Sunday, August 23
Alualu's competitive side is showing: When it comes to having fun in the Steelers locker room at Heinz Field during training camp, Tyson Alualu and T.J. Watt have earned full bragging rights. The two are currently the No. 1 seed in 'Spikeball,' a fun game that is bringing out the competitive side of the players during free time in the locker room.
"With anything as athletes, you get real competitive," said Alualu. "(We) formed teams and talk a lot of smack. Right now, T.J. is my partner and we have been playing pretty well. I think our record is like 11-1, so still the No. 1 seed. That has been fun being able to build that camaraderie with a lot of the other guys."
Locker room games aren't the only thing bringing out Alualu's competitive side this camp. With Javon Hargrave leaving via free agency for the Philadelphia Eagles, it's Alualu who has gotten the first look at the nose tackle spot in camp. It's not a spot completely new to him, but he did spend more time at end last year, especially after Stephon Tuitt went out with a pec injury. Alualu said he didn't do anything special physically this offseason to prepare for the new spot but did say there are some mental challenges that comes with it.
"I don't think I did too much different preparing to play nose tackle because in our defense, especially when we are in nickel, we play a lot over the center," said Alualu. "A lot of those repetitive things playing from whether we are in the tilt over the center, on the center or two-eye over the guard. I think it is more of a mental thing playing inside, especially in our "okie" defense. It is a lot (quicker) getting your hands on the center. It is more of a mentality.
"The further and further you move away from the ball, whether you are playing defensive tackle or defensive end, you get more space. But when you are playing nose tackle, you get a lot more action a lot faster. I guess getting your hands a lot quicker, and just working on that throughout the offseason. I've seen Javon work throughout the years that I have been here. I think I got first-hand what it looks like to be a great nose tackle. Seeing him work and seeing how he operates on a daily basis from practice and letting it translate to the games, I think being able to see how he plays was definitely a positive for me moving forward."
Alualu said there isn't any pressure heading into the season as the starter, especially heading into his 11th season in the NFL.
"Whenever your number is called, you have to be ready," said Alualu. "It is no different. Whenever you have your opportunity, coaches preach it a lot, the standard is the standard. No matter what ways or how you got here, whatever is expected of the starter to do or whoever is before you, the expectation is always high. You have to play at that level to keep that job. Filling in for Javon, he played very well here, and I look forward to doing the same. Whether it is me out there or just trying to teach the young guys the standard of what is expected to play nose tackle or defensive end.
"Being a vet in this league, it is just always about knowing your job and doing your job and earning the respect of your teammates and coaches. Enough that they trust you enough to put you out there, you have to make the most of it."
Check out the best photos from the fourth week of Steelers Camp
Ebron is full of energy: Somehow, some way, even when he said he was tired after coming off a night practice on Saturday, Eric Ebron still managed to bring the same energy to a zoom call on Sunday that he brings to the field every day during training camp.
Right off the bat when the Steelers signed Ebron this offseason as an unrestricted free agent, the tight end just bounded with energy. None of that has changed as he is always vocal on the field, keeping the mood light and the energy level high.
"It's just who I am, going out there and having fun," said Ebron of his approach at practice at Heinz Field. "We don't play music, so I have to find some way to get my energy going to be who I am, the player I want to be, whether it's practice or a game. I am just always energized, except right now I am tired."
Tired. Physically, yes, with camp going full gear right now. But there is something else Ebron is tired of.
"I am just tired of losing," said Ebron, who played for the Colts and Lions before joining the Steelers. "I just want to win here. That is my only goal."
Ebron was the first-round pick of the Detroit Lions in the 2014 NFL Draft, the 10th player overall selected. He spent four seasons with the Lions, before signing with the Indianapolis Colts in 2018 as an unrestricted free agent.
Ebron has played in 83 games in his six seasons. He has 283 receptions for 3,195 yards, an 11.3-yard average, and 27 touchdowns. He has 32 catches that are 20 or more yards, and six catches that are 40 plus yards.
His best season came in 2018 when he had 66 receptions for 750 yards and 13 touchdowns, all career highs. In 2019 he played in 11 games with 31 receptions for 375 yards and three touchdowns, finishing the season on injured reserve.
A healthy Ebron is now ready to go with his new team and is adjusting to what is being asked of him early on, which includes working on his blocking. One thing you will always see the Steelers tight ends do in practice is work with the blocking sleds, something Ebron said he really didn't do much in the first six years of his career. And it's a drill Coach Mike Tomlin is hands on with, always watching with a close eye.
"From I hear, Mike Tomlin is always over there," said Ebron of his coach watching the drill. "I think it's fun. I think it's pretty cool that Mike Tomlin is at all of the drills and he continues to be a part of everything going on, all the cohesion going on around his team.
"As far as hitting the sled it's new, it's fun. I haven't hit a sled in a while. It gets practice going and at the same time you are really tired."
More from Ebron:
On his role:
"I am just here to be another chess piece. It's easy to cover our receivers when you don't have to pay attention to anyone else. You just play two-high and cover both our outside receivers. I feel like I pose a threat in the middle of the field that is going to help our receivers have one-on-one coverage and hopefully they win. I am just here to do my job."
On his rapport with Ben Roethlisberger:
"I am just still trying to completely understand him. I have had weeks with him. Trying to understand some things. I believe I am picking it up well. The way he thinks. If I am not thinking the same things as the quarterback, I don't get the ball. I am trying to pick his mind and see what he thinks, what he likes and doesn't like. It's all been a work in progress and so much fun."
On the potential of the two-tight end set with him and Vance McDonald:
"It solves the problem that we have on every snap on what the defense is trying to disguise. With a vet quarterback like Ben, it helps with his clarity on checking the defense. I believe two tight end sets are dominant if you have two really good tight ends and I believe we do. I look forward to making Ben's job easier, our offense's job easier and pulling the truth out of defenses."
Check out the best photos from the Steelers evening practice in full uniform
Saturday, August 23
Rooney on camp, adapting and fans: Steelers President Art Rooney II spoke to Bob Pompeani during the team's Saturday evening practice at Heinz Field, which aired on Pittsburgh's CW and the Steelers digital channels.
Rooney talked about the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the team's 2020 training camp, which was moved from its normal home at Saint Vincent College to Heinz Field per NFL guidelines of holding camp at team facilities.
"This has been a long planning process," said Rooney. "It started back in May when we started to realize we weren't going to have a normal offseason program. As we progressed along it looked like we were going to have to change plans and not go to Saint Vincent College. Our friends up there at Saint Vincent and Latrobe, we are sorry we aren't there with you and we will be back next year.
"It was a long planning process. At the end of the day we felt like we could create a good situation here at Heinz Field. A lot of room to spread people out. So far, I think it's worked pretty well."
The NFL is one of the major sports leagues, along with MLB, that opted to not go into a 'bubble' for training camp and the season, mainly because of the logistics.
"I don't there was ever a serious conversion about trying to put the whole league in one or two cities," said Rooney. "The logistics of that were going to be difficult to manage. The player's association was never enthusiastic about that. We never really talked about a bubble like the NHL and the NBA are doing."
Despite not having a bubble, Rooney feels good about the prospect of the 2020 season going on as planned.
"I feel good about the season," said Rooney. "I think we will play the season. If we have to adjust somewhere along the way I think we have to adapt. This year has been that for everybody. You have to learn to adapt and make the best out of the situation. I know the league is prepared for that. We are prepared for that. I feel good about the season getting started on time and hopefully ending on time. We'll see."
Because of the pandemic fans have been unable to attend camp this year, and multiple teams have announced that they will not have fans either in the early parts of the season, or at all this season. The Steelers will open the 2020 season against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 14 on Monday Night Football without fans, but Rooney said there are still conversations with state officials going on regarding having fans at Heinz Field for regular season games.
"We miss the fans," said Rooney. "We haven't given up completely on potentially having fans at some point during the season. We continue to work with the Governor's office on that. We'll see. If things improve, perhaps we will have some fans at some point during the season. It will be different. The home field advantage will be very different around the league. Some stadiums are going to have fans, some are not. It's like everything else this year it's going to be an unusual situation we just have to adapt to."
More from Art Rooney II:
On if having a veteran team will help with all of the challenges:
"We feel good about our team and the number of veterans we have returning, the veteran leadership we have on this team. The coaching staff pretty much intact from last year. I think all of those things should be helpful to us. We just have to go out there and play the games and do the best we can. We feel good about where we are and we just have to keep getting ready for the season."
On if stability on the coaching staff is beneficial as well:
"The challenge of not having an offseason program, a normal training camp, preseason games it's a challenge for every team in the league. Having a veteran team, a consistent, stable coaching staff, hopefully all of those things are going to be beneficial to us. We just have to build on that as the season wears on."
On salary cap and signings amidst the pandemic:
"It's just an usual year. The planning for the salary cap has been difficult just like everything else about this year. We're doing our best. We're trying to make the best decisions we can make. The good news is I think we will have our team pretty much intact going into this season. We'll just have to deal with next season, next season."
Feeling confident: The 2019 season wasn't what Mason Rudolph had hoped for. When he was pegged as the Steelers starter after Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season after a Week 2 elbow injury, Rudolph had high hopes for himself and the offense.
It didn't play out that way. Ups and downs on the field, temporarily losing his starting spot to undrafted rookie free agent Devlin Hodges, and a collarbone injury that sidelined him several weeks led to what was a disappointment for the young quarterback.
"When I looked back at last year, I didn't run our offense at the level to meet the Pittsburgh Steelers standard," said Rudolph via zoom on Saturday morning. "You look at the film, ways to improve, and there is a lot of meat on the bone there where I get excited because you have been through a lot of game experience and reps and I felt what it was like to prepare each week in a cyclical manner of a season."
Rudolph didn't let the ups and downs of last season shatter his confidence heading into this year. With Roethlisberger back he knows his role is to serve as his backup, but he feels good about where he is right now.
"I am very confident right now going into this year," said Rudolph. "I feel confident I will be a starting quarterback in the NFL. Right now, my job is to prepare, push Ben and help our guys any way I can. In training camp I can improve and take advantage of these reps every single day. It's exciting. It's a fun time of year. There are a lot of new faces. Just meshing with those younger guys and working to develop and grow."
What else helped his confidence was the Steelers decision to not sign a veteran quarterback this offseason, instead opting to return with the same group they had last season which includes Roethlisberger, Rudolph, Hodges and Paxton Lynch.
"I am very confident about myself," said Rudolph. "I think when the organization supports you and has faith in you, that builds your confidence. I think right now we are trying to take advantage of training camp reps and continue to improve and take advantage of every single day. This time of year is when we get the reps that count. Growth and development are what we are trying to move towards."
The team did add Matt Canada as the quarterback's coach, and he has been working closely with the young quarterbacks in camp, something that can really benefit Rudolph.
"It's great to have a quarterbacks coach now as a part of our organization to help myself as well as the other guys in the room," said Rudolph. "Another set of eyes. Another person to drill us and work us through practice. It's going to be a big advantage when we are preparing for games when you have another seasoned football mind in there to collectively think and game plan. He is there to supplement. He has a lot of good thoughts. He has a good football IQ."
Rudolph missed a lot of valuable time in the offseason with no OTAs or minicamp because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the collarbone injury didn't hamper him. It was only a dislocation, allowing for him to be back throwing by March. While he wasn't able to be in the team setting, one thing he didn't hold back on was watching film from last year and going over every play time and time again.
"I went back and watched every rep a couple of times," said Rudolph. "I made notes and reached out to people, whether that was people on our staff or people outside of our building. I had a feel for what I needed to work on, but it's great to have another set of eyes and have someone else bring something to your attention. In January, February and early March it was mental, trying to rehab, then focusing on what I need to improve on. Once we got on the field, you want to hone in on what you need to improve on and make strides going into year there."
Friday, August 21
Competition heating up on the line: Consistency is something the Steelers offensive line has been blessed to have throughout the years but going into the 2020 season there will be some changes in who occupies the spots for the starting five.
Matt Feiler, who started 15 games at right tackle in 2019, has been moved to left guard, taking over the spot held by Ramon Foster who retired this offseason. Feiler started one game at guard in 2019, a Week 11 matchup against the Rams when the team needed someone to anchor the spot when Foster was out injured and help deal with all-everything Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald. Feiler didn't realize it would be the start of a new position for him.
"I was just told to play there and that is what I was thinking at the time," said Feiler. "Looking back at it I can see the thought process about it. I looked at (the film this offseason) and focused on the difference between tackle and playing guard. There is more space as a tackle you have to cover and some shiftier guys. Aaron Donald is a great player and shifty as well. As a guard you are going to have to see both, the more power guys and shifty guys. That is something I am going to have to continue to work on, get used to and get comfortable with."
Offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett said the way Feiler, known in the locker room as 'Anchor,' held down the spot against the Rams has made the team more comfortable keeping him in that spot.
"We were going into that game against the Rams who have one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL inside in Aaron Donald," said Sarrett. "My job is to put the best five out there and that week it was the best five. I commend him for what he did against Aaron. He had a bunch of one-on-ones against him and played well. I know Anchor can go inside and play guard at a high level. I know he can go out to right tackle and play at a high level. Well, who is the next guy up? That is where we are right now. We are finding that next piece to set our line for the year."
That isn't the only spot where the line will have a new look. With Feiler moving from right tackle to left guard, there is a two-man battle for that spot, with Zach Banner and Chuks Okorafor competing during camp.
"We virtually met all spring and I was harping on all of those guys about coming in in great shape," said Sarrett. "Those two guys came in in the best shape since I have been here. They know what they are practicing for every day. They are practicing for a job and competing every rep, every drill, every walkthrough. That is meaningful for those guys.
"If we continue to get that same effort, we will make the decision game week. The evaluation has to be fast, but I am not in a hurry about it. It can be a deal where I am going to let them compete, even in the week of practice. I am not going to make that decision right now or be forced into it. They are out there competing every day. They are flopping positions. They are playing big tight end. They are playing the regular tackle spot. It's something I know I still have time with it. We don't play until next month so there is no reason to rush that situation. Just let them continue to compete at a high level at practice and step back and let it work out."
The offseason program was to be an opportunity to evaluate some new additions to the team to see how they would fit, including veteran free agent signee Stefen Wisniewski and rookie Kevin Dotson, but having it canceled because of COVID-19 made familiarity a key.
"We were in a pandemic in the spring. We lost our whole spring," said Sarrett. "The evaluation period gets cut in half. I had seen Anchor go in there and play guard last year. I have seen Chuks play tackle. I have seen Banner play tackle. We had to evaluate fast. We are going to start there and make our evaluation from there. Those guys outside have done a great job. Anchor has done a great job moving. That is one thing I will credit Anchor, he played at a high level at tackle last year and he didn't bat an eye when we asked him to move inside. He is ready to go, and we appreciate that."
Bush's comfort level growing: When the Steelers drafted Devin Bush in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft, trading up 10 spots to take him with the 10th pick overall, they were hoping for big things from the highly touted linebacker.
It didn't take long for that to play out. Bush was an impact player from the moment he put a Steelers helmet on, leading the team in tackles in his debut against the New England Patriots in Week 1 with 11 tackles, including seven solo stops. And he didn't stop there. In Week 2 against Seattle he had a fumble recovery, and the following week against San Francisco added two fumble recoveries.
It was just the start of a rookie season that lived up to the expectations.
Now, heading into his second season, the expectations are even higher from his coaches, teammates, and himself. And Bush is even better prepared for what is ahead.
"It's a lot better than last year," said Bush. "Last year was my first year and I was just getting caught up to speed with everything changing around me. Leading into year two everything is slowing down a lot more for me. I am more familiar with who I am playing with and the scheme I am playing with. My comfort has gotten better and stronger based off of last year.
"Last year I came in and played and learned as things came to me. Now I have a pretty good idea of what I want to get done. If I can help this team win more, what can I get better at to help the team win. I challenge myself every day to do different things and put different skillsets in my game. Just my movements. I want to be more efficient with my movements. Not saying they were bad. Playing in the system I was in college, and switching to a new one in the league, things had to change. I had to get leaner, I had to train differently. I think I did a good job of that in the offseason and I think it's going to be better."
One of the things Bush is being asked to do more is be the signal caller for the defense. It's a big responsibility for a young player, but one he got some experience with last year and is ready to take on completely.
"I am more comfortable than last year," said Bush. "Watching myself from last season and critiquing myself during the offseason, I definitely picked up the playbook easier. I am more comfortable with who I am playing with and the scheme. I have a good foundation I laid down last year I am building off of. It is going to be easier for me this year."
His teammates are noticing that comfort level. Fellow inside linebacker Vince Williams has seen Bush fall into a routine, something that young players don't always follow as much as the veterans, and it's going to be an excellent building block for him.
"Devin is making tremendous strides. Just in the small detail like things," said Williams. "For example, he has a nice little system that he is working with. He comes in the building at a consistent time every day. Those are things that you don't really see from a young guy that doesn't really have a formula for success. But I am starting to see that he is starting to develop that, and I think he is going to get better with it."
Not having a preseason this year because of COVID-19 could be a bit of a setback for young players, but Bush isn't letting that challenge have an impact on him thanks to the way the coaches are approaching practice.
"Our coaching staff has taken that into account," said Bush. "They try to give us as much competition in our full padded practices that we could. We don't have any tests for the preseason. We go out there and have enough periods to tackle to the ground. We get that experience. We get acclimated to that. We are trying our hardest. We are doing a good job."
And if he is looking for a test in practice, it comes from multiple weapons on offense, including a few newcomers. Bush has been lining up against rookie running back Anthony McFarland, who he played against in college, and said the matchup is benefiting both of them.
"He is doing a good job adjusting," said Bush. "He is going through his rookie thing, which is learning how to be a professional, how to compete. He is learning a lot from me. I am learning a lot from him. We are getting each other ready to take on those live reps and go into game action and put it on display."
Another newcomer giving everyone on defense something new to prepare for is tight end Eric Ebron. Ebron, who signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, isn't a traditional tight end and that is something that won't just help the offense, but the defense as well practicing against him.
"He is a different type of tight end. He is very elite," said Bush. "Just with his athleticism and how rangy he is. He has receiver like movements, his cuts are receiver like, the way he catches the ball, uses his body. He is a mismatch at any position you put him. He has long arms, catches the ball well and runs good routes."
Putting their arms around the community: While they might not be going into the classroom for a while with virtual learning being on the docket for the early part of the school year, students from Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) still had the opportunity to receive back to school supplies, while their families received food donations, as the new school year is about to begin.
The Steelers teamed with PPS, as well as PNC Bank and the Pirates and Penguins for the Back to School drive held in the parking lots at Heinz Field.
All the students received backpacks with supplies for the year, while the families were also given PPE which included hand sanitizer and face masks, and 412 Food Rescue and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank provided much needed supplies.
"The great part about our community in Pittsburgh is we wrap our arms around the community and youth to make sure they are supported," said Blayre Holmes, the Steelers Director of Community Relations. "PPS has always had their back to school event to kick off an exciting year. It's different this year because of COVID. It's socially distant and returning to school for PPS has been delayed a few weeks.
"Last year the players went in person, but we wanted to make sure we were consistent with serving our community. We supplied Steelers backpacks, and along with the Pirates and Penguins, we all contributed and made sure the kids had resources for back to school.
"In addition to that 412 Food Rescue and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank supplied food. Food insecurity is a big thing still and we waned to make sure the families we are serving have the resources they need, but also food on the table as well."
Thursday, August 21
He is a Watt: It doesn't take a lot to get special teams coordinator Danny Smith excited. Enthusiasm and energy are part of his natural DNA.
But when talking about new fullback Derek Watt, who has made a career out of being a special teams standout, that excitement goes to another level.
"He is a Watt. He is a Watt," said Smith. "His mom and dad ought to be writing books and we should all be reading it."
Smith is salivating just thinking about what he can do with Watt on special teams this year after he signed with the Steelers this offseason, joining his brother T.J. Watt in black and gold. Watt was a Pro Bowl special teamer with the Los Angeles Chargers and the prospect of what he can bring to the Steelers gets Smith blood pumping.
"He is special. He just is," said Smith. "His makeup, his understanding of the game, his work habits, he is special. That is what makes him special. I've got plans for him. he has been successful in this league. We hope to continue that success.
"I am glad we got him."
Smith isn't the only one who feels that way. When the Steelers drafted T.J., Coach Mike Tomlin said, 'Every team needs a Watt.' And two is always better than one.
"The known aspect of his game that was really attractive to us was his high-level of productivity on special teams," said Tomlin. "I think he and Tyler (Matakevich) led the NFL in special teams tackles a year ago. And because we had an opportunity to play against his team last year, we also were very respectful of his functional fullback skills.
"But some of the off the beaten path things, some of the additional things, we are going to learn about him along the way."
James Conner has already gotten a feel of what he brings to the running back room from different aspects, and he also is thrilled with what he has seen of him on the field.
"It's been awesome having Derek," said Conner. "He comes to work every day. He's a leader as well. In the classroom, he sets the tone in there with his knowledge and how he's picking things up. On the field he brings energy. I'm excited to be with Derek. He has a great resume. He will help our team out a lot, especially on special teams as well. You know, the way he comes down on kickoffs and being a fullback, he does it all. I'm excited to be with him."
Wednesday, August 19
Snell's new look: There is a new Benny Snell on the field for the Steelers during training camp at Heinz Field.
While he is listed at 224 pounds on the roster, he has trimmed down to 212 pounds after working his tail off all offseason, something that both he and the team wanted him to do.
"I think it was a group decision," said Snell. "There were things that I could have worked on coming out of last year. The Steelers gave me a plan, I stuck to it. I think it will help me a ton going into this year with my lateral quickness, my speed, me taking care of my body, the hits I can take."
Snell, the team's fourth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, is coming off a solid rookie campaign where he finished the season with 108 carries for 426 yards and two touchdowns, including a 98-yard performance at Cincinnati in Week 12. But he knew he could do more. Following the plan this offseason was the first step.
"Whenever a new guy shows up, there is a process of getting them to understand how you go about your business as a professional," said running backs coach Eddie Faulkner. "That was no different with Benny as a rookie last year and the same process that is going on with Anthony McFarland this year. Yes, we guide them on the best way to take care of their body, what to eat, the proper precautionary measures they need to take to keep themselves as healthy as possible. These are consistent conversations we have, but then it falls on the players who implement those things.
"Benny looks better. He has done a lot of running. You can see the work he has put in. The exciting part about it is he did it while being away from us, so you know he had a focus on getting right and getting in the best shape that he can. So, I am excited with Benny. That is a guy that is passionate and loves the game. He will pick things up and he will hit the ground running this year."
His passion and love of the game is something he can't hide. He has told me before, 'I love my job,' and on a zoom call on Wednesday was again enthusiastic about what he does.
"I was brought here to play football. That is what I love doing," said Snell. "I am going to play my football the best I can whenever I am out there."
As a young player Snell admits he missed out on having his first real offseason with the team, from the time they report for conditioning all the way through minicamp. The biggest aspect of the offseason he missed was just the live looks you get in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills.
"You don't get those live looks you would normally get with different circumstances," said Snell. "A lot of things come into play. Not being able to see that live look often is pretty different, so I try to make the most whenever I go out there."
Add on to that not having a preseason, Snell is going to have to wait until the regular season to give everyone a look at how his hard work has paid off.
"We still have a whole season ahead of us," said Snell. "That is my opportunity. That is my chance."
Better than ever: Stephon Tuitt, who Coach Mike Tomlin said was given full medical clearance after having surgery on his pectoral muscle last season, seconded what his coach said about his recovery from the injury that sidelined him most of the 2019 season.
"The recovery has gone well," said Tuitt. "I had the chance to get my pec back stronger than it was before. Cam (Heyward) went through this situation. He has been a great resource for me to talk to and understand the recovery standpoint of how to handle my injury."
Tuitt was injured in the Steelers Week 6 game against the Los Angeles Chargers, and while he was out for the regular season he was hoping to come back for the postseason if the Steelers made it that far.
"That was the goal if we made the playoffs, but that just didn't happen," said Tuitt.
Having Tuitt back does nothing but help the defense. He is a force on the defensive line, and his return will help take pressure off the defensive front.
"When he is on the field you can't double team everybody," said defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. "He is a big human being who can move, and he is trouble to block."
Tuitt is energized to be back with his defensive teammates and loves the talent the unit has from the front to the backend.
"We have a good group of veteran guys who have been here long enough to understand the defense to be able to pick back up where they left off," said Tuitt. "We have a very good defense. We have a lot of guys who can get sideline to sideline quickly.
"I'm just going to keep coming back and do what I have been doing so far, inserting my role back into my position and work hard every day to be back acclimated with the defense."
Tuesday, August 17
Ben is back: They haven't been teammates for long, but if there is one person who knows Ben Roethlisberger well in the Steelers locker room, it's Vance McDonald.
The two have lockers next to each other at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, but they just don't bond together in the locker room, they are also close outside of the facility where they spend time together with their families.
McDonald knows what last year was like for Roethlisberger, how frustrating it was for him to miss almost the entire year after suffering a season-ending elbow injury. That is why it excites McDonald to see Roethlisberger back the way he is during the team's training camp.
"I would say he is all the way back, for sure," said McDonald. "This is the most I have ever seen Ben in terms of his hunger for winning a championship. I can respect that being down last season made it more real for him. Going through a heavy surgery for a quarterback and where he is now, it made him hungrier. The way he attacks the day is different. I am loving the leadership from him, the hunger, the fire. You will notice that trickle down to the entire offense. Guys are just flocking to him. The hunger is real from Ben."
While McDonald is seeing Roethlisberger in camp now, he also worked with him this offseason when players got together on their own.
"He was pushing some of his throws and arm action to test it, whether to build confidence at that point," said McDonald. "He was making some insane throws off his back foot, cross field to Diontae Johnson running through the end zone to the back pylon. I remember thinking at that moment, 'golly, he is really back.' It's crazy and awesome to see."
McDonald also is enjoying working with a new addition to the tight end group, Eric Ebron who signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
"He has been so fun to be around in his short time he has been here," said McDonald. "I love his playmaking ability. It will be awesome to see him fit in. Everyone is going to thrive with Eric on the field simply because of the threat he is. He is going to pull a certain amount of attention from the defense. I am excited to see what he is going to do this year.
"I told him he is the missing link. Eric getting here and making all of these great plays at tight end is only going to elevate not only myself, but everyone on the field. Eric is the missing piece, so expect me to dunk on everyone now that we have Eric on our team."
More from Vance:
On what it would be like if there aren't fans in stadiums this season:
"Players fit into two categories. Either the crowd and noise is good for the player and they thrive with it, or it's a huge distraction. When I play in front of a huge crowd it only hurts me. Not to say after a big catch or a huge hit it's not electrifying to have the stadium roar for you in the moment, but you are going to have players suffer from that because they rely on that excitement. You are going to have other players that it's going to allow them to play in an objective space. All they are thinking about is the man in front of them."
On if having no fans would benefit a team that doesn't draw well versus a team that does:
"Think of a team that doesn't have a lot of home fan support. They get a lot of traveling fans. You are removing all of those variables. It's going to play a role in football. You just zoom out and look at the things it can affect, you are talking snap count, defensive communications, signals. Every single thing noise amplifies or restricts. Everything happens faster and smoother without the noise."
Ebron gives Steelers options at TE: With the addition of Eric Ebron to the tight end group, along with Vance McDonald, you could see the Steelers employ a two-tight end set this year and that is something tight ends coach James Daniel would welcome.
"I think that is a good possibility," said Daniel. "We have to evaluate things and see what is going to fit. That is an advantage to us if we have a situation where we get two tight ends on the field.
"You want to have quality enough if you are thinking you are going two tight ends and just going to be a passing team, the defense can get ready for that. If you are going two tights and just be a running team, they can get ready for that. The ability to have the defense off balance is to have two guys that are capable and you can be good in both areas. If you put two guys out there and they decide they are going to put extra coverage out there for it, you should be effective running the ball. If you put two guys out there and they decide they are going to have all the guys out there stop you from running the ball, you should be more effective in the passing game. Having the balance, having two guys that are capable gives you an advantage in that situation.
"When we have been the best around here, we had Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. We had two pretty good tight ends in the room. We had a good football team. I am looking forward to having two good tight ends here."
Ebron has been known for his pass catching ability, but Daniel said he is working on his blocking, something that will have to be on display when the team opens the season on Sept. 14 at the New York Giants on Monday Night Football.
"From what I have seen so far he is willing to do the things we are teaching as far as being a blocker," said Daniel. "We will see how that transpires in a game. He has also made some splash plays in the passing game. I know the talent the guy had coming out.
"He is a confident guy, which is what you would expect from a guy who was a first round, top 20 draft pick. He has a lot of confidence in himself. He brings a lot of personality. That is just him being himself. That is good to have good personalities on the team. I think he will bring extra energy to our football team."
Haden loves the passion on defense: When Joe Haden talks, you can feel the energy. Even through a zoom call where he is sitting in a room with just him and the camera, he can't hide his passion, his love for the game as he enters his 11th NFL season, his fourth with the Steelers.
Haden was signed by the Steelers on Aug. 31, 2017, just one day after the Cleveland Browns released him and handed the Steelers a gift.
"Loving the game and being able to play it at such a high level with such a good team," said Haden of his enthusiasm for the game. "You have dudes that are in their prime or just young dudes who love the game and want to be great. It's coming up on three years I was released from the Browns - Aug. 30, 2017. Being able to make it back to the Pro Bowl. Being on a team with contenders, great players on defense, the d-line, just so much talent.
"I want to be a part of it, and I know what it's like to be on the other side. I am just very excited, and I want to continue to bring that energy and play well."
This offseason was an unusual one for Haden and his teammates, sitting idle because of the COVID-19 pandemic while they should have been at OTAs, minicamp, working out together. That has made this training camp even more special for the veteran, even if the location has changed from Saint Vincent College to Heinz Field.
"We didn't have any OTAs, we didn't have anything," said Haden. "This is the closest we have had to normal. Having training camp this year in the stadium, just being able to come in to work every day and be at Heinz Field. For us, if we can get back out there and be out there for Pittsburgh. The world is a little off right now. Just being able to get in some normalcy, and play the sport I love, and come in and have training camp at Heinz Field has been a blessing. I am not taking any of it for granted."
There are some things that are missing this year at camp, the biggest being the presence of Steelers fans. The players have grown accustomed to hearing the fans cheering for big plays, seeing Terrible Towels waving as they work to get ready for the season. But now, there are no fans, the stands at Heinz Field only sprinkled with a few media members.
Fear not, though. The energy is still there on the field.
"We have guys like (T.J) Watt, he is a very, very energetic, hype," said Haden. "Always screaming at each other out there. (Devin) Bush, Mike Hilton, he talks his trash, Minkah (Fitzpatrick) is just very passionate. We have a lot of dudes who are very hype, excited and energetic dudes. While we have been out here for camp, we are doing the same thing, we can hear each other, we can talk, everyone can make that communication.
"It's definitely different. Just being able to love what you are doing and be out there. We have a lot of passionate players. They keep the energy up."
What else is keeping the energy up is seeing the development of some rookies who are quickly becoming playmakers. One such being second-round pick Chase Claypool, the wide receiver from Notre Dame who has earned some praise from Haden and made a catch on him during Monday's practice, the first one in pads.
"He has impressed me for sure," said Haden. "Just his size, his speed, his ability to adjust to the ball in the air. He doesn't say too much. He is out there every day asking questions, just getting the routes. He has been doing a really good job. I think he is a great young talent. His work ethic shows he wants to be great. He doesn't do too much talking. He just gets after it. As long as he knows the playbook, him and Ben (Roethlisberger) are on accord with the checks, he has all of the physical attributes to be a baller.
"He has had a couple of plays on me this camp. I have been lining up against him pretty often. He is a big, fast receiver. He is able to adjust to the ball in the air. He hasn't shown me anything too bad. He is a big body, deep threat, with soft hands who can jump up and get it. As long as he just keeps going, staying healthy I think he is going to be a baller."
Monday, August 17
Heyward comfortable playing in 2020: If Cam Heyward would have opted out for the 2020 season because of COVID-19, a lot of people would have understood. Heyward is at high-risk for the virus because he suffers from asthma, and safety always comes first.
But for Heyward, football was the only option.
"For me it was a conversation I had to have with not only myself, but with my wife, my family and my agent," said Heyward via zoom on Monday. "I feel comfortable going forward seeing certain protocols. I am taking care of my body outside the football field, making sure I am in the right position. After those talks, and seeing the protocols, whether it's the little face shields we can wear, I feel comfortable with it.
"I thought it would be beneficial for me to play. I am excited. I am all in and I know I am a high-risk athlete."
It's that type of commitment to football, to the team, that Heyward brings and the question is, how long will he bring that to the black and gold. Heyward is entering the last year of his contract and so far, with just a little under a month until the regular season kicks off, there is no news on the contract front.
"There are no new updates. Nothing of any substance," said Heyward. "You all know where I stand. I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. I want to lead this team to a Super Bowl. We'll see where we are. I love my team, I love my teammates, the city, coaches. I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler. You've got to take two to tango.
"I want to be here. I just have to see what happens. There are a couple more weeks before the season. All I can focus on is what I can control, and we will leave it at that.
"Dealing with the coronavirus is holding up a lot of things. Early on we set dates to talk and we went past those days and nothing got resolved or ramped up. My agent is talking to them. There hasn't been anything of substance yet.
"It's pretty uncertain right now. I don't know what to think. I have seen a lot of my teammates in the past have done it. I know NFL business is moving forward. You see guys getting their contracts resolved. I want to have faith. I am going to be ready to play either way. I am going to make sure I am locked on this season and this won't be a hindrance on my performance this year."
Heyward, like all of his teammates, is feeling good about the start of training camp, especially now that the team is in full pads. But while the hitting has begun, it's all about doing it the right way.
"We have to walk a fine line. I know we want to be physical, but we want to make sure we get guys to the games," said Heyward. "Whether it's not going full tackling and hitting all the way through practice. Coaches getting the whistle out pretty quick. We are not looking for drag down tacklers. But we have to show our physicality. We have to show we can be physical at the point of attack. Once we get to September things are going to be moving awfully fast. It's going to hit us before we know it."
Take a look at the Steelers preparing for the 2020 regular season at Heinz Field
More from Cam:
On having Stephon Tuitt back:
"I think the heart grows fonder when you are away. I think Tuitt is itching to go, he is raring to go. I understand we lost Javon Hargrave, and we won't be able to replace him completely. But having a heady veteran like Tyson Alualu, 'Big' Dan (McCullers) coming in in shape, and having Tuitt there, I think we can more than sustain that. We just have to stay healthy and continue to be a cohesive unit."
On confidence in having Devin Bush making defensive calls:
"We have a lot of older guys that are very confident. We expect Devin to not only match but exceed us. Him being a second-year guy, we see some guys elevate or go through a sophomore slump. We can't allow Devin to do that. We know he has all of the talent. He is a three-down back. Going forward we just ask him to have confidence in what he is doing. He has been through the ringer. He has seen everything there is in this game. He has to take a big step for us to get to where we want to."
Making moves on the d-line: The Steelers defensive line will once again have a different look in 2020, with addition and subtraction both playing a role.
Stephon Tuitt is back in action after the defensive end suffered a pectoral injury last offseason, forcing him to be placed on injured reserve by mid-October.
Coach Karl Dunbar hasn't had a chance to see Tuitt go full-strength just yet, but gets his first peek on Monday when the team put on the pads for the first time in training camp.
"When he is on the field you can't double team everybody," said defensive line coach Karl Dunbar. "He is a big human being who can move, and he is trouble to block. There is not much you can tell from a defensive line coach standpoint when it comes to football in shirts and shorts. Today is going to be a day we can toot the horn and kick the tires and see what he brings to the table."
While Tuitt is back, the team did lose nose tackle Javon Hargrave to the Philadelphia Eagles via free agency this offseason. With Hargrave gone, it will be Tyson Alualu who gets the first look at the nose tackle spot, with Dan McCullers also in the mix.
"I think we did it because of experience. Tyson has been in this league," said Dunbar of Alualu getting first shot at nose tackle. "He played a lot of Okie and defensive end position when Tuitt went down last year. There is a lot of comfort food with having a guy who has been on the field before who can do it.
"You look at our defense and we play 75 to 80 percent of our defense in sub anyway. Him and Dan McCullers are going to be pushing for that spot at nose tackle. We thought right now he was the best option to push Dan and make him step up to the challenge. We aren't just giving that job away. Someone is going to have to go out there and earn it. That was the most important thing about everything we are doing. Tyson has proven to us he is a good interior rusher. We feel lucky and fortunate to have Tyson here."
A newcomer to the Steelers defensive line is Chris Wormley, who was acquired via trade from the Baltimore Ravens this offseason. Dunbar said he is looking forward to seeing what Wormley brings to the line.
"He has been slowed down by a lower body injury," said Dunbar. "He looks good. He looks the part. He is moving well. He is going to do some stuff today. You see him as a backup end as far as the Okie package and an interior rusher when we go to our sub package."
With all of the changes, though, there has been one steady through it all. Cameron Heyward.
Heyward, who is entering his 10th season, has been a constant for the defense as a whole, the consummate pro who is a leader on and off the field.
"How hard he works. He gets the guys together during the offseason," said Dunbar of what Heyward brings. "He is a smart kid. I knew Cam since high school, I recruited him. I played with his father (Craig Heyward) in New Orleans. I got to see him growing up a little bit, knew what kind of football character he has he has shown and to have that football character the whole time. It's been great to see him mature and bring other guys along with him. Coach (John) Mitchell did a great job with him, with the other guys he had in front of him who taught him how to be a pro. Those are the intangibles you get when a guy is a good player and has been in this league for a while. He understands how to be a pro, how not to worry about his job, and how to help younger guys get better to help the team. That is what Cam has shown for this team."
Ready to go full speed: JuJu Smith-Schuster answered question after question during a morning zoom call with reporters on Monday morning, but when one came about the team putting on the pads for practice today for the first time in training camp, you could hear the tone in his voice change.
"The past couple of days we have been talking about doing one-on-one's," said Smith-Schuster. "The DBs have been talking. The defensive line has been talking. The o-line has been talking. The running backs are talking.
"Everyone is going to be hitting and going full speed."
This is the first time since the 2019 season ended the players will have the pads on and have real football contact, and after an offseason of getting himself in excellent shape, Smith-Schuster is definitely ready. He worked with performance trainer Corey Calliet in the offseason, getting more one-on-one training than he has in the past and it has him raring to go.
"Usually I work out with a few guys, a couple of other players," said Smith-Schuster. "This year I changed the routine up, working out one-on-one with Corey Calliet, a guy who is a high-performance coach, teacher. I wanted that one-on-one session where I could tone my body, get lean, get more rip. Just become stronger. What helped me a lot was the individual work, the one-on-one sessions. It helped me out so much. This is the lightest I have been."
It wasn't just the physical side he worked on. Smith-Schuster also hit the playbook hard, making sure when the season opener against the New York Giants rolls around on Sept. 14 that he knows it inside and out.
"It's more so knowing the offense to a better standard," said Smith-Schuster. "Last year I knew the outside, inside. This year I am learning some plays on the backside of wide receiver. Being able to play anywhere on the field. In the back field, as a running back. With all of the practices going on, it's something I want to master before the season, that I know the whole offensive playbook.
"The tools that I have in my box this year is doing my job, knowing the playbook, knowing the defense. Being smart. It's going to take all of us to win games and come out of stadiums with W's. It's something I am looking forward to."
Last season was a challenging year for Smith-Schuster. He came in as the team's No. 1 receiver for the first time but dealt with a lot including working with three quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, as well as fighting through injuries that kept him sidelined four straight games.
"It was definitely different for me," said Smith-Schuster. "Those things were all unexpected. At the end of the day we work with what we have, and we go out there and play. One thing with me I never had a serious injury where I had been out for multiple weeks and that was something I knew I would have to learn (to deal with) as a young guy. Also, being a number one receiver for a team, it was making sure if I wasn't playing everyone else was doing their thing."
Having Roethlisberger back strong in camp this year has Smith-Schuster feeling good about 2020, but he knows it doesn't all fall on the quarterbacks shoulders.
"The thing about Ben is he is so spontaneous," said Smith-Schuster. "He has been doing it for so long. The experience he has, he is able to go into the game and do no-huddle and just call plays from the back of his head. Having him back is a plus for us. It's going to take all of us, the defense, special teams. We just have to do our job collectively."
Focusing on that job is the most important thing for Smith-Schuster right now. He is entering his fourth season and the final year of his contract. Right now, though, football is what is on his mind.
"I am not worried about (the contact)," said Smith-Schuster. "It's playing ball. With everything going on right now you don't know what is going to happen. I would love to be a Steeler. I am here to play ball and win games for the team. I am going to play regardless if there is a contract or not."
Putting on the pads: In the blink of an eye, we have football.
Well, at least one step closer to it.
The Steelers and the rest of the NFL take the next step to game action by starting padded practices today. The Steelers will practice this afternoon at Heinz Field, and it will be the first time the pads will be on since the 2019 season ended.
Coach Mike Tomlin said the goal is to use this time to instill in the players an awareness of situational football and is more important than ever with no preseason games this year.
"When I'm talking about creating game-like circumstances, I'm talking about getting an opportunity to evaluate situational awareness, things that you don't often do in a practice setting, boxes that often get checked in preseason stadiums, such as a guy's ability to move from playing linebacker (on defense) to left guard on the punt team and knowing when to take the field and being engaged in transitional things like that, or guys being down-and-distance aware as the ball moves and the chain moves because often times in a practice setting the ball does not move, or the ball moves in a very scripted way," said Tomlin. "There are certain things that happen in simulated game play. There's a certain awareness, things displayed that are part of the evaluation process that we have to work to create, and I'm not necessarily talking about a guy responding to a moment and rising up in it. I'm talking about professionalism things, awareness things, things that are common in in-game play that aren't necessarily common in a controlled or a practice setting."