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Virtual Offseason: Global pandemic forces Steelers to adjust program

Technology has come a long way, but never did Steelers’ players think technology would come so far that their offseason would be a virtual one.

While it obviously wasn’t by choice, it was the only way to go once the COVID-19 pandemic hit and kept players away from team facilities for workouts. On a regular basis, players and coaches have met this offseason via Zoom, an app many play-ers didn’t even know existed before March.

“It was cool, an experience,” said Steven Nelson of the virtual offseason to this point. “I am glad to be a part of it. It was a smooth transition. The coaches gave us information. The players gave feedback. It’s a combination of information. A lot of it was critiquing last season and helping guys understand how to correct themselves on their own. It’s not challenging at all. It’s like taking online classes.”

Football players are very accustomed to routine, though. This is the time of year that they were normally in town for OTAs, and doing it from home isn’t routine at all. But they made it work because the coaches brought as much normalcy to it as possible, and it started with keeping the meeting schedule the same as it is when the play-ers are at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

“It’s pretty good, pretty easy,” said Tyson Alualu. “I didn’t have any issues. We have team meetings to start the week, like we would at the facility. It’s cool to see the guys’ faces on Zoom calls. Everyone is locked in. We broke down into groups in meetings, watched film. It’s the norm of what we do in meetings all of the time, watch film and be in position meetings. We make the most of it. Thank God for technology.

“We know what’s expected. Knowing the coaches, knowing the players, being around the organization and knowing all of them, it helps. For the new guys coming in, there are still the unknowns.” That was one of the challenges, getting to know your new teammates and helping them adapt, especially the young players who are trying to navigate so much at once.

“This has never happened before,” said Nelson. “It’s a new thing. Coach (Mike) Tomlin made the rookies introduce themselves on the first Zoom call. It was funny. They had to introduce themselves on video, which was very strange.

It’s important (for the veterans) to be somebody they can lean on; somebody they can come to if they have any questions. We have a lot of guys in our room who give great advice. I think the rookies are fortunate to have guys like that. We just keep them up to speed as much as we can. They are handling it well.

“We couldn’t just go on the field and implement what we learned in the classroom or on Zoom on the field. To my advantage, and the other older guys, we are able to take the information and use it in the ways we know how. For the younger guys, it’s harder. It’s a time for them to learn it both on the field and off the field. For those guys it’s a process.”

It’s also a process for some of the seasoned veterans who are new to the team. Stefen Wisniewski signed in March as an unrestrict-ed free agent and has yet to work with his new coaches and teammates on the field.

“It’s an adjustment. I’m still learning the plays,” said Wisniewski. “I’ve met with my coach and teammates a few hours a day, going through the play install, learning the name of everything. I’m learning the calls we make at the line, the lingo. But I’m not able to do drills. Normally I would be doing drills, learning and working on the technique the Steelers use. That’s the biggest difference, the biggest drawback. At the end of the day you want to know what the guy next to you is thinking, and the best way to do that is to get a lot of reps with them next to you.”

While the players lacked that ability to work in normal group settings, there were some advantages to getting together on the Zoom meetings. These guys are accustomed to being in the locker room, around their brothers, joking, having fun. That’s something they missed as a result of being scattered all over the country.

“It’s a great tool that we can use to bring guys together, but at the same time we are doing it safely via Zoom with social distancing being prac-ticed,” said Nelson. “We all piggyback each other in the classroom. It’s a great way to get back in touch with each other without being in touch.

“We also have our group chats going. They are informative. They are funny. It’s just like being around the guys again, keeping everything loose but at the same time working for one goal, to be the best team in the league.”

Being in Pittsburgh, Alualu has more of a personal connection with some of his fellow line-men, and he tries to take advantage by working out with Cameron Heyward and Daniel McCullers.

“We found ways to go out on a field,” said Alu-alu. “We are doing the things we would normally do around this time, whether it’s just drills or even some football things. I’m thankful for that. We have a place to do that, even though it’s not at the facility. It’s getting the work we need to get at this time to get us ready for the season, while being safe at the same time.

“It has been very helpful when you can go out there and have your brothers hold you accountable for working out, pushing each other. It’s always competitive, at the same time we always make it fun so we can go out and have a good time working out.”

Matt Feiler has been doing the same thing. He and Zach Banner work out together on a regular basis, pushing and inspiring each other.

“You get so used to being around your team-mates and having that camaraderie,” said Feiler. “It’s not the camaraderie you would get at the fa-cility, but it helps. We are competitive at heart. It’s nice to have someone there you can look at and keep you motivated and moving forward. You hold yourself accountable. You don’t want to leave the other guy hanging.”

Feiler said the workouts were a good balance with the virtual program, something that went better than he anticipated, even if it was different than what he is accustomed to.

“You are used to being in that classroom setting with your teammates right in front of you,” said Feiler. “After the first few weeks it got a lot smoother. I check my notes, a refresher to remind myself you always have to look at the notes even from the previous day and look at the stuff you have been learning. But I’ve missed being out there on the field.”

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