PITTSBURGH — Introducing the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers, a work-in-progress project featuring Ben and the Kids. In this analogy, Mike Tomlin is the mega-group’s manager and trying to schedule a grueling tour.
Mike Tomlin on Pittsburgh’s leadership: “It’s the journey that reveals the answers”
Ben, of course, is Ben Roethlisberger, who at 39 is one of the 10 oldest players in the NFL.
He might as well be 89 compared to most of the Steelers’ locker room. Even with Roethlisberger skewing the average, the Steelers are the 13th-youngest team in the NFL (25.75 years).
That’s because Roethlisberger is just one of seven Steelers players over 30. Gone from Three Rivers are some of the franchise’s most familiar names.
Accordingly, there’s a real deficit in both leadership and production from the Steelers club that went 12-4 a year ago. And Tomlin is as curious as the rest of us about how that gap will be filled.
“We’ll never know until we get in real adversity,” Tomlin said, responding to a question on leadership from PFN. “You can trick yourself into talking about that crap this time of year. Nah man, it’s the journey that reveals the answers to those questions.”
Has Tomlin seen any encouraging early signs?
“I’m not looking for it,” he replied. “That would be comfort-seeking. We’re just working to get this group better.”
How is the Steelers’ offensive line coming together?
There can’t be much comfort about the current state of Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which has been hit particularly hard by offseason turnover.
Since the end of the 2020 season, center Maurkice Pouncey has retired, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Matt Feiler have signed elsewhere, and the Steelers have cut right guard David DeCastro.
The only starter back from last year is Chukwuma Okorafor, the former third-round pick out of Western Michigan. Okorafor started all but one game for the Steelers last year as Pittsburgh’s right tackle. But with Villanueva gone after protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side the past six seasons, Okorafor slides over to left tackle, his natural position.
The transition won’t always be smooth. He had one really bad snap Sunday — new addition Melvin Ingram effortlessly zoomed past him for a would-be quarterback hit on Mason Rudolph. But at this point, he might be the best lineman the Steelers have.
When a reporter pointed out the obvious — that there are serious doubts about this group outside team headquarters — Okorafor replied:
“That’s fine. I don’t care. Truly. Being honest, I don’t care.”
The Steelers are still in OL experimentation mode
It’s a process that could last until the start of the season, if not beyond.
The rest of the Steelers’ first-team offensive line at the start of practice Sunday was Rashaad Coward at left guard, rookie Kendrick Green at center, Trai Turner at right guard, and Joe Haeg at right tackle.
Also in the next: Kevin Dotson at left guard, J.C. Hassenauer at center, and Zach Banner at right tackle. Dotson, a fourth-round pick in 2020, returned to practice Sunday after missing time due to injury. Despite being listed as the Steelers’ starting left guard on their depth chart, he returned as a backup.
“He has done nothing to earn first-team reps,” Tomlin said when asked why. “What are we talking about? He’s a second-year guy that hasn’t worked.”
How is the Steelers’ front seven dealing with change?
Change isn’t all bad for the Steelers, however. The team’s replacement plan at outside linebacker has gone much smoother.
Bud Dupree and his 39.5 career sacks now reside in Nashville after signing a premium deal with the Titans in the offseason.
But the Steelers were OK letting him walk because of the huge strides made by Alex Highsmith, a second-year edge defender whom Pittsburgh took in the third round last year.
Highsmith has been a force in our two times watching him. He followed up a strong Hall of Fame Game (recording 2 tackles for loss and a sack) with constant backfield disruption Sunday. Highsmith applied pressure on Roethlisberger twice in three plays during team drills.
Highsmith is quicker and stronger than he was in 2020. His emergence after a 2-sack rookie season reflects a rigorous training regimen during an offseason spent in North Carolina.
That’s a long way of saying that player development does work and has for years for the Steelers. Whether it does again in 2021 will go a long way in determining whether Roethlisberger can make one more playoff run before his long career comes to an end.