AFC North: Sean Lee

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers start another round of organized team activities today.

That means three more full-squad practices this week.

And a leap of faith.

The Dallas Cowboys lost arguably their best defensive player for the 2014 season last week when linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL. The grim reality that OTAs are fraught with as much risk as they are reward was reinforced by another in a string of unfortunate injuries for Lee.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsMike Tomlin has advised his players to play hard but smart and to stay off the ground during OTAs.
Not coincidentally coach Mike Tomlin addressed the specter of injury before the Steelers' second OTA last Wednesday, a day after Lee got hurt.

"He told us we don't have pads on so we don't need to be on the ground, we don't need to be bull rushing each other and stuff like that," outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "Use your hands, run to the ball and keep it clean."

The Steelers could have suffered something similar to the deflating loss the Cowboys are dealing with during their first voluntary practice a week ago.

Center Maurkice Pouncey, practicing for the first time since tearing his ACL last September, locked onto rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier during a running play. Pouncey drove Shazier back before the Steelers' first-round draft pick threw off the block and sent Pouncey sprawling to the grass.

Pouncey bounced up immediately and told Shazier, in so many words, to chill. But that play could have turned into another cautionary tale about OTAs had Pouncey reinjured his rebuilt right knee or accidentally taken out a teammate when he fell to the ground.

"Sometimes when guys get pulled to the ground or fall to the ground other guys around you are going to trip over you," veteran tight end Heath Miller said. "You want to try and control what you can control but at the same time there's certain things that are out of your hands."

The collective bargaining agreement that went into effect in 2011 minimized the risk of OTAs by limiting the number of voluntary practices that teams are allowed to stage. Teams are only permitted 10 OTAs as well as one mandatory minicamp, though they are still allowed extra practices if they have a new head coach.

OTAs serve a purpose even if injuries sustained during the practices are magnified and seemingly senseless. They give the players a chance to practice together during the offseason and are particularly helpful to free-agent signees and rookies who are learning a new system.

And, to be fair, players can get injured working out on their own. They can also just as easily blow out a knee in a non-contact situation as they can while locked up with another player or getting tangled up in a pile of bodies.

Tomlin, as other coaches around the NFL do, regularly emphasizes the importance of playing hard but also smart during OTAs. He also reinforces an important message when it comes to the voluntary practices.

"You can't make the team right now is what he says, which is true," left guard Ramon Foster said. "He gives us rules. There will be no fighting out here, no jersey pulling. Protect our guys. We try to keep the guys off the ground."

Players are inevitably going to hit the ground given how fast the game is even with the participants only wearing a helmet, jersey and shorts and not engaging in contact drills.

That is why there is an element of luck when it comes to OTAs as well as a leap of faith by everyone involved in them.

"You start thinking about (getting hurt) and you start playing slow and you can't be yourself, you can't make plays," Jones said. "You start playing slow and now you're getting in other people's way and that could create injuries. If it happens, it happens, you've just got to deal with it. Hopefully all of us can stay healthy throughout these practices."

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