time since the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.

The offensive players that worst the most closely with Drake have obviously been hit hardest by his loss.

As the backs and receivers gathered for their individual drills, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knelt down and gathered the group around him in a prayer circle for a moment of reflection.

Throughout the day, the trademarked smiles of players like JuJu Smith-Schuster were noticeably missing as the team went through their pads-free workout.

The rain, and eventually lightning and thunder, shortened practice after just an hour and 20 minutes and there were few complaints as the Steelers quietly jogged off the practice field.

NEW VOICES

The receivers dutifully performed their workouts, with two new supervisors to help replace Drake. Coaching assistant Blaine Stewart, who is in his second season with the team and was a wide receiver at Division II Charleston (W.Va.) spent his entire day with the receivers.

Also supervising on-field drills for the first time was Ray Sherman, the former Steelers offensive coordinator and longtime NFL wide receivers coach that has been a guest coach at training for the Steelers.

Sherman was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher in 1998. His last full-time NFL position was as receives coach with the St. Louis Rams from 2012-15. He also worked with the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers.

Head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier in the day that the team has identified a plan going forward to replace Drake, but did not wish to make it public at this time.

Here’s more from the sights and sounds of the soggy practice:

INJURY UPDATES

As advertised, cornerback Joe Haden, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson did not practice. Linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) also did not participate in any team drills.

With the minimal-contact practice, several players were able to return to full participation, mostly notably, starting free safety Sean Davis, cornerback Artie Burns and wide receiver Diontae Johnson.

B.J. Finney played center in place of Pouncey. Matt Feiler shifted from tackle to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor filled in at right tackle. Burns started in place of Haden.

SEVEN SHOTS

The defense was a decisive victor, allowing only two touchdowns while scoring one.

Roethlisberger’s first pass attempt was a fade to Donte Moncrief that was broken up by Burns, who had excellent position on the play. His second pass was headed for Eli Rogers over the middle, but T.J. Watt leapt up to make an interception and returned it for six the other way.

The offense got on the board when Vance McDonald scored on a nifty tight end jet sweep and then Roethlisberger found McDonald inside the right pylon over Kameron Kelly.

But the second team offense, run by Mason Rudolph, got shut out after he made three attempts at tight ends and none of them found the mark. Brian Allen had good coverage on Zach Gentry on the first pass, Rudolph missed Kevin Rader high on the second one, and Gentry couldn’t come down with the third one in double coverage between Kelly and Marcus Allen.

PHOTO GALLERY

Steelers

NBC’s Mike Florio Predicts Dim Outlook for JuJu Smith-Schuster in Free Agency

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Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio is not so sure Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is going to get the pay day he believes he deserves.

Florio joined The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Friday, and painted a dim picture of Smith-Schuster’s free agency prospects.

“If Juju wants to be paid like a No. 1 wide receiver, he’s going to be waiting a long, long time,” Florio said.

Smith-Schuster has expressed a desire to remain in Pittsburgh, but their dire salary cap situation had a made a continuation seemingly impossible.

Now that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has signed a new contract and provided the club additional financial flexibility, there may be a path for Smith-Schuster to return. Still, there will not be enough money available to pay him like one of the league’s elite wideouts. 

If that is what Smith-Schuster wants in Pittsburgh, he may be in for a rude awakening as Florio predicts.

Smith-Schuster led the Steelers with 97 receptions in 2020, while also tallying 831 yards and nine touchdowns.

Selected in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of Southern California, Smith-Schuster has 293 receptions, 3,565 yards and 24 touchdowns as a Steeler. He was selected to his first and only Pro Bowl in 2018.

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Steelers

Steelers Offensive Coordinator Matt Canada on Run Game, Roethlisberger

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Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has spoken publicly for the first time since his promotion in late January.

Canada joined the latest edition of The Standard, the Steelers’ behind-the-scenes web series, and discussed a number of topics, including fixing the run game, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and his offensive philosophy.

There is no denying Pittsburgh produced the least successful rushing attack in football a season ago, averaging just 84.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per attempt.

Canada recognizes the Steelers need to improve significantly on the ground, a mandate he implied came down from Team President Art Rooney II.

“He’s made it very clear that that’s got to get better,” Canada said. “When all of us realized that we didn’t get it done we wanted to with our running game and all of who are here are part of that. And we’ve got to improve upon it in a multitude of ways and we’re certainly focused on it. We’re globally studying who’s running the ball well. We’ve always believed in running the football anywhere that I’ve been. You win up front. I believe that. We believe that. I know Coach Tomlin believes that.”

Not only will the Steelers have to better impose their will in the trenches, but Canada knows they will also have to remove the predictability that plagued them last season, especially in the passing game.

“You have to be able to run the football when they know you’re going to run it,” Canada added. “And you have to be able to throw the football when they know you’re going to throw it.”

Canada also gushed over Roethlisberger, who the Steelers announced will be returning for the 2021 season on a one-year contract Thursday.

“He’s such a great competitor. He competes at everything he does and his competitive drive is so strong and so awesome to be around no matter what we’re doing,” Canada said of Roethlisberger.

He also praised the 39-year-old’s accuracy, which he believes sets Roethlisberger apart from his peers.

“And then just his accuracy. And I’ve said this to one of my buddies who’s a quarterback coach somewhere else. Young quarterbacks, I wish there was some way for them to be here and watch how he practices putting the ball in certain spots. It’s such a unique talent that he’s able to do it.”

While Roethlisberger’s new deal has provided the Steelers some much needed financial flexibility, they will still undoubtedly have some tough departures once free agency begins in earnest.

Regardless which players do or do not remain in Pittsburgh heading into the 2021 season, Canada insists his offense will be multi-dimensional and cater to whatever personnel the Steelers have on the offensive side.

“We are going through and looking at the foundation of our offense. And building an offense that will be conducive to whatever talent that we have,” Canada said. “I don’t believe you have a certain system that works and this is all we’re going to do and we have to have the players for that. We have the players we have each year. Our job is to score more points than the team we play on each Sunday.”

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Steelers Sign Center J.C. Hassenauer on One-Year Deal

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed center J.C. Hassenauer to a one-year deal, first reported by ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.

An exclusive right free agent, Hassenauer was almost a lock to return to Pittsburgh in 2021. His new deal with the Steelers is worth $780,000.

Hassenauer proved a vital piece along the Steelers’ offensive line a season ago, seeing action in 15 games and making four starts. He was on the field for 23% of the team’s offensive stats, while also appearing on 50 special teams plays.

Prior to Pittsburgh, Hassenauer signed with the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2018, spending the first seven weeks of the season on their practice squad.

He played for the Birmingham Iron of the Alliance of American Football in 2019.

Hassenauer played his college ball at Alabama. He made just three career starts for the Crimson Tide, with his final coming in the 2018 College Football Playoff national championship game, a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia.

Hassenauer’s agent Blake Baratz confirmed the signing on Twitter on Thursday.

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