NFL Rookie Lessons 101: Keep private conversations private. It may go on with other clubs, but you don’t often hear members of the Pittsburgh Steelers roster revealing words exchanged between them and their head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Just talking to coach Tomlin, the main thing I had taken away from that was he wants goons out there, and he wants somebody who’s not afraid to get his nose dirty, and I feel like I am the best option for that guy,” said defensive lineman Keeanu Benton, the Steelers second-round selection.
Benton meant nothing by the comment. He was simply answering a question posed by a member of the Steelers media: “Being bigger, tougher, stronger, upfront in the trenches, was that something they expressed to you that’s an agenda around here, and they want you to be a part of it? Was that message sold to you?”
One of the technical definitions of goon is: “A violent, aggressive person who is hired to intimidate or harm people.”
That defines what football players are asked to do game-in and game-out. So, it’s no surprise that’s what Tomlin expects of his players and expressed as much to his incoming rookie. He did confirm that’s the descriptive used. Only he would’ve preferred that conversation remain between the two of them.
“That’s an accurate description,” said Tomlin, “but I’ll give him some media training so he can keep some of our private conversations private.”
Bringing Physical Football Back to the Pittsburgh Steelers
The old-school, hard-nosed physical style of football in Pittsburgh seems to be on its way to resurgence. And their 2023 draft class reflects that. Mike Tomlin wants his players to display a certain kind of physicality that overpowers opponents. Harming (as wanting goons suggests) anyone wearing a different-colored jersey is the name of the game, but there’s a distinct difference between harming and injuring.
Football is a violent sport played with one goal: To win. To get there, pain needs to be inflicted to dominate opponents with physical force. Though injuries are an unfortunate inevitability, they shouldn’t be intentional. When a player is injured, he’s probably going to miss time. A hurt player continues on through that pain.
“Dirty” players certainly exist as do dirty coaches. In 2012, members of the New Orleans Saints were accused, investigated and found guilty of paying out bonuses for injuring opponents in an incident dubbed “Bountygate.” The pool was alleged to be operated from 2009 (the year New Orleans won Super Bowl 44) through 2011. The Steelers faced them once during that span, losing 20-10 in a game where Ben Roethlisberger was sacked three times, picked off once and limited to 195 yards. A slew of punishments was handed down, including suspending head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, a $500,000 fine and forfeiture of 2012 and 2013 second-round draft selections.
How Keeanu Benton Fits with the Steelers
(Hopefully) gone are the days of subpar play from reserve-turned-starter Isaiah Buggs and elder statesman Tyson Alualu who, at age 35, is now a free agent. He broke his ankle in Week 2 of 2021 and wasn’t the same upon his return last season. Bottom line, the nose tackle spot needed addressed and the Pittsburgh Steelers did just that with Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton with their original second-round pick (No. 49).
Benton appeared in 45 career games (36 starts) with the Badgers where he logged 81 tackles, including 19 for a loss and 9.0 sacks, according to College Sports Reference. He played primarily at nose, but at defensive tackle as a true senior in 2022.
“He has a strong base and moves well as a nose tackle,” wrote Dale Lolley of Steelers.com. “But he’s also active enough as a pass rusher to have some juice on passing downs, as well. Benton had 4.5 sacks in 2022 and nine overall in his career.”
Expect Benton to be used at nose where he lined up most of the time in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense. He’ll compete with Montravius Adams and newcomer Breiden Fehoko for playing time.