Tomlin: Steelers moving forward without Heyward, Johnson this week

A year ago, the Steelers won their regular season opener in Cincinnati, only to learn in the aftermath that they would be playing without star outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

This season, they not only lost their regular season opener, 30-7, to the San Francisco 49ers, but they once again lost another defensive star, as All-Pro defensive tackle Cam Heyward will be out multiple weeks with a groin injury.

Adding more injury to the insult of losing their home opener, wide receiver Diontae Johnson also will miss the team's next game, Monday night at Acrisure Stadium, against the Cleveland Browns with a hamstring injury suffered against the 49ers.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said recently that the team's depth would be tested during the season. Little did he know it would be so early with two key players.

It's a bitter pill to swallow on top of a loss that still had Tomlin steaming on Tuesday.

"Obviously it was a stinker," Tomlin said at his weekly press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We stunk up the joint, myself included, first and foremost. And I think part of moving on from it is first and foremost is just acknowledging that component of it. As I mentioned post-game, you can outline a performance like that in a lot of ways. San Fran got their agenda done. We didn't get our agenda done. 

That was a gut-feeling reaction I thought the tape displayed that. There were certain things about how they play that we had a level of anticipation for – I'm sure there are certain things that how we play that people have a certain anticipation for – I think they did their high-volume things better obviously than we did ours. And so you know, you got to carry that stench for a while when you have a performance like that. Coupled with the fact it was open weekend kind of adds to the sting, but we're big boys. We can take it. We better roll our sleeves up and shift our focus toward our next opportunity. We better not forget what happened. We better learn lessons from it."

The Steelers (0-1) will do so against the Browns (1-0) without the services of two of their most impactful players on both sides of the ball.

The 34-year-old Heyward, whom Tomlin said will have surgery to repair his groin issue, will be missed for not only what he brings on the field, but off it while he's out.

One of the team's defensive captains along with Watt, Heyward's presence on and off the field is something that won't be replaced by just one player.

And it's more than just replacing a player who has had double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons.

"Replacing Cam is not a one-man job," Tomlin said. "It is a multiple-man job and a coach's job, because it changes your schematics when you lose significant players and so we all acknowledge that and we all run to that not away from that. That's an opportunity for us to show what team is about things that we hold near and dear like 'next man up.'

"Cam is not the type of guy that moves away from his teammates, whether he's participating in or not. And so, you know, some of the intangible things, some of the things that you get day to day outside of the white lines. I will still receive the benefit of that but make no mistake. There's enough for us to do replacing his tangible contributions, his play, his presence and so forth."

That being said, the team's three young defensive linemen, Isaiahh Loudermilk, DeMarvin Leal and rookie Keeanu Benton will obviously have more asked of them.

"I've been really impressed by the growth and development and what those guys have shown me throughout team development, not only Leal and Loudermilk but, but younger guys like Benton and others," Tomlin said.

"I thought that was one of the strengths of our group coming out of team development, the depth and competition and the tough decisions that we had to make in the defensive line. And it won't be a long period of time where we get a chance to call upon that and so we'll get a chance to see what that debt looks like in play."

Tomlin also mentioned veteran Armon Watts, who was inactive for Sunday's loss to the 49ers, as having more asked of him.

Watts had over 80 tackles and six sacks the past two seasons as a regular player for the Vikings and Bears, respectively, and was one of those offseason additions made as the Steelers bolstered their depth along both sides of their lines.

"He's the guy with that veteran experience (who) played a lot of ball in Chicago a year ago," Tomlin said. "I thought he really warmed up to our environment and has gotten a sense of what we were about and what we were asking and, and that's why we continue to do business with him. But there's a reason he's been an inactive-type. He's continually continually getting up to snuff with what it is that we do and technically and in the nuances and the detail and so forth, and he had a good week last week, and we'll see what the week leaves us this week in terms of making decisions about who we use and how we divide the labor up. But certainly he's under consideration. He's a veteran guy that's played some ball. That's why we kept him when I 53."

As for replacing Johnson this week, Tomlin said that much like Heyward, the team will look within for answers.

Sunday, that meant more snaps for second-year pro Calvin Austin and veteran Allen Robinson, who was acquired via a trade with the Rams in the offseason.

Austin had a team-high six receptions in his first NFL game, while Robinson had five receptions for a team-best 64 yards.

It also will mean that veteran Gunner Olszewski, who was inactive in Week 1, will likely be active this week.

"I feel real comfortable with our in-house people," Tomlin said. "Gunner and others in terms of elevating and being ready to carry the load and participate."

Bouncing back: Quarterback Kenny Pickett didn't try and sugarcoat it following the Steelers loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the regular season opener, flat out blaming execution for the lack of success on the field.

"We just didn't execute honestly," said Pickett. "I think it was more us than them. I felt comfortable with what I was seeing and what they were doing. We just didn't execute like we needed to."

Pickett completed 31 of 46 passes for 232 yards, two interceptions, and one touchdown for a 68.4 rating. A good chunk of the yardage came on a 12-play, 95 tard drive right before the half when the Steelers were in the two-minute offense, but that was the only drive they were able to sustain.

Coach Mike Tomlin isn't worried about Pickett's ability to bounce back this week against the Cleveland Browns due in large part to his work ethic.

"Just his commitment," said Tomlin. "There's football justice when you work at it, you generally get good things that come out of it. This is a guy that's fully committed. This is a guy that works his tail off. Largely those guys create their own fortune. That is my general tenor about the trajectory of him and his career, also in the short term.

"It's reasonable to expect guys that work the way he works, and prepares the way he prepares, to bounce back from negative performance. Individually and collectively, I expect this group to do similar things."

Leading the way: When you lose a game the way the Steelers did on Sunday, a loss Coach Mike Tomlin referred to as a 'stinker,' it can sometimes be tough to bounce back.

But when you have the veteran leadership the Steelers do in the locker room, including an influx of veteran leaders who were signed this offseason, it gives the younger players a model to go off of and see what it takes to turn it around for Monday night against the Cleveland Browns. 

"I just think anytime you have been there, done that guys, they are able to provide perspective for those who haven't," said Tomlin. "That is what veterans provide. They provide it in bad times, they also provide it in good times. Oftentimes you are defined by how you handle success more so than failure.

"You don't get to the National Football League as an individual unless you are able to overcome some adversity, bounce back from injury, bad performances, smile in the face of adversity.

"Veterans help you deal with the good times, keep your feet on the ground, remain focused. That is why we consciously added some of the quality human beings who happen to be veteran football players within our program, specifically in the last offseason."