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Q&A: Steelers OG Trai Turner must break you
The Steelers want to run the ball a lot more this year? Signing punishing, five-time Pro Bowler Trai Turner is a great place to start. He explains to Go Long how he breaks the will of linemen.
The last time you saw the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw… and threw… and threw… 68 times in all.
A season that began with an 11-0 start ended in the Wild Card round against the Cleveland Browns.
Of course a major reason for the collapse down the stretch was the utter lack of a rushing attack. A franchise that has prided itself on the ground for decades finished dead-last in the NFL at 3.6 yards per carry. Very rarely did holes open up. Very rarely did anyone in the backfield make a play. With an aging Hall-of-Fame quarterback, no, that’s not a recipe for success.
So, this offseason, the Steelers did something about it. They have made it clear — top to bottom — that they intend to run the ball a lot more with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, new starting running back Najee Harris and… new right guard Trai Turner. The mauling vet replaces the released David DeCastro up front and brings a ton of experience to an extremely young unit. Drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft, Turner anchored a powerful run-first attack in Carolina for seven years before spending one season with the L.A. Chargers.
The other four starters up front only have a combined 24 starts.
The Steelers are counting on Turner — a five-time Pro Bowler — playing a major role in bringing their identity back in 2021.
And this offseason, the 6-foot-3, 320-pounder spent time dissecting his game with Go Long.
It’s clear that if the Steelers do plan to sock defenses in the jaw this season, Turner is exactly the kind of player they need.
Take it back as far as you want—what made you as a person, even as a little kid?
Turner: I started playing ball when I was six. So I’ve always been playing football and I’ve always been big. When I was six, I was playing with eight- and nine-year-olds. I was six and playing with 103-pound kids. That started my football career. It just was fun. It’s a different time now. I grew up in a different time — we didn’t have social media. So it wasn’t like we had access to videos. Pictures of people playing football. I just liked playing football in the streets. And I saw some kids playing with pads on, and said “Why not?”
Right in New Orleans?
When you’re six and that big, you probably knew you may be destined to move other humans around for a living.
Turner: I thought I was a running back. If you look at my 40 time and compare it to some running backs, I’ll fit in the bottom half but I’d still be in the half. I never played running back but I wanted to play running back. I was always fast. I ran a 4.84 to be exact.
From high school to college to the pros, you have had some legendary pancake blocks. Any memorable ones stand out?
Turner: Yeah, we were playing Florida at Tiger Stadium. If I’m not mistaken, it’s on my Instagram still. I can’t think of the dude’s name right now. He was a really good player. He was coming through the “A” gap — on a blitz — and I was stepping to my right. I just so happened to see him take his run up. So I’m like, “Oh, shit.” So I double-backed to the left and I caught him just in time and I sent him from the “A” gap to the “C” gap. From the center to the tackle.
Looking back at college? I did some stuff in college. I was reckless.
How reckless were you? How physical were you?
Turner: I’m about to send you this video quick. LSU was cool. It was like playing on a high school team with a whole bunch of good players. A lot of guys were from the surrounding areas.
In Baton Rouge, the practices are just different there with guys beating the hell out of each other day-in and day-out.
Turner: That’s why I left. I had 20 starts in college.
So the logic is, if I’m going to bash into other people for a living, I might as well get paid for it.
Turner: 100 percent. I’ve got to use my body while I can use it. Besides using it for free. I’m not trying to bring on any sanctions or anything but those were some different types of practices. I haven’t had practices like that since.
What’s it like? What are you doing in those practices?
Turner: Long, man. We’d get outside at about 3 o’clock — dead in the heat. Depending on who you were playing — if it was Alabama Week — the coaches are tight. They gotta get a dub. You lose that game too many times, that’s your job. You could be 10-1. Lose that game every year and they’re like, “C’mon now.” Coach (Les) Miles was an offensive guy so when the defense beat the offense, we had to start the drill over. And run that play the whole drill. And we always had a legit defense. It goes to show you what we were doing in practice.
Looking at this clip now, it was double-whammy. You dinged him once and then dinged him again.
Turner: Yeah, I don’t think I could do that today. It’d be a penalty.
Do you remember what was going through your head on that play?
Turner: (Laughs) Yeah, that’s a money game. We’re playing Florida and we’re playing during the day time in Baton Rouge? That never happens. That’s a money game.
We see your game in the league today. We see it on that one play. Your mean streak. How would you define your mean streak and where does it come from?
Turner: The majority of the players down here are built different. A different mentality. A different mindset. Everybody gets beat but it’s just a mindset that I’m going to keep battling. No matter what happens, I’m going to battle. Sometimes, it’s going to go good. Sometimes, it’s going to go bad. But, shit, I’m going to battle and eventually I’m going to come out on the other side. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But I’m going to come out and a lot of people don’t have that mindset to keep going, keep battling. So I think that’s where the mean streak comes from. Because it’s not like I do that every play. As the game’s going on, I might lose a couple reps. At the end of the day, I’m going to have the last laugh.
Do you get that last laugh the majority of the time?
Turner: It’s funny. The older I get, the more I realize how close battles are. You really play some good players but whoever has the most finish is going to win that battle. There’s a game within the game. I’m talking about that 1-on-1 battle in the game. But I would say so.
That’s the purity of the sport itself — that 1 on 1. You’re going up against the same dude, what, 40, 50, 60 times during a game? That takes a physical toughness but there’s a mental warfare there, too, I would think.
Turner: Definitely. You definitely need an oomph to you. You know what I’m saying? You have to be bringing something behind you. Because it’s not easy to line up against somebody and play the game going backwards. People don’t realize that the league is 70 percent pass and 30 percent run these days. It might even be more toward pass. So you’re playing backing up.
And you’re in the minority of linemen being on teams that have mostly moved forward. Your Panthers offenses wanted to pound the rock. You’re getting to the Super Bowl with Cam Newton running and Jonathan Stewart. That had to be fun when you were clicking on all cylinders and moving forward like that.
Turner: That was fun. You control the tempo. I don’t care what anybody says. If you can’t run the ball, you can’t control the game.
As much as this is a passing league, there still is that element. If you can run the ball, there still is this intangible quality to controlling the tempo, dictating the terms, punching a team in the mouth. I don’t know how you quantify that on a spreadsheet. To you, what does that mean when you can run the ball and you can dictate the terms?
Turner: That’s when you take somebody’s will. When you run the ball, you’re telling the man standing in front of you, “You’re not going to stop me.” That’s a grown-ass man we’re talking about. Don’t get me wrong: It’s just as good pass blocking as it is run blocking. But it’s a little bit different run vs. the pass. I love to run block. I love the fact that I get control over people and I get to watch them essentially break down. It’s a feeling I can’t describe — they literally break down. They break down when you run the ball. Nobody wants to take that on the whole time. The whole game. Everybody wants to pass rush and sack the quarterback.
You can use names here. When were you able to break somebody’s will?
Turner: I ain’t going to do that, but it was actually early in my career and it was just me playing football. It wasn’t my intention. I didn’t even know what I was doing at the time. Because when you’re playing, you’re really just playing. And when we get back on Monday to watch the film, it’s like, “Damn. I had a dominant game against a really good player.” You can see when you take somebody’s will. It’s no different than a defensive lineman when they get a sack in the first five minutes into a game and say, “I’m going to have a hell of a game.” It’s no different. You get one or two of them blocks and it’s “Oh man, this is a little easier than I thought it’d be.” Then, it gets easy… and easy… and it’s “Dang, he’s just getting out of the way now.”
Can you see it? Is it a look in their eyes? Something they say on the field?
Turner: Body language. I’ll give you a prime example. Watch Fletcher Cox play. When you watch somebody like him play, he starts the game off with a tackle. Whatever. There’s no emotion, no celebration. It’s “I did my job. I was supposed to do that.” Now, he’s getting close to the quarterback. He’s smelling the quarterback. Like, “Ooo, I’m getting there.” Now, he’s starting to talk. Now, he’s starting to smile. Like, “Ooo, I’m on your ass.” And then, boom, a sack happens and everybody erupts.
And you can do that on your side of the ball?
Turner: It’s building up momentum. You just have to continue. I give you that example because that’s what you don’t want to happen. That’s what you’re preventing.
And it’s different than guys making plays. It’s different. I’m trying to give it to you as raw as possible. You want to take their confidence away.
We’re so numbers-obsessed today with analytics taking over the game but this all is something you cannot put in a metric.
Turner: That’s not on Pro Football Focus.
That effect can win a game, though?
Turner: For sure. For sure.
You had so much success through your career but that 2015 season in Carolina, you guys did physically dominate teams.
Turner: That was crazy. I was so young that I didn’t understand what we were doing. We went out there every week and it wasn’t “What do we need to do to win?” It was, “How much are we going to win by this week?” And that was the only time I ever felt like that in my career on a week-to-week basis. We had a ton of respect for people. But it was like, “They’re good. We’re better.” That’s just how we approached it. The culture of that team — with Ron Rivera — everything was just clicking with the right players and the right coaches and the right everything. It was working.
We lost one game at Atlanta.
I remember being in the locker room thinking, “Maybe that’s a good thing that happened.” We knew where we were heading. It was, “Maybe we needed that feeling.”
And right up to the Super Bowl, we all thought you’d stomp Denver.
Turner: Think about how it felt watching Peyton Manning get back, fall down, get back up and throw a ball for a completion. I’m like, “What the hell?” If I remember anything from that game, I’ll remember that. How did…? What the…? It was crazy.
Why was that a different Panthers team for one day? That’s a game everybody would love back, I’d imagine.
Turner: Man, did you not see Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware? Every dog has their day and, shit, it wasn’t our day. Unfortunately. The one day we needed it.
How determined are you to get back to a game, a moment like that? And how much football do you have to give the rest of your career?
Turner: That’s what you play for in the NFL. If that’s not what you’re playing for, you’re not going to be able to play for a while. Because you’re going to get some money. You’re going to get a little comfortability. So you have to play for that. I’ve been on the top of the mountain and kicked off. I’m trying to be on the top of the mountain to stand tall.
And your presence is needed. I don’t care what direction this game is going. We see it every postseason. How much do teams need a Trai Turner, a punch-in-the-face presence on the line? Still, in 2021?
Turner: You can have as many prima donnas and as many flashy guys and all this that and the third. But if you don’t have somebody who’s going to punch you in the face, eventually you’re going to have a problem because eventually somebody’s going to want to fight. My track record when it comes to that is pretty good.
Going into Year 8, I couldn’t be more excited.