Preseason Blog: Wanting to show consistency

Tuesday, August 22

Wanting to show consistency: Coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday he would like to see the first-team offense get some work on Thursday night against the Atlanta Falcons, and while he didn't say how long they would play, quarterback Kenny Pickett welcomes whatever time they get out there.

"I don't know," said Pickett of how much playing time he expects to see. "I am just going in and playing, just like all camp, they will pull us when they pull us."

Pickett and company have had success the first two games, but the second-year quarterback knows nothing can prepare you for the regular season better than more playing time.

"The only way to get better is if you keep playing," said Pickett. "You only get in football shape by playing football. I know we're all excited to get back out there on Thursday night.

"It's a short week so I wouldn't say there is a lot of game planning. We're just continuing what we did all preseason. We just want to work on some small things we can work on and put on tape. Really, it's the same model that we had this whole preseason."

Pickett said the one thing he wants to show on Thursday night is consistency, that what they did the first two games is going to be the norm.

"I want to just show consistency," said Pickett. "We've had a good first two games. Let's stack another one on there and go into the season.

"Consistency. It's just playing. You have to keep doing it."

Feeling like he belongs: Thursday night against the Falcons is the final opportunity for players to state their case for a roster spot, and in some cases, a shot at a starting spot.

While a large majority of the starting positions have been determined, the slot corner spot is one that is still up for grabs, with it coming down to Elijah Riley and Chandon Sullivan.

Riley, who went to West Point Academy, played in only four games last season for the Steelers, but through camp and the preseason has opened eyes left and right.

"I think he's showing that he has been here," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "And that's a reasonable expectation, a guy that's familiar with our environment and familiar with our schematics and so forth. And he could focus his energies on just the play or the quality of the play and he has taken a significant step in terms of productivity in stadium, on defense and in teams and good for him. Good for us."

Riley knows the expectations are high for him this preseason after being exposed to the defensive system last year, and he is living up to the expectations.

He wants more, though.

"Second year in the system, there is a little bit more of an expectation," said Riley. "I feel more comfortable, taking it in stride, detailing my work so I am in the best position I can be.

"I want to be someone the team can rely on no matter where I am placed. If they need me to learn safety better, that's what I'm going to do. They need me to learn corner, I'll tap into my college days and learn how to play corner again. Wherever I need to be put on special teams, I'm willing and wanting to be there."

Riley feels like he is light years away from when he first came into the NFL in 2020, and a lot of that is because of his development in the Steelers system last year.

"I have learned a lot," said Riley. "My football IQ has increased. I've learned more about the flow of the game, taking it from level 100 to level 400 in certain aspects. Being around the coaches here, they have helped me detail the game beyond the X's and O's, what to expect, what to anticipate, how the flow of the game works. I am very grateful to have taken the steps I have from rookie year until now.

"Getting to where I was from West Point was a challenge. When I got here for a little while, I was finding my way, trying to figure out where I belong.

"Now I feel like I am at the point where I know I belong, and I am doing everything I can to stick around."

And on Thursday night, he is going to give it everything he has.

"I am going to go out there and put on my best performance," said Riley. "I want to show I am consistent, disciplined and diligent in my work ethic. Beyond that I am not trying to do anything outside of my cylinder to prove myself in any sort of way. I am here to show I am working to get better every single day."

Everyone buying in: It's a topic that has been discussed at nauseum, but sometimes, those are the things that need to be talked about the most.

And for the Steelers defense, one of the most talked about things in camp, and the offseason, is communication, especially with the influx of new players via free agency and the draft.

It's something the players are constantly focused on, because if communication breaks down, everything can break down.

"It's going good," said cornerback Levi Wallace. "We want to continue to improve each and every day. Now that we are starting to game plan, we are putting in plays that we haven't run in training camp, so it just emphasizes your communication with other guys, especially guys who haven't really been here. It's the new calls we put in. We have a lot of good vets, a lot of good young players we brought in. We have all bought into it.

"In the secondary, we know if we don't communicate bad things can happen. No safety in the middle of the field. Explosive passes. People on the wrong page. We are the blanket on the defense. If we are good on the back end, I know we'll be good on the rest of the defense."

There really is no way to over-emphasize how important that communication factor is, and those on defense certainly aren't downplaying it.

"That is our emphasis," said Wallace. "Our coaches do a good job emphasizing it, (defensive coordinator) Teryl Austin and (secondary coach) Grady (Brown). It limits a lot of stuff the offenses can do. Even if we are all wrong, we are all right. That is important for us."

Repetition and familiarity are key factors in making sure that communication is on point, but sometimes circumstances don't always work out. Last year safety Minkah Fitzpatrick missed the Saints game because of appendicitis. In the preseason opener, most of the secondary was sidelined dealing with some nagging injuries. So even repetition requires trust from everyone.

"Sometimes things happen," said Wallace. "Minkah had surgery the day before a game, and you had a bunch of reps with Minkah and now you have somebody else that you don't have a lot of reps with. Or like the Tampa game when we were all out.

"Things happen like that. The standard is still the standard. I think a lot of it happens off the field, when you can look over at a guy and know he is going to get you on the right page. Selfless football. Especially in our stadium, it gets super loud, and you can't get a call. You have to come up with signals just to get on the same page as a secondary. That's important. When bullets are flying, you have two minutes left and there is all this adrenaline, and you are looking over at your buddy and know he has your back. You have to be on the same page and execute."

That comfort level, the trust, the communication also comes with developing off the field relationships with teammates, something Wallace values.

"Football is one of the weirdest jobs where you are competing for a job but then you are building team chemistry at the same time," said Wallace. "It's definitely unique. When the season gets going, you know who your group of guys are, that is when I like to go to dinner with the DBs, get to know them, their families. That is where the real trust and camaraderie is built. When you get to the season, it's when it takes it to a new level, and you know who is on your side and who you are out there with."

More to show: It's not often you hear a player say he needs to show more but running back Anthony McFarland Jr. feels that way.

And he has one more preseason game to show what he can do.

"It's a very important game. It means a lot," said McFarland. "A lot of guys are at my position trying to make the team; earn a spot. It's a big game."

McFarland has made some plays in the preseason, including a 14-yard touchdown run against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the preseason opener.

But he wants to show more.

"I can't get too high or too low," said McFarland. "Each game I just try to get better in my preparation, my play. There is always room for improvement. I feel like I haven't shown enough. That is what is in my head.

"I do it for me to keep me level-headed. No matter what I do, I've learned from Coach (Mike) Tomlin, there is always something you can get better at. That is how I go about my business."

McFarland is hoping to get plenty of playing time against the Falcons on Thursday night to show that he is deserving of a spot on the 53-man roster.

"I want to show that I can help this team and be a team player, wherever they need me on special teams and contributing on offense," said McFarland. "I want to show everything I can."

Collective efforts: The touchdowns have kept coming this preseason, three in three possessions from the first-team offense and six overall against the Buccaneers and Bills.

But tight end Connor Heyward, who caught a 3-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mitch Trubisky in Saturday night's 27-15 victory over Buffalo, maintained the offense isn't about to take such success for granted.

"Keep our head down and keep working," Heyward said of the vibe on offense heading into Thursday night's preseason finale at Atlanta. "It didn't happen by mistake. Everybody's on the same page, thinking the same thing, talking the same terminologies. When the ball comes your way, you gotta make a play. If you gotta make a block, make a block, play without the ball. You saw 'Tae' (wide receiver Diontae Johnson) do that on (running back) Jaylen Warren's long (62-yard) touchdown run (against Buffalo).

"When that happens, a lot of things are going to happen for the better this year."

Heyward also put his hand in the pile with regularity on special teams units that earned Coach Mike Tomlin's recognition during his postgame remarks. Bills possessions that commenced after a kickoff or punt began at the Buffalo 14-, 16-, 11, 20-, 6-, 17-, 22-, 8-, 10- and 10-yard lines. And wide receiver Calvin Austin III produced a 54-yard punt return for the Steelers.

"Everybody's just doing their job," Heyward said. "I think we did a really good job with 'Boz' (kicker Chris Boswell) putting good hang time on the ball. A lot of the kicks were 'middle' kicks, Coach wanted to see who could cover, get down there. I think we did a really good job in the kickoff game. We only had one kick return but it's never good enough and we know we can be better.

"It was good to see (safety Miles) Killebrew, (safety Elijah) Riley and (wide receiver Miles) Boykin, they stood out to me and to everybody. We've been working on this and those are some really good, key special teams guys that are gonna help us this year."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Monday, August 21

Back on familiar ground: The Steelers returned to familiar ground on Monday, back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for practice after breaking training camp last week.

Coach Mike Tomlin indicated being back is good for the players, giving them a feel of what life is like in this environment as they move into the final week of the preseason.

"Good to be back today," said Tomlin. "Good to be back in the confines of our facility and familiarize ourselves with that, the resources, spatially how a day goes in this environment.

"Got a lot to do on a week like this week. We had an opportunity to evaluate the tape and make corrections and acknowledgments and let that be a springboard of not only what we're doing, but who we need to see and how much. We're quickly formulating plans in that regard and putting together a game plan and getting the guys on the grass and working them."

With a Thursday night game against the Atlanta Falcons this week, Tomlin said it's a good test of what the schedule will be like when the Steelers have two regular season Thursday night games this year. 

"It's kind of reflective of the challenges that happen in season," said Tomlin. "From time to time, you have irregular weeks. I think we have two Thursday outings this year. When you have irregular weeks, it's a process, a team development, a great opportunity to alert them, familiarize themselves with that. Be comfortable being somewhat uncomfortable in irregular preparation processes. That's where we are."

Some good news on the injury front coming off the Bills game is that there is no news. The Steelers came out of the game relatively unscathed and that will have an impact on who will play this week.

"I like our general health," said Tomlin. "It doesn't appear we absorbed any real negativity in the last outing. Guys are still working their way back to us and getting really close. Optimistic on guys like Larry Ogunjobi and Tre Norwood and big brother (Nate) Herbig.

"We'll see where the week leads. I told you after the game our agenda is to play all healthy people and continue with the developmental process. We remain in that mindset."

Being a team player: It's not often a receiver gets credit for laying out a block downfield that helps a running back en route to a massive gain, but that was the case on Saturday night against the Bills.

Receiver Diontae Johnson provided a key block on running back Jaylen Warren's 62-yard touchdown run, something running back Najee Harris was the first to point out after the game.

A few days later, Johnson just wrote it off as what he is supposed to do.

"Just being a team player," said Johnson. "Whether the ball is coming my way or not, just doing my job. You never know where the ball is going to be. The play came to my side, so I had to be on point."

Johnson said Coach Mike Tomlin has gotten on him a little bit about his blocking and he just wants to show what he can do.

"Coach T gets on me a little bit about blocking downfield," said Johnson. "I wanted to show him I can block well. That's something I try to work on, doing it in camp this season. Last year as well. It's not like I can't block, I just have to put it on film."

Working on it is paying dividends, but it's something Johnson has always had as part of his game.

"I feel like I've improved," said Johnson. "I always could block. It may look like I don't do it sometimes, but I do."

The block not only opened Warren up to score, but it was another explosive play for the Steelers, something that has happened on both sides of the ball early in the preseason after Tomlin preached wanted more of it.

One of the reasons it's occurring on offense is the level of comfort the offense has with second year quarterback Kenny Pickett.

"I feel like we have been progressing day by day. It's not going to happen overnight," said Johnson. "We had a good camp. The first two preseason games we came out, starting fast, Kenny moving the ball well. He knows where he wants to go with the ball. The offensive line is doing a great job of keeping him protected, keeping him upright. The running backs are doing a great job. The receivers, we look a lot better as far as a preparation standpoint, knowing our plays, moving faster, communicating better with each other. Once we do that, that allows us to play fast and not overthink out there. When we do that, we don't have to worry about anything else.

"Just being around the receivers, we are all comfortable being around each other. It shows in practice. He trusts anyone of us. We all have to be on point, in the right position, and make the catch when the ball comes our way."

All about execution: At the end of last season, to a man, everyone on Steelers roster talked about wanting to start the 2023 season the way they finished.

The Steelers won six of their last seven games and seven of the last nine, after starting off slower than they, or any one anticipated.

While yes, it is the preseason and the results don't count in the stat sheet, seeing the way the offense has jumped out early on has been a positive.

The players are seeing what offensive coordinator Matt Canada's vision is as he enters his third season in the role, and they are picking up the same vision and approach they had following the bye week last year.

"We saw that last year after the bye week," said center Mason Cole. "There is no question about what we are doing, and why we are doing it. It just comes down to execution.

"It's the third year with the offense. Kenny (Pickett) is taking a big step year two. Having an identity last year and carrying it over to this year.

"We just feel good. The continuity is there. The playmakers are making really good plays. Knock on wood we have been healthy so far."

Cole knows that what the Steelers put out there in the preseason will only matter if it translates into the regular season, but it sure can't hurt to have a strong performance now.

"It's always challenging on how to see the preseason," said Cole. "Anytime you go out there and you roll the ball on the field, what you do out there is a big deal. To go out there and have success is big. No matter if they're game planning, we're game planning, whoever we are going against. It doesn't matter. It's good to have success whenever you roll the ball out. There is a long way between now and Week 1. We will just get back to work."

The work does continue on Thursday night in the preseason finale against the Atlanta Falcons. Cole doesn't know how much playing time the starters will see, but he is willing to accept whatever it is. 

"I trust Coach (Mike) Tomlin and whatever he thinks is best for us is what we are going to do," said Cole. "Whether he thinks it's play the whole game, one drive or not play, we have a lot of trust in him. He knows what he is doing."

Having fun: This preseason has been a blessing for receiver Calvin Austin III, especially after he never got to touch the field during his rookie year, not even in the preseason.

Austin was injured in training camp, ahead of the preseason opener, and missed the entire season.

Now, he is back and loving every minute of it.

"I am having so much fun," said Austin. "Just being out there, going through the warmup process and everything. It's funny because I remember waiting last year and then not being able to do anything, not being able to run out of the tunnel. Things like that are making this so much more fun."

Austin isn't just running out of the tunnel. He is running down the sidelines making splash play after splash play.

Against Tampa he broke loose on a reception from Mason Rudolph, using his speed to take it 67 yards for a touchdown.

Against the Bills he took a punt return 54 yards to the Bills 25-yard line, setting up a touchdown pass from Kenny Pickett to Pat Freiermuth.

"It's been very exciting," said Austin. "That is what I want to do every time I step out on the field, do whatever it takes to help the team win. If that is making splash plays like I have done, I want to continue to do that. I am trying to help the team in any aspect I can. So far, I have been doing it. Now I want to continue to keep stacking days.

"If the role they want from me is to have me contribute on special teams and offense, I am ready for it. Vertically, I am down to do whatever. I get a lot of work in practice. Things we practice come into play. Whatever my role is, I will be ready for it."

That willingness is something he has always had in him, but it's grown after having the game he loves so much taken away from his last year.

"Anytime I step on the field, I pray and thank God I am able to step back out onto the field," said Austin. "It makes everything I do that much more special. I know what it feels like to not be out there. It makes everything else so much more special."

Steelers make moves: The Steelers signed receiver Aron Cruickshank and linebacker Kuony Deng. In a corresponding move, the team waived/injured receivers Hakeem Butler and Cody White.

Cruickshank signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent following the 2023 NFL Draft.

Cruickshank played at Rutgers University where he pulled in 99 receptions for 868 yards and five touchdowns in 28 games. In 2022 he had 42 receptions for 385 yards and two touchdowns while earning All-Big Ten third team honors. He was also selected third team All-Big Ten as a return specialist. He also played two seasons at Wisconsin.

Deng was originally signed by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent following the 2022 NFL Draft. He was signed to the Chicago Bears practice squad late in the 2022 season and signed a Reserve/Future contract after the season. He was released by the Bears during the preseason.

Deng played three seasons at the University of California where he recorded 154 total tackles, 10 tackles for a loss, three and a half sacks, eight passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He was a two-time team captain (2020-21) and was named honorable mention All-Pac-12 in 2019 when he recorded 119 tackles and three sacks. Overall he had 229 tackles and 15.5 tackles for a loss during his time at California, as well as Independence Community College and Virginia Military Institute.