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Training Camp Takeaways: Battle Begins at Right Tackle



On Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers finally had their first day with the pads on. It was the first time since December that the Steelers ever had pads on, and it may have just been the most eventful day of the short offseason the Steelers have had thus far.

With a plethora of press conferences, a live video feed, and of course, the first contact in pads, there was a lot to take note of from this first day. Here are some of those critical takeaways and reports from all of what was heard and seen today.

Minor Injuries Arise

The Steelers, unfortunately, did suffer three injuries of note before Monday. Center Maurkice Pouncey missed practice but was excused due to personal reasons.

Karl Dunbar and Mike Tomlin both noted that Chris Wormley was dealing with a lower-body injury. James Washington and David DeCastro also missed today with minor injuries, but Tomlin characterized all three as day-to-day.

“I fully expect all three of those guys to be full participants here in a short number of days,” Tomlin said.

Overall, the Steelers look relatively healthy for now.

Battle at Right Tackle Begins

The right tackle position is the biggest starting spot that is currently up for grabs on the entire Steelers roster. Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner are expected to battle it out, entering camp as a toss-up.

On Monday, it was Okorafor who received the first first-team reps at right tackle, but Tomlin said he has a plan for dividing the workload and to not necessarily make too much out of one day of work.

“It will be thoughtful, but it will be based on the drills of the day and things of that nature,” Tomlin said. “It will be fair, but I wouldn’t necessarily rep count.”

From starting the Rams game last season to taking the first first-team reps on Monday, it would seem Okorafor is the favorite right now over Banner, but it’s early in the process.

Contract Woes

The Steelers are trying to work around an uncertain cap room number for the 2021 NFL season, but before then, they must clear money before the 2020 season. To accomplish both of those goals, signing Cam Heyward to a long-term extension makes a lot of sense. With Heyward entering the last year of his deal and an extension lowering his 2020 cap hit, it would seem an extension would be natural.

However, on Monday, Heyward said contract talks have gone nowhere.

“Honestly, there are no new updates,” Heyward said. “We’re in, what, the third week of camp? Nothing of any substance. Y’all know where I stand. I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and lead this team to a Super Bowl. We’ll see where we are. I love my team. I love my teammates. I love this city and the coaches. I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler. You have to take two to tango. I want to be here. We just have to see what happens.”

Meanwhile, star wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is also looking to make big money as he enters a contract year. After a subpar third year, Smith-Schuster needs to have a bounce-back season to get paid what he will likely want. He was asked about his thoughts on his contract situation today and shrugged it off.

“As of that right now, I’m not worried about that,” Smith-Schuster said. “It’s more so just playing ball.”

The Steelers will have to decide what to do in the next few weeks before the season, as they typically do not negotiate contracts in season

A Vote of Confidence for Tyson Alualu

The Steelers will have to replace Javon Hargrave at nose tackle after he left Pittsburgh to head to the other side of the state with the Philadelphia Eagles. The main player talked about this offseason thus far has always been Tyson Alualu.

While Mike Tomlin did say “nothing is decided” yet between Alualu and Daniel McCullers, the press conferences today with Heyward, Karl Dunbar, and even Tomlin himself show they are high on Alualu.

“Tyson  has been in this league, and he played a lot in Okie and a lot at the defensive end position when [Stephon] Tuitt went down last year,” Dunbar said. “I think there’s a lot of, I guess you could say, comfort food in having some guy that’s been on the field before that can do it.”

Tomlin praised Alualu for showing up to training camp in great shape, while Heyward gave props to his experience and dependability in the rotation. While it seems McCullers has a chance to win the spot, Alualu certainly seems to have the inside track to the starting spot given his experience.

Backs on Backers Proves Vital

The Steelers made sure to run backs on backers right from the jump of training camp, as they do every year. On the very first day, however, it was rookies Anthony McFarland and Alex Highsmith that got a bulk of the reps as the coaching staff tried to get them acclimated to the NFL style. Tomlin described the drill for them as a “platform of learning” and McFarland was a tough out in the drill.

For new signee Wendell Smallwood, it was a rough day in the backs on backers drill. He was repeatedly beaten, and while he showed his physicality when running the ball, pass protection is a big part of Smallwood’s path to the 53-man roster. He feels increasingly more and more like a practice squad player given his utility. It is only the first day, but that is not the ideal start to training camp for Smallwood.

Keeping an Eye on the Tight Ends

Tomlin and Kevin Colbert each watched the tight ends closely in individuals as they monitored them working the sleds. Tomlin worked with the new faces, including Eric Ebron. Tomlin most importantly seemed to want to instill the mentality and importance of blocking to the tight ends.

“Letting guys know what drills are part of individual period that are important to us and to me. And so, I’m routinely watching the tight ends when they are getting their sled work because I want to present that consistency to them because I want them to know how important that skillset is,” Tomlin said.

He was rewarded, as the tight ends seemed to have a rather standout day. Vance McDonald made a leaping grab over Terrell Edmunds, which turned out to be the highlight of the day. Ebron got praise for his energy and physicality against rookie Highsmith in backs on backers.