Wild Card Blog: All the news and notes

Friday, January 8

Defense ready to go: Stop the run.

Keep Baker Mayfield in the pocket.

Those have been recurring themes all week from Steelers' camp, and that didn't change on Friday when linebacker T.J. Watt and defensive end Stephon Tuitt weighed in on one of the threats the Browns pose.

The Steelers lost to the Browns, 24-22, in the season finale in Cleveland on Sunday, in a game where multiple starters sat out, including Watt and defensive tackle Cameron Heyward on defense. The Browns rushed for 192 yards, with Nick Chubb carrying the ball 14 times for 108 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown run. The combination of Chubb and Kareem Hunt is one the Steelers will have to contend with on Sunday, as the Browns have the third ranked ground game in the NFL.

"Chubb is a great football player," said Tuitt. "If you give him a hole, he is going to hit it. He has been hitting holes all season long. Our goal is to make sure we plug up those holes, so he doesn't get to hit them the way he does. He runs very hard.

"They have a good running team with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. We want to make sure we plug up the holes and make sure everybody is doing their job. We are definitely passionate and understand how few and far between these opportunities are and want to make the most of it."

Mayfield also took off running multiple times, carrying the ball 10 times for 37 yards, while completing 17 passes for 196 yards. Keeping him in the pocket is something that is paramount for the defense.

"We're going to try to keep him in the pocket and not let him get out because once he escapes, he is a lot more dangerous," said Watt.

Tuitt agreed.

"He is able to escape the pocket, and when he is able to escape the pocket he is able to make big plays, either with his legs or his arm," said Tuitt. "We definitely want to keep him in the pocket. We are big defensive linemen. We want to make sure we corral him and put our hands up.

"We want to make sure we make his day uneasy in that pocket."

He Said It:
Watt on the mood at Sunday's game approaches:
"We have a lot of guys here who haven't played in a playoff game, we have some guys who have played in a whole bunch. For me this is my second playoff game. Not being able to play last week has only done my body a whole lot of well resting. I am very excited to be practicing again this week. I feel very confident in the guys we have in the locker room and the game plan we have."

He Said It, Take 2:
Watt on if losing to Jacksonville in 2017 is motivation:
"If you need more motivation to play in this game, something is wrong with you. I definitely don't need to have any outside stuff to motivate me. I am very motivated to be able to play another football game, and to have it a playoff game at Heinz Field, that is all I really need."

Playoff football: Running back James Conner had 101 yards rushing in the Steelers' 38-7 victory over the Browns on Oct. 18 at Heinz Field and caught five passes for 25 yards in last Sunday's 24-22 loss in Cleveland.

He's averaged 4.8 yards per carry on a combined 29 attempts against the Browns but isn't counting on that type of success carrying over just because in this Sunday night's rubber match.

"It's going to be a completely different game," Conner said. "Nothing in the past really can help us going forward. We're going to study our film and try to do what's been successful, but it just comes down to who 's the most physical team and things I can do, ball-placement, ball-security, all that."

The date and the stakes, Conner maintained, are what make Sunday night a different game even though it'll be Round Three against the Browns.

"It's just playoff football," he said. "It's January, playoff football. We got a good, hungry Cleveland team coming through Pittsburgh, so it's different in that sense. Football will be football but it's playoff football.

"We know we're going to get their best."

Conner has 10 receptions for 70 yards on 13 targets over his last two games.

He was targeted 15 times in his previous six games.

"I think it's just the way things worked out," he said. "I'm trying to just get involved in this offense where I can, whether it be catching little check-downs, trying to throw short, run long, whatever it may be.

"Just trying to get involved and help us to engineer victory."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Learning curve: Cam Sutton starting at cornerback has had a trickle-down effect in the Steelers' secondary this season that's included Sutton moving to his traditional inside role in sub-packages and second-year pro Justin Layne taking over outside.

With Sutton in line to replace Joe Haden (Reserve/COVID-19 list) for Sunday night's AFC Super Wild Card game against Cleveland at Heinz Field, Layne is in line to make his postseason debut when six defensive backs are required.

"He's on that learning curve," Sutton said of Layne, a third-round pick in 2019. "He's that guy, you going just give him that extra talk, just give him that extra push, continue to keep building his confidence, continue to keep helping him have that composure and that control in himself every time you step out there on the field to complete the assignment and the job he has to do.

"I love his play. I love where he's come to this point and the direction that he's going. Obviously, doing so much for us in the special teams game which has given him that role and helped him expand that role on defense, as well."

Layne played zero defensive snaps as a rookie but has played 117 this season, including 12 on Oct. 25 at Tennessee (21 percent), 18 on Nov. 22 against Jacksonville (31 percent) and 28 on Dec. 7 against Washington (39 percent).

Layne has also appeared on 258 of the special teams snaps this season (57 percent).

"It's only going get better for him," Sutton continued. "He's definitely a guy on the rise, definitely a guy I'm very excited for, obviously we're all excited for.

"And, obviously, he's going be in some big situations for us, let alone this week but going forward. I'm very happy for him, very excited for him."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Opportunity of a lifetime: Stephon Tuitt has been around the NFL long enough to know one thing.

Making the playoffs is not a given.

Tuitt, who is in his seventh season in the NFL, is one of five Steelers players who has played in seven or more postseason games. He also hasn't played in one since 2017, when the Steelers lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars, understanding that even if you have talent on the team, it doesn't guarantee a postseason berth.

"They don't come around. They aren't guaranteed," said Tuitt on Friday morning. "It's very hard to make it to the playoffs. When you make it to the playoffs, you want to have a great game. That game we had against Jacksonville definitely wasn't a great game defensively for us. When we play the Cleveland Browns, we will make sure we are not in that position. We will make sure we go out there and play great defense."

Tuitt said the energy level is high among the team for Sunday night's game against the Browns at Heinz Field, with the team leaders making sure everyone has the right mindset.

"We are super exited," said Tuitt. "These opportunities come few and far between. I am excited to get out there with my teammates. I know my teammates are excited. Ben Roethlisberger already made a statement earlier this year about being able to come out here and give it everything you have. That is the mentality our team has right now and that is what we are going to do.

"This is an opportunity of a lifetime for us. We've got a chance to be put into the dance. I think everybody's focus is to make it to the final destination, which is the Super Bowl. Right now, we have Cleveland in our way."

Thursday, December 7

Giving their '110': When you think about Minkah Fitzpatrick, you automatically think about him being one of the experienced players in the Steelers' secondary.

But in truth, Fitzpatrick is still just a young guy, a third-year player who is experiencing the postseason for the first time in his NFL career.

"I am excited," said Fitzpatrick. "This is my first time being in the playoffs since I have been in the NFL. You don't know how many times it's going to happen, so you have to give it your 110. It's definitely an exciting opportunity to go out there and do what you do."

Fitzpatrick, who came to the Steelers via a trade with the Miami Dolphins just into the 2019 season, said he is definitely listening to the advice of those who have been there, done that as far as playing in the postseason goes, and it's advice everyone on the team should take to heart.

"The older players are definitely leading the charge in this," said Fitzpatrick. "A lot of the guys that have been in the playoffs multiple times, so they have been around for a while. They're telling us the details are important. You have to keep doing everything you are doing. The older guys are definitely leading the charge, and everybody is just following suit."

One thing that Fitzpatrick doesn't need playoff experience for is to know that having fans at Heinz Field on Sunday night would have been special, but because of guidelines regarding outdoor gatherings in Pennsylvania, it will be limited to friends and family only.

He said with or without fans, the team has to play at the same level.

"It's always beneficial to have the fans out there and we love and appreciate them, but I think everybody understands what's at stake," said Fitzpatrick. "It's win or go home. That right there is enough for everybody in this organization to go out there and play at a high energy level."

He said it:
Fitzpatrick on playing the Browns for the third time this season and if it's an advantage:
"It's definitely an advantage. I have about 20 pages of notes on these guys, which is not common. It's unique to play them a third time. They are probably going to change things up. But you can watch what they did well, didn't do well. You can narrow down your vision."

Wednesday, January 6

Starting fast: Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster had the experience of making the playoffs his rookie season, and like many who make it early in their career, likely thought it would come around again quickly.

It took a few years, after the Steelers didn't make the playoffs the last two seasons, and he fully understands that there are no guarantees in this game.

"Going into my second one, I tell people I have been in the league four years and this is only my second time making it," said Smith-Schuster. "I don't take it for granted. It's hard to get where we are in the postseason and you have to make sure every play counts.

"There are a lot of people that don't get that many chances to get where we are. I have been here four years, and this is only my second time making it. When we are out there play strong, play physical, play fast."

It's not just play fast, but Smith-Schuster also stressed the importance of starting fast against the Browns on Sunday night at Heinz Field.

"We had a couple of games this year we didn't start fast, and our defense was saving us," said Smith-Schuster. "I think it's something we have to take into account. It's an elimination game. There is no room for error or miscommunication, missed plays, missed assignments. This is something you get it done, get it right and move on. You have to execute it. It goes hand in hand.

"I don't think we have really shown our full potential on the offensive side of the ball. I think we can do a lot more starting fast. The urgency is going to be there.

"I remember this time last year, I was having exit meetings, and going home, and looking for places in LA to train. Now it's like next week you can be home on your couch watching someone else play. You can't take it for granted. You get every moment you can. You embrace it. You take it all in. You go out there and ball out and leave it all out on the field."

One thing missing: David DeCastro has accomplished a lot in his nine seasons in the NFL.

He has been a first-team All-Pro selection, a second-team All-Pro selection, a Pro Bowl selection.

He has played in postseason games.

But there is one thing missing.

One very big thing.

A Super Bowl.

"The older I have gotten, the more I have been able to condense everything into
a week by week mindset," said DeCastro. "At the end of the day, it's the only thing I have left in my career. I have made some good money. I have had a lot of fun. I made some great friends. 

"The only thing I really have left is the Super Bowl and that experience of what it would be like for the team, the city, the fans. That would be amazing to get that done. I would love to see it, would love to be a part of it."

The Steelers, along with 11 other teams, take the first step on the road to the Super Bowl on Sunday night against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field in the AFC Wild Card Round. While DeCastro has played in seven postseason games, he is well aware some of his teammates have never played in a single postseason game. Along with other veterans he will show his teammates the best way to approach this time of year, but he will do it his way, which is quiet, unassuming, but gets the message across.

"Every guy is different in the way they lead," said DeCastro. "Some guys talk more. Some guys just lead by action. I don't change. There is enough hype already. I just take the same preparation I would any week, just be the same personality. Guys that are nervous, show them that I am calm, it's still football. It's still a game. Every leader takes a different role in how they work."

One thing that has DeCastro smiling right now, is they are still working. And it's not just because they made the postseason. It's because they made it through a 17-week season in the midst of a pandemic, and in the end, they made the playoffs.

"It was a crazy year. This whole year has been new to everybody," said DeCastro. "Unprecedented times. You don't know what to expect. It's been nice to play football, kind of get in a rhythm, the virtual stuff became normal. It just kind of flew by. It's nice to be at this point. The integrity of the season held up, which was good for the fans. The biggest concern was guys missing games. We had that here and there. For the most part, everyone is happy with the playoff games and the situation."

And DeCastro, the quiet, stoic veteran. Yes, he too is happy and excited for the playoffs. 

"Playoff time, if you can't get excited about this, you might have something wrong with you," said DeCastro.

He isn't wrong.

Job One: Defensive tackle Cam Heyward has been studying his history this week as well as Cleveland.
Specifically, Heyward reviewed an AFC Divisional Round game against Baltimore in January of 2011, a game that was played couple of months before Heyward was drafted on the first round by the Steelers.

The Ravens led 21-7 in the third quarter, but a fumble recovery, an interception and another fumble recovery helped the Steelers achieve a 24-21 lead early in the fourth quarter of a game they'd ultimately win, 31-24.

"I just think everything, it's almost multiplied by two, 1 yard is usually 2 yards, 2 is usually 4, 10 is usually 20," Heyward said of the postseason. "The way you gotta look at it is those weighty plays, whether it's a turnover on downs or a turnover or just a big stop, those count a little bit more in the playoffs.

"Just recently I was watching our game against Baltimore (in the 2010 postseason) and we didn't start off too hot but we were able to get a lot of turnovers in that (third) quarter. Those things really start to add up in the playoffs."

Recent history, as recently as last Sunday in Cleveland, is also worth learning from in an effort to avoid a repeat performance.

Job One, as always, will be to stop the run, which in this instance is no small task against running backs Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and the Browns' No. 3 rushing attack.

But if the Steelers can accomplish that, the nextstep would be to contain quarterback Baker Mayfield by rushing the passer collectively in a manner that doesn't present escape lanes.

"When we do that and we're able to put hm in situations where he's gotta throw the ball it allows us to be more successful," Heyward said. "if we get them in a situation where they still have the run-pass option and he's able to run boots (bootlegs), like they did at the end of the game and he just kept it, we're not gonna have a lot of success."

Mayfield's 3-yard keeper on third-and-2 with 1:10 left in regulation last Sunday allowed the Browns to run out the clock and put the warps on a 24-22 victory.

Heyward said the Steelers will have to do what they must this Sunday night at Heinz Field without cornerback Joe Haden, who remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

"We're gonna miss Joe," Heyward said. "I know Joe really wanted to be a part of this game. I told him the goal is to get him back for the divisional (round), but that's us taking care of our business."

-- blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Tuesday, January 5

A dominant force: On Monday, the Steelers announced that Stephon Tuitt is the recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, an award that is voted on by the players and given to a player who has shown courage either coming back from an injury or a life-altering situation.

On Tuesday, Tuitt officially received the award at the Courage House Luncheon, an event that was held virtually and annually benefits the work Holy Family Institute and Nazareth Prep do.

Steelers President Art Rooney II presented the award to Tuitt on the Zoom call, congratulating him on the commitment he showed to come back as strong as he has.

"I want to congratulate Stephon Tuitt for being recognized as the Ed Block Courage Award winner," said Rooney. "Stephon suffered a significant injury and came back from it this year having a great year. It shows his commitment to the rehab process. The long, lonely hours it takes to rehab from a significant injury. We are proud of everything he has done, and he is a deserving recipient."

Tuitt suffered a pectoral injury in Week 6 of the 2019 season, and before the injury had already recorded three and a half sacks and six quarterback hits through five weeks.

"He was having an enormous season in 2019 for us and sustained a season-ending injury," said Coach Mike Tomlin at the luncheon. "We were disappointed for him. We were disappointed for us."

Tuitt was also disappointed, and that is what drove him to come back stronger than ever. He dedicated himself to months of rehabilitation in the offseason to come back in 2020 for his best season yet.

"It's not fun to be injured or not being out there with the boys performing the sport we truly love," said Tuitt. "Going through the process I was a little disappointed. I was very excited to have a good year, and I was. But it got cut short and that is life. Things happen. But the thing was I had a teammate of mine, Cam Heyward, who went through the same process and watching him come back from it and be the player he ended up being, it gave me the confidence to hit rehab hard.

"I worked extremely hard to make sure when I came back I would be able to produce for the team. Every time I am on the field, I always produce. To be able to do it for a full season is always a goal of mine. I was able to do it, just some unfortunate circumstances happened to derail me from time to time. To be able to overcome them, work hard, and surround myself with my teammates who helped me on and off the field with my highs and lows was a great opportunity to represent the Steelers, come back and produce for the team and get us back to the playoffs."

It wasn't easy, though. Like everyone else, the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the rehab process for him. Yes, he was still able to seek treatment and the like, but there was no real offseason program for him to work through and no preseason for him to test out his strength before going full strength into the regular season.

"It was difficult," said Tuitt. "I didn't know where I was going to be for my first game. I was literally just playing off of pure love for the sport, love for the game, without even testing out my arm and the place where I had the surgery for my pec in the preseason. I was thrown into the fire. It's something I am used to in life, being thrown in the fire and make sure you come out. That is how I treated it and I went from there."

He came out of the fire smoking hot. Tuitt finished the regular season with a career-high 11 sacks, ranking second on the Steelers and seventh in the NFL. His sack of Baker Mayfield against the Browns on Sunday was the 56th Steelers sack of the season, tying a team record for most sacks in a season. He also recorded career-highs in tackles for a loss with 10 and quarterback hits with 25.

"I can't say enough about this man," said Tomlin. "It's been awesome to watch him fight his way back from those circumstances. And really, and this is probably the most amazing element of it, really pick up where he has left off. Stephon Tuitt has been a dominant force for us all year. I can't say enough about his efforts, contribution, productivity. What a great representative of us, what a great representative of the Ed Block Courage Award."

Monday, January 4

Getting help from the vets: The Steelers go into the playoffs with 26 players who have postseason experience.

On the flip side, though, they have 27 players who the postseason is brand new to them, including the majority of their wide receivers.

Only JuJu Smith-Schuster has played in a postseason game, just one in 2017. Beyond that, though, it's a completely inexperienced group. That is exactly why they are relying on the veterans in the locker room for advice as they prepare for the AFC Wild Card Round against the Browns on Sunday at Heinz Field.

"We just look at the vets around us in the locker room who have been there before," said rookie Chase Claypool. "If we have any questions, we just go to them. They usually just offer guidance and advice without us asking.

"(Ben Roethlisberger) emphasized taking care of our body throughout this week and prior weeks leading up to this. As we clinched the division and the playoffs, he wanted to make sure we took care of ourselves to be ready for practice and ultimately be ready for the game. It's nice hearing that from someone who can tell you weeks in advance what to prepare for to make sure you have the best performance in the playoffs." 

Diontae Johnson is just in his second season, and he knows words of advice from the veterans, like Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey, go a long way right now because experience can be the best teacher.

"It's going to impact us a lot," said Johnson. "I have never played in the playoffs before. Those guys have been in the league for a long time. They have the experience. I am trying to see how they go about this week and prepare this week for the playoffs and try and put that in my game so I can be ready just like them."

One thing they want to make sure of though, is that they don't put too much pressure on themselves as they do prepare. Yes, they know this is the biggest game they will play in so far in their career, but they have to treat it with a delicate balance to not become overwhelmed.

"I don't want to say it's just another football game because obviously there are a lot bigger things on the line," said Claypool. "You don't want to let the game get to your head, to your preparation. Just keep doing what you have been doing every week."

Johnson pretty much echoed his words.

"At the end of the day it's just football," said Johnson. "Yes, it's a playoff game, where you are single elimination. You have to go in there like any other game, play your assignment, do your job at all times. Yes, it's a big game, you want to win. You have to make sure you aren't overthinking because that is going to take you out of your game because you are going to have so much stuff going through your head and you are not going to be yourself out there.

"I am just attacking it like a normal week. Just a little more detailed on my skills when it comes to watching film, taking notes when it comes to practice, route running, catching the ball. Those types of things, making sure I am dialed in a little extra this week."

Tyson Alualu is in his 11th season in the NFL, but he is almost in the same boat as Claypool and Johnson. He has only played in one postseason game in his career, but his experience in the league brings a little more to it.

"It's still just football," said Alualu. "There is a lot at stake. Win the game or go home. There is going to be all of that emotion tied into a playoff game. You just have to come out ready and prepared.

"I am definitely excited to get back in the postseason. That whole mentality is felt throughout the locker room. Just to have this opportunity. It's a blessed feeling and one we are working and doing everything we can to get the job done so we can keep climbing to the next level and get to the Super Bowl."

Feeling like himself again: It wasn't his best game of the season as far as numbers go, but for Diontae Johnson his performance against the Browns on Sunday didn't have to be his best.

It just had to be the one that made him feel 'like himself' again.

Johnson struggled for a few games earlier this season, hampered by dropped passes in a few of them to the point where he was pulled for part of the game against the Buffalo Bills in Week 14.

On Sunday in Cleveland, he had three receptions for 96 yards, including a 41-yard catch on a field goal drive, an eight-yard grab on a touchdown drive, and a 47-yard deep catch on a touchdown drive that would have tied the game had the Steelers connected on the two-point conversion.

They were plays that gave him confidence, something that is coming at the perfect time with the playoffs starting on Sunday against the Browns at Heinz Field.

"I feel like those three catches I had helped us out tremendously," said Johnson on Monday. "That one 40 some yard catch we were about to get a field goal out of that, some points. The one I had, about 10 yards, we were able to get a first down and put us in good field position, and I think we wound up scoring that drive. That last deep ball I had, that gave us momentum to tie the game, but we didn't execute on the last play. Those three plays I felt like helped us out and kept us in the game.

"That gave me confidence, had me playing good out there again. I feel like myself again. I want to continue to show the world that is what I am capable of each Sunday. However far we go, this offseason I am going to work my tail off to come back stronger next year."

Johnson said it was that Bills game where he spent part of the half on the sidelines that really turned things around for him.

"After that Buffalo Bills game, I sat down with myself and talked to myself, trying to figure out what was going on with me," said Johnson. "It was really just a mental thing. Just paying attention to outside noise. Once I got rid of that and started dialing in on myself and just focusing in on me, it started showing in a game. I am locked in and ready to go. I just try to keep a positive mindset now. If I drop the ball, next play mentality. I am not worried about that drop. I can't do nothing about it. That type of thing I have been focusing on and it's been helping me."

Ready for a rematch: The Steelers open the postseason with a familiar foe, one they will face for the second time in two weeks in the Cleveland Browns.

The Steelers will host the Browns at Heinz Field in the AFC Wild Card Round on Sunday, January 10. Kickoff for the game is set for 8:15 pm. and will be broadcast on NBC (WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh).

The Steelers split the series with the Browns this season, defeating them, 38-7, in Week 6 at Heinz Field, and dropping the season finale, 24-22, in Week 17, with several Steelers starters sitting out, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Being familiar with your opponent can be a good thing for a team, but the one thing you always have to remember is it goes both ways. While the Steelers know what the Browns do, the Browns know what the Steelers bring to the table.

"The advantage goes both ways," said nose tackle Tyson Alualu. "We play them every year twice. Knowing who you are going against, knowing how they try to scheme you with personnel. There are advantages for us and them.

"It just comes down to going out there and executing our game plan. The advantage sometimes can be a disadvantage depending on how things play out on game day."

The Steelers lost to the Browns, 24-22, in the season finale in Cleveland on Sunday, in a game where multiple starters sat out, including defensive tackle Cameron Heyward and linebacker T.J. Watt on defense. The Browns rushed for 192 yards, with Nick Chubb carrying the ball 14 times for 108 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown run. Stopping that run game and putting more pressure on Baker Mayfield to throw the ball will be a key this week, as the Browns have the third ranked ground game in the NFL.

"When we are given a play, we have to go out and execute," said Alualu. "Looking back, we had a lot of missed tackles. To eliminate those big plays that they had, one of the biggest things is being gap sound, being where you need to be when it's your turn to make the play. You have to make the play and make those tackles."

Mayfield also took off running multiple times, carrying the ball 10 times for 37 yards, while completing 17 passes for 196 yards.

"He's a mobile quarterback," said Alualu. "It's always about not letting him make those big plays with his feet. We have to keep him contained. As a d-line we have to keep him in the pocket and make him make those throws and try and affect him that way. You always expect some of those when he is trying to escape and make plays, whether it's the run or the run/pass. We have to be there and not let that happen."

Leading the way: Linebacker T.J. Watt has another regular season that has many talking about him being the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, and even with him sitting out the Steelers' season finale he managed to lead the NFL in three categories.

Watt finished the season leading the league in sacks, with 15, tackles for a loss with 23, and quarterback hits with 41. He is the third player in the NFL to record at least 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 40 quarterback hits in the last 15 seasons. Watt's older brother, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (2012, 2014 and 2015) and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (2018) also accomplished the feat and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"T.J. is visiting from another planet, to be quite honest with you," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He has freakishly unique talent coupled with freakishly unique work habits and mindset, and it produces what you guys witness every week, which in my opinion, is Defensive Player of the Year quality."

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