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Kwon Alexander's days are numbered

Aug 05, 2023

By virtue of signing with the Steelers a week into training camp, inside linebacker Kwon Alexander missed OTAs, minicamp and something else that comes with being a new player: first dibs on a number.

“It was the only one they had left,” Alexander said of the No. 26 he’s been wearing since he joined the team Aug. 3. “I had to rock with it until the end of preseason.”

Keen observers may note that someone already had that on offense for the Steelers, fourth-year running back Anthony McFarland. But in August, double numbers aren’t an issue.

Now that both are set to make the 53-man roster — Alexander certainly, McFarland most likely — someone’s got to budge. According to McFarland, he wouldn’t mind giving a ninth-year veteran the right-of-way, but Alexander always considered himself leasing, not owning.

“I’m just waiting on them to let me know what number’s available. I’ll probably get up out of the 26, let my boy AntMac do his thing with it,” Alexander said. “I’ll try to find a 50 number or something like that. I wanted a single-digit, but they won’t let defensive players be single-digit guys here. It’s still old-fashioned, traditional.”

That’s one thing Alexander, 29, has learned about his fifth NFL team. Despite the league relaxing its restrictions on jersey numbers a couple years ago, the Steelers have clung to the conventional rules for the most part.

There was an exception made in 2021 when Melvin Ingram was allowed to wear No. 8. Of course, that wasn’t enough to offset his disappointment about his lack of playing time, so he left that jersey and the Steelers behind when he was traded to the Chiefs mid-season.

The Steelers’ adherence to old-school jerseys came up again this offseason when rookie tight end Darnell Washington hoped to be issued No. 0, only to be told that wasn’t happening, despite the NFL allowing his college number to be worn again. Just last season, Alexander wore No. 9 with the Jets, and the year before that, he switched from No. 58 to No. 9 with the Saints. He was a single-digit guy in college, too, wearing No. 4 at LSU after initially being No. 25.

But Alexander isn’t sweating the cosmetic stuff, not after a preseason in which he had seven tackles, most of any Steeler who figures to play starter-type snaps. As a former Pro Bowler who has had stints with the Buccaneers, 49ers, Saints and Jets, Alexander isn’t worried about “fitting in” — at least not yet.

“Just being yourself is the main thing for me,” he said. “Going out there and showing people how I work, how I practice. So, really, just getting my respect.”

In other words, Alexander is not here to joke around and enjoy the camaraderie in Pittsburgh. Intensity is a good word for what he brings to the table. Or “singularly focused,” as coach Mike Tomlin might say.

“Everybody embraced me with open arms, man,” Alexander added. “Everybody’s here to work. We’re friends and everything like that — we’re building bonds — but everybody’s here to compete. It’s business.”

Hence the flashy red duffel bag Alexander carries with him everywhere. Latrobe, locker room, road trips, it rarely leaves his side. His “work bag” or “briefcase,” as he calls it, with his iPad so he can study film whenever he wants and doesn’t have to miss anything.

That laser-like approach should help the Steelers defense, but it also might have aided in the overall team development process. Just ask McFarland, who found himself developing a bit of a mini-rivalry with Alexander at Saint Vincent College. While many were eying the daily battle between George Pickens and Joey Porter Jr., Alexander and McFarland were frequently paired together for 1-on-1 drills.

“I’ve been watching him for a long time, so it’s kind of an honor to go against him,” McFarland said. “[Tomlin] would say in meeting rooms a lot of times he wants 26 on 26.”

Alexander’s first real test with the Steelers will be against his former team, the 49ers, with whom he went to the Super Bowl in 2020. Much has changed with that organization, especially at quarterback, but they still have some of their top playmakers, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, not to mention their renowned offensive-minded head coach, Kyle Shanahan.

“We haven’t got to that point yet, but I would assume he’ll have certain things to say since he was there with them,” said fellow inside linebacker Elandon Roberts. “Some offenses change and evolve over the years, and I think Kwon’s been gone from there for a little while, but hopefully Kwon can help in that way — and, obviously, his play on the field.”

Indeed, that’s what Alexander wants. He plans to be making plays between the lines more than assisting young players from the bench.

“My main focus is trying to get on the field, get the playbook down and make an impact on the field,” he said. “That’s really my main goal.”

And at this point, he doesn’t care what number he’s in while he does it.

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