The issue of leadership within the Pittsburgh Steelers organization has been a hotly discussed topic this offseason, with questions raised about multiple members of the team from Art Rooney II to the players in the locker room. And while the team has been harshly criticized at times by some in the national media, it would be fair to say that some of the observations are not completely without merit.
If the first few weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) are any indication, it would appear that the doubts of the outsiders have been heard loud and clear in the locker room, with leadership seemingly the new buzzword among the players. Not only have the more obvious names like Ben Roethlisberger, Ramon Foster, Joe Haden and Cameron Heyward spoken openly and often about a need for them to step up more in 2019, several of the younger players on the roster are also embracing the idea of becoming a leader.
Conscious of the fact that he is now one of the longest serving wide receivers on the team and the clear No. 1 of the group, JuJu Smith-Schuster spoke about the subject at length during the first week of OTAs, despite still being one of the youngest players on the roster.
“Yeah, it is weird, being 22, but having that many games played, being a role model for that room, I’m pretty sure I can take on that challenge and that’s what I’ve been doing. You know, being the leader and just trying to, you know, contribute like everybody else.”
“With the experience that I’ve played at this point, age is just a number. I’ve played enough games under my belt where I’ll be able to take on this. It’s just another challenge that we’ve got to deal with.”
“I’m already vocal. I’m just vocal just in person, that’s how I am. There’s no need for me to go out of my way and yell at the guys. We’re all adults here. We all know what’s right from wrong. Everyone just works. Everyone has a voice in the room. It’s not just mine.”
“I like to have a little voice. Being a young guy in a room, being 22, I feel like my dog, a French bulldog, you know, just barking at everybody. But at the same time, they’ve got dogs too, so they can bark. I like that role.”
Stopping short of calling himself a leader, James Conner also acknowledged his relative experience in a young running back room, telling Teresa Varley of Steelers.com that he would rise to the challenge as needed.
“It’s something that just happens, I just go about my business, and when I can help someone I will. If that is a leader role, it is.”
Given those two members of the 2017 draft class are already preparing to assume leadership roles, it should perhaps come as no surprise to learn that the first player selected that year is also looking to take on that mantle in 2019 as well. T.J. Watt spoke in detail about his plans to be an example to the younger players on the team when talking to reporters.
“Just trying to build that leadership role and be a guy the younger guys can look up to. Be a tone setter for the defense and the whole team. This time of year is really big. My rookie year I was really big on staying quiet and just working. My second year trying to prove myself, and I feel like I still haven’t fully proven myself. I feel like through what I have done around here, everyone sees the work I do and I can get in a leadership role and have a voice on this defense.”
T.J. Watt talks about becoming a leader, working on his pass rush, building chemistry this time of year and more. pic.twitter.com/3ULmuf7fqs— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) May 29, 2019
Vance McDonald also talked about stepping into a leadership role with Dale Lolley of DK Pittsburgh Sports, the veteran name at the top of a very young and inexperience tight end group.
“It’s good. We got three young guys, I think, that have a shot to make rosters, whether it’s here or somewhere else. Man, I know what it’s like. It seems like just yesterday that I was a rookie or, you know a second-, third-year guy, so it’s always enjoyable to pass along knowledge.”
“At the end of the day, I’m trying to make our room the best that it can possibly be. I think that’s what it requires in order to play good, team football. I have to unselfishly approach those guys; like, if I were to go down or X were to go down or anybody, our room can still be effective. I just want to approach those guys like I can fill in seven years of knowledge, so I’m going to help them out any way I can.”
This sentiment was also echoed by both Mike Hilton and Sean Davis. Hilton may still be patiently waiting for a long term contract, but that has not impacted his willingness to pass on his knowledge to the younger players. As reported by Chris Adamski of TribLive.
“I know, especially in our room, I am trying to take on more of a leader role, trying to be more vocal while also take accountability for myself.”
The fourth-year safety also clearly aware of his veteran status among a young safety group.
“Time flies, It’s crazy. I’m an older guy now ... Guys look up to me to help them, teach them stuff and know that coach is looking to me to do that. Time is flying — and my role has changed tremendously.”
With so many young players at key positions groups, the Steelers will need veteran leaders across the roster if they are to be successful in 2019 - and it is reassuring to see that so many players appear willing to fill the void. Hopefully learning from the past mistakes of supposed leaders like Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, this new crop of veteran leaders is saying all the right things when it comes to accountability and leading by example. Should this continue when the going gets tough during the regular season, Pittsburgh might finally be able to put the criticisms behind them.