This story by Alan Saunders originally appeared on our brother site Steelers Now.
UNITY TWP., Pa. — If you look closely behind the facemask of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Karl Joseph, you can see some flecks of gray in his beard.
The 28-year-old missed part of the second week of Steelers training camp last week to be present for the birth of his second child and first son, and parenthood can certainly add a few gray hairs to anyone.
But Joseph doesn’t seem stressed out about being a father, or even being a veteran in a sport dominated by youth.
As a former first-round draft pick, he has certainly been in more secure spots in his career. He started 49 games for the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns from 2016-20, but had a tough 2021. He signed back with the Raiders as a free agent, was cut out of training camp in August and landed with the Steelers.
He spent most of 2021 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad, and with starters Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, backups Tre Norwood, Miles Killebrew and Joseph all back and free agent Damontae Kazee added to the mix, he’s in an intense competition for a roster spot.
So why the comfort level in Pittsburgh?
“I’m a lot more mature, to say the least,” Joseph said. “I understand the game better, understand the business aspect of it, and the relationship aspect of it. But I also notice the small details of what it takes to be great and stay healthy. That’s the one thing or me that I’m very blessed and happy about so far, I’ve been able to stay healthy. That hasn’t always been the case for me in my career.”
But make no mistake about it, there is definitely a roster crunch when it comes to the Steelers safeties, and no one other than Fitzpatrick, the highest-paid player at the position in the NFL, should feel too safe.
“Oh, it’s very tight,” Joseph said. “You know, everybody’s competing. We’ve got a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things on defense. We are rotating playing different stuff, in the slot, safety, corner, stuff like that. So we’ve got a very competitive group and the coaches are challenging us. We’re getting great coaching. It’s just going to be who excels and separates themselves in those preseason games.”
Last season, Joseph didn’t get the opportunity to show himself in Pittsburgh’s preseason games, as he was still with the Raiders, and when he got to Pittsburgh, he had to climb aboard Mike Tomlin’s proverbial moving train.
“I felt like my head was spinning a little bit getting thrown in last year,” Joseph said. “Being on the practice, so not getting the full reps on defense. But now being here all offseason and getting to know they guys, really understand the defense and going over the small details … I know all the spots on defense, being able to go to the slot, outside, centerfield or whatever it is.”
Saturday’s Steelers preseason opener will be against the Seattle Seahawks, and the Seahawks are starting former WVU quarterback Geno Smith. Smith and Joseph played together on the 2012 Mountaineers team. Joseph didn’t play when the Steelers hosted Smith and the Seahawks in 2021, so he’s looking forward to getting a second chance at an old friend.
“Hopefully, I get to see him,” Joseph said. “We’ll see. I know he’s starting right now. I am excited. I haven’t played against him in a while.”
Smith is battling Drew Lock to be the Seahawks’ starting quarterback, and is expected to start on Saturday.
Defensive backs are used to being put on islands in coverage, but as the only West Virginia alum in the Steelers locker room, Joseph might find himself on a different kind of island come Sept. 1, when the Mountaineers face the Pitt Panthers in the renewal of the Backyard Brawl.
Defensive coaches Teryl Austin and Jerry Olsavsky are both Pitt alumni, as is first-round draft pick Kenny Pickett. Joseph said there hasn’t been too much trash talk yet with the Steelers focused on their business and the game a few weeks away, but he expects that to change.
“We’ll probably make a friendly wager bet,” Joseph said. “We haven’t talked about it yet, we’ve been so locked in on this training camp. When it gets closer, we’re going to talk about it. Because [Austin] was talking trash when the schedule first came out. That’s going to be fun, a little Backyard Brawl.
Joseph didn’t play in the game, the last one having been held in, 2011, just before he arrived on campus, and Pickett obviously didn’t, either. Austin and Olsavsky each went 2-1-1 against WVU from 1984-87 and 1985-88, respectively.
Steelers assistant wide receivers coach Blaine Stewart should have Joseph’s back in the locker room wager. Stewart played at Charleston and James Madison, but he’s a Morgantown native and his father Bill Stewart coached at WVU from 2000-10.
The Steelers defensive back room is dominated by experience, with free agent vets like Kazee and Levi Wallace adding to what already was a group that had played a lot of football together.
The wide receivers room, on the other hand, is a bunch of youngsters, with Diontae Johnson as the elder statesmen, and a pair of precocious rookies in George Pickens and Calvin Austin III.
That dichotomy — and the training camp process of 1 on 1 battles, over and over again, day in and day out, has led to some spirited discussions between wide receivers and defensive backs.
“It’s competitive,” Joseph said. “But it’s fun. You’ve got to make the atmosphere fun. You’ve got a lot of guys that are competitors, got some guys that are scrappy. … It’s fun when you’ve got guys like that going back at it. You’ve got the young guys competing on deep balls, talking when they make a play on us.”
One of the loudest talkers, and perhaps the loudest, has been Pickens, who dominated training camp on Wednesday.
“He’s good, man, and I think he doesn’t even know it yet. He might, though, as much as he talks,” Joesph said, with a laugh. “Being around guys like Diontae that have developed certain skillsets that he can learn from, guys like Chase and stuff, he’s got a good group around him and he’s got crazy ability. He’s been showing it. I just hope that translates to the regular season, too.”