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Preseason blog: Staying consistent

Friday, August 26

Staying consistent: Steven Sims knows what the final week of the preseason is all about in the NFL.

He is more than familiar with that final chance to prove you should be one of those who land on the 53-man roster.

And he is ready to do whatever it takes on Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Acrisure Stadium to earn his place.

"This is my fourth year in the league, so I know the last game is big for a lot of guys trying to earn a roster spot and solidify themselves," said Sims. "Just like my rookie year, it's the same for me, just fight, do what I've got to do, make plays, and let the rest handle itself."

Sims has opened a lot of eyes in training camp with his play on offense and special teams, and while he only has three receptions for 11 yards in the preseason, he is making sure he makes every moment count.

"(I want to show) that I am going to be consistent making plays when the ball is in my hand," said Sims. "Doing whatever (special teams coordinator) Danny (Smith) asks me to do in special teams. Just continue to do that. Make plays on offense, block and make plays on special teams as well."

Sims was originally signed to the Steelers practice squad at the start of the 2021 season, after being released by the Buffalo Bills on the final roster cut. He spent the previous two seasons with the Washington Commanders, pulling in 61 receptions for 575 yards and a total of seven touchdowns. He also added to Washington's special teams, one of his touchdowns coming on a kickoff return.

Sims knows Sunday's game is the last opportunity to prove he should be on the roster, and he is approaching it like a regular season game.

"It's always the same," said Sims of his mentality. "It's a big game to me, just like it was regular season. I gotta do, what I gotta do. I have to make plays. I have to perform week in and week out. That's my only goal.

"I am playing faster. I know everything now, so I am not thinking, just playing."

He feels like he can be a good fit in offensive coordinator Matt Canada's offense, bringing his own approach to the mix. 

"I can run routes, good routes in the slot, outside, and I return the ball," said Sims. "And you can put it in my hand in the backfield. I love his offense and I think I am a good fit for his offense. We'll see what happens this weekend."

Intensity is building: Rookie receiver Calvin Austin III, the team's fourth-round pick this year, hasn't played in the preseason yet after injuring his foot ahead of the Seattle game.

Austin said it's been hard watching while his teammates are playing and is anxious to get back out there.

"It's definitely kind of been hard," said Austin. "I want to be out there with the guys. We made it through training camp together, so I definitely want to be out there. They are keeping me positive, encouraging me, asking me how I am, so that is good."

While the team is preparing for the preseason finale against the Lions, Austin said he can feel a difference in the atmosphere as the regular season opener is just two weeks away, when the team heads to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals on Sept. 11.

"You can kind of feel the intensity amping up because it's the final game, we are getting closer to the first week of the season," said Austin. "You can feel the intensity. But it's intense every day. It's about continuing to lock in.

"It's building for sure. First game is a big game too. You can tell everybody is excited. They played in the Super Bowl it's going to be a big moment for us to prove ourselves."

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Thursday, August 25

Aggressive approach: Safety Damontae Kazee has quickly endeared himself to his new teammates with his hard-hitting, aggressive approach, one that even needed a little bit of a 'Whoa,' from Coach Mike Tomlin early on in training camp when he hit rookie receiver Calvin Austin III without the pads on.

"I'd rather say 'whoa' than 'sick 'em,' and in that instance, whoa," said Tomlin during camp about the play.

But when it comes to game day, there will be no saying 'whoa' to Kazee, who will bring his aggressive mentality every time he is out there for the defense.

"It comes from my dad," said Kazee. "He used to watch our hitting drills and made sure we always went hard. You couldn't be out there going soft because he would tell us straight up, if he is wasting his money, we better go out there and play."

Kazee said there were time when his dad, Walter Kazee, got on him, but they were lessons that still help him today.

"Of course, every father is going to get on you," said Kazee. "You just have to learn from it, the little mistakes, going over it and executing it.

"It made me very aggressive. I played with my heart instead of my size."

Making an impression: In a crowded receivers room, first-year player Tyler Vaughns is doing his part to standout as he battles for a spot on the team's 53-man roster.

Vaughns has six receptions for 88 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown reception to secure the win over Seattle at Acrisure Stadium.

"Boy, how about the playmaking at the end of games," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "I can't say enough about that. The in-stadium things we respect, but beyond that, he's a capable and willing worker out here. He's versatile from a positional standpoint. I like some of the things I'm seeing for sure."

Vaughns is pleased with some of the things he has done so far in the preseason, but knows there is more work to do before the roster cuts on Tuesday, Aug. 30 at 4 p.m. And he is hoping to do some of that against the Lions on Sunday in the preseason finale, a game he knows will be the final test.

"It's important to everybody just because it's our game," said Vaughns. "Just all the work you put in through camp you want to make it show in every game we play.

"I've been trying to focus on my angles after I catch the ball. Make sure I secure the ball. Just ball security in general."

Vaughns said he doesn't constantly think about what is going to happen, but it is always there.

"It's in the back of my mind," said Vaughns. "I try to come out every day, work hard, do what I can and get better at my craft every day."

Proud of his work: Mason Rudolph is his own worst critic. Always has been, always will be.

But if there is one thing Rudolph is proud of, it's the way he has always competed, including in a three-way battle for the Steelers starting quarterback job with Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett.

"Yes, I am," said Rudolph in response to if he is proud of the way he has competed. "I am proud. We still have a few more practices and a game on Sunday and I want to put the finishing touches on it. I am excited for whatever the Lord has for me."

Rudolph knows there is a lot of talk out there about his future with the team, talk that he steers away from and normally only hears about when asked directly about it by the media. His focus is on one thing and one thing only, and that is going out and doing his best every time the ball is in his hands.

The question, though, is being the competitor he is, does he need to have the ball in his hands to be happy in Pittsburgh.

"I think it's too soon to say. We'll see," said Rudolph. "We have another week. I am going to keep doing my job each and every day and hit the field on Sunday and compete."

Rudolph admits he would have liked to have had more opportunities with the first team, but also added that he knows that is the way things sometimes play out in this game.

"I said it previously in camp, I would have enjoyed to take more first team reps, but that didn't happen," said Rudolph. "I think I made the most of the reps I did get, and that is all you can do when you play quarterback."

The Steelers prepare for the preseason Week 3 matchup against the Detroit Lions

Starting strong: The answer was one that you had to expect.

When asked what linebacker T.J. Watt sees from the defense in 2022, his answer was simple and to the point.

"Trying to be better," said Watt.

And that improvement is focused on one main thing.

"It starts with stopping the run," said Watt. "We know what we can do here when we pin our ears back and get after the quarterback. It's a matter of getting off to a good start and continuing to trend in the right direction as the season goes on."

The Steelers defense finished ranked last against the run in 2021, but brought in pieces this offseason, as well as getting some guys back healthy, to help turn that around and just improve overall on that side of the ball. 

And so far, Watt likes what he sees from the new additions.

"I think the staff has done a great job of implementing the new guys," said Watt. "The new guys have got accustomed to what we do here. As we get more and more film together, play together, we're all going to be better."

One young player who has been opening eyes on defense is outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed. Rashed, who originally signed with the Jets as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2021 NFL Draft, spent the majority of the 2021 season on the Jets practice squad and played in the Jets Week 10 game against the Buffalo Bills, playing 16 snaps. He was claimed off of waivers by the Steelers in the middle of training camp this year.

"He has a good juice to him, plays the run well," said Watt of the first-year linebacker out of Oregon State. "He also shares the same outside backer coach I had in college. Just to be able to translate some things what we called it in college and what we call it here has been nice. I think he has a good juice, a good pass rush package as well and I think he can do some good things for us."

He's not the only young player Watt sees the potential in. There are others, and that is why Watt is always available to help guys out with tips, advice, whatever they need. 

"I have always said I am an open book to these guys," said Watt. "Any questions they have, I am willing to help anybody get better if they want the help.

"I am never going to push what I know and my experience on people, but if they want to ask me, I am always going to be an open book and I never have a problem trying to help out a younger guy."

Cool with it: While no decision has been made on the quarterback front, receiver Chase Claypool has liked what he has seen from the QBs and is happy with whatever decision is made.

"Whoever it is, I am cool with," said Claypool.

Claypool likes the demeanor that Mitch Trubisky brings, saying his off the field persona adds a lot to the on-field relationship.

"Mitch has done nothing but a great job," said Claypool. "I am excited to see how he keeps pushing forward. He is a good funny dude off the field, so anything he says in the huddle, like I need you to get here, or keep it up, feels good. It's like your boy talking to you so you are going to take it seriously.

"I am really excited because we have a lot of great options."

Claypool was also asked about one of the options at quarterback, rookie Kenny Pickett, and his growth since he first arrived after the draft.

"I think Kenny's ball has become more and more catchable," said Claypool. "He has put a nice touch on it. You can see the work that he has put in.

"You can tell he is very fired up when he gets on the field, very excited. To be out there with poise, it's cool to see that."

Be all you can be: Safety Elijah Riley is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who was able to break into the NFL ahead of schedule thanks in no small part to the efforts of … Elijah Riley.

"It's kind of a long story but long story short, we were at the White House in 2018 getting the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, the opportunity presented itself to ask President Trump to change the rule and kinda took advantage of it," Riley explained. "From there, the rule got changed and I'm very fortunate to be where I am now.

"A lot of my brothers got the opportunity to go play ball in Seattle, Philly and L.A. It's cool to see my guys playing."

Riley and others have taken advantage of a policy change in June of 2019 that allows athletes from services academies to apply to defer mandatory military service while pursuing professional careers.

Service academy athletes previously had to fulfill military obligations prior to turning professional.
Riley joined the Eagles as an undrafted rookie in 2020 and appeared in five games.

He played one game with the Eagles and seven with the Jets in 2021.

He has one career sack and one pass defensed.

The Steelers acquired him off waivers from the Jets on Wednesday and released safety Donovan Stiner.

"I like to pride myself on being a hard worker and doing my job well," Riley said. "And then when you're able to do that I think plays come to you. I just want to continue to improve each day, get one percent better each day, and then see where it takes me."

Riley is also of the opinion there's more where he came from.

"I think it's a place that's been overlooked for a while because of the rule," he said. "We got ballplayers, especially at Army we got ballplayers."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

ICYMI: The Steelers claimed safety Elijah Riley off of waivers from the New York Jets on Wednesday.

Riley was released by the Jets when they got down to the 80-man roster on Tuesday. He started the last seven games in 2021 for the Jets, after he was signed off the Philadelphia Eagles practice squad. He finished with 45 tackles and three tackles for a loss. Riley, who played at Army, originally signed with the Eagles in 2020 as an undrafted rookie free agent.

To make room for him on the 80-man roster, the Steelers released safety Donovan Stiner.

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Wednesday, August 24

Making the reps count: Kenny Pickett doesn't know what the plan for Sunday's game against the Lions is as far as the quarterback rotation goes.

But there is one thing he does know.

He is going to make the most of every opportunity he gets.

"Whatever reps I do get, I'm excited to go out there and have the last preseason game and just kind of build off the progress I have made throughout camp," said Pickett. "I thought it was a really successful camp just growing and getting used to the offense, getting the hang of the NFL speed. I'm excited to go out there one more time."

Pickett's comfort level with the offense is something that has grown from the moment he walked in the door at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex as his desire to learn and progress is something that is hard to match for a young player.

"I'm comfortable with the offense," said Pickett. "Playing fast, trusting my eyes and my feet are tied together. I'm going through my reads and my progressions and just getting the ball out of my hands fast. So, I'm happy with how I progressed that way throughout camp. We want to keep it going throughout this last game.

"The more you play in an offense, the more comfortable you get. The more reps I've been getting, the more continuity with my teammates. I think it's just seeing that kind of improvement."

Pickett said he is pleased with what he has put on tape so far, and one thing he does know, the final decision on who is the starter on opening day on Sept. 11 against the Bengals isn't going to come down to just what happens on the field this Sunday against the Lions.

"It definitely does not come down to one game," said Pickett. "It's over a period of work. The last month we've been grinding it out. I just want to put my best foot forward, play as hard as I can like I always do, and let the chips fall where they may."

A visitor at practice: As the Steelers prepared for Sunday's preseason finale against the Lions, they had a visitor at practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Ben Roethlisberger, who retired after the 2021 season, was on hand, watching the team work and visiting with players, coaches and staff.

"It's good to see him, but he and I stay in pretty consistent contact in some form or fashion anyway," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "But no doubt, good to see him, good for the guys to see him, glad to have him out."

What Roethlisberger saw at practice was something he was accustomed to, just with some different faces, as the team ran through a regular season Wednesday schedule as they prepare for the season.

"Base instillations in all three phases, things that we should anticipate from our opponent, critical matchups, things of that nature," said Tomlin. "It was a good start for us, but you guys know we measure weeks by the result at the end, and so we'll reserve judgement. But it did feel good today to get focused and be in this environment and do the things we would do on a regular in-season Wednesday."

Time will tell: Mitch Trubisky said he expects to start this Sunday against the Detroit Lions in the Steelers preseason finale, but how long he will play, he isn't sure.

"We'll see," said Trubisky.

And in regards to if he has been told anything about starting when the Steelers open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sept. 11, he isn't sure what the scenario will be yet.

"I don't know," said Trubisky. "There's got to be some announcement before game one. So, we'll see."

In the preseason opener against Seattle Trubisky played in two series, and last week he said he wanted to see more playing time and was in for three series.

This week, time will tell.

"It's tough to gauge," said Trubisky. "It's always different in the first quarter of a preseason game. You don't really have a real game plan. We'll have a little bit more of one this week. You're not really showing everything that you have. And you're really just trying to establish a rhythm and it takes a whole unit not just the quarterback. It takes all 11 guys to have a successful play and go down and score as a unit.

"I think more than anything we're trying to find is rhythm. I got three drives last week, we'll see how many I get this week. It's all about getting better. And for me if we look at what we did last week, and what our weaknesses were, and where we can get better at, that's where we're trying to focus right now. It's just making the throws that help us stay on the field, maybe get the ball out a little quicker and just continue to make good decisions."

After signing as an unrestricted free agent this offseason, Trubisky has come in and gotten comfortable with the offense in rapid fashion. He has started both preseason games as he is in a three-way battle for the starting spot with rookie Kenny Pickett and veteran Mason Rudolph. It's a battle where he is comfortable with what he has done so far.

"It's been a limited sample, but I think I've done a lot of great things in practice, a lot of good throws in the game," said Trubisky. "Just focus on what we can improve as a unit right now. And that's staying on the field on third down and then going down and finishing with some points. Especially last game, would like to stay on the field a little bit longer and finish in the end zone. We're just looking to see what we can improve and keep doing that. But, I've done a lot of great things so far, and I feel really comfortable with where I'm at and how I'm throwing the football and how I'm learning the playbook and going through all my reads so far."

Trubisky said he feels like he has shown the coaching staff he is capable of being QB1, not just with his play but the whole body of work since he arrived in Pittsburgh.

"I think I have, just how I carry myself every day, what I've done on the practice field," said Trubisky. "Would like to do more last game obviously, but hopefully get another opportunity this week to show why I should be. It's your whole body of work. Everything I've done in my career up to this point. what I've done in minicamp, the practices at Latrobe, and the preseason games. Wasn't the best showing last week as a unit and for myself, so all you can do is control today and get better from there and that's what I'm trying to do and have a great week."

One step closer: Outside linebacker Alex Highsmith has yet to make his preseason debut and might not on Sunday against Detroit.

But he took another step today toward returning from the rib injury that kept him from playing on Aug. 13 against Seattle and on Aug. 20 at Jacksonville.

"Starting to do 'indy' (individual) work and stuff like that, just really working on hitting the pads (blocking sled) more, stuff like that," Highsmith reported after practice today. "Feeling more and more comfortable every day and that's the goal.

"Really, it's just about building that confidence back with it. It's going good."

Highsmith is working his way back from a rib injury sustained in advance of the preseason opener against the Seahawks.

Being available for the regular-season opener on Sept. 11 at Cincinnati has been his objective all along.

"That's really the goal for me right now, just progressing more and more every day," he said. "The goal is Week One.

"I feel like I'm progressing well, starting to feel better and better every day."

Highsmith doesn't have any concerns about time missed in the preseason potentially affecting his state of readiness once the games begin to count.

"I don't," he said. "I've been running, doing what I can to stay in shape so that when I do come back I'm gonna be ready.

"It's about always staying ready so you don't have to get ready. I'm excited for whenever I'm able to be back."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

The Steelers prepare for the preseason Week 3 matchup against the Detroit Lions

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Take a closer look at scenes from the Steelers' Preseason Week 2 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars

Monday, August 22

Evaluating the tape: The Steelers returned to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Monday, back on familiar ground as they prepare for their final preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.

Coach Mike Tomlin is using this week to get players acclimated to what a regular season week is like, following the same schedule they will as they prepare on a weekly basis in-season.

"Really significant day for us here, just getting back into the comforts of the South Side facility and in dealing with normalcy from that perspective," said Tomlin. "We're leaning in on a mock week where we simulate the process of game readiness; Wednesday is a normal regular-season, in-season Wednesday, Thursday is Thursday, and so forth. So, we're excited about that and seeing them gain that rhythm and understanding about what we do from a cultural standpoint."

Monday was a 'bonus day' of sorts, and it was used to evaluate tape from Saturday's preseason victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"Today was about the evaluation of our tape and then coming out here and doing what was appropriate relative to what we saw on tape," said Tomlin. "We made some corrections this morning, some things that we talked about and some things that we didn't talk about, and then we came out here and had a good workday. We'll analyze this and then as a staff, we'll start leaning in on some Detroit prep in preparation for our mock week."

The tape evaluation covered every aspect of the game, but everyone wanted to know about one position in particular – the offensive line. Tomlin didn't go into specifics about what he addressed when watching the film regarding the offensive line but did specify some areas they need to work on during his post-practice availability.

"There wasn't enough detail from a fine motor skill standpoint, details relative to their position," said Tomlin. "They didn't play with enough of an edge individually and collectively. The things that are on our tape, we've got to own, and I think they'll be ready to do that.

"I'm not delving into the details with you guys. They know where I stand and what I expect, and it's going to be fun to watch them work and respond to that adversity this week."

Left guard Kendrick Green said earlier in the day that Tomlin mentioned him during the film session, but that it was fair.

"Coach kinda put us up on the board, me specifically, in front of the team meeting," said Green. "That never feels good. He's not even cussing you out or anything like that. He's just like, 'This is what you are. This is what you put on film,' and it's fair. It's not like it's uncalled for, it's completely fair."

Left guard is one of the positions still up for grabs during the preseason, with Green and Kevin Dotson battling for it. Tomlin said that is one of several battles that will be sorted out as the preseason comes to a close.

"A lot of spots will come down to this work," said Tomlin. "This work is weighted differently and appropriately so. The in-stadium work is significant, and increasingly so the more stadium exposure you get. So, make no mistake, this is a significant game for a lot of people."

Been there: Speaking of the offense line, the film that was shown that highlighted plays that won't go on a highlight reel were shown during the team meeting.

And Cameron Heyward said he has been there, knows what it feels like, and just encourages them to learn from it.

"You just deal with it," said Heyward. "Not going to make anything of it. We've all put bad tape on tape. It's how you respond. You've got to own it. If you make excuses about it, it keeps finding you. It's about growing. 

"It's about those young guys stepping up. We're going to count on them a lot this year. Our o-line is young. Those guys have got to produce."

Heyward remembers when he was younger and then defensive line coach John Mitchell, who is now the assistant head coach, calling him out.

"Every guy has been in that position," said Heyward. "I had Coach Mitch, and John Mitchell is not going to hold anything back. It taught me to look for those mistakes more and learn from those mistakes. You just have to get better."

Something to build on: The Steelers defense isn't afraid to change up their looks, and one of those looks came in the team's preseason win over Jacksonville.

Terrell Edmunds, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Damontae Kazee were all on the field together in a package Edmunds liked.

"I definitely think it's a nice package, something we can build off of," said Edmunds. "Something we have been working on. That was our first time getting it out there because Minkah is out there now. I definitely think it looked good out there."

Adding Kazee to the mix in the secondary has been a huge asset for them, after he was signed this offseason after playing his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons (2017-20) and last season with the Dallas Cowboys. Kazee finished the 2021 season eighth on the team with 54 tackles, 39 of them solo stops, two forced fumbles, two interceptions and four passes defensed. He was a defensive captain for the team in Week 3.

"He fits perfect," said Edmunds. "He was a playmaker in Atlanta. He was a playmaker in Dallas. Now he is coming over here helping us out the best way he can. Having Kazee back there, he is a veteran guy, he is a guy who knows how to play in the NFL. He is a guy that made big plays in the NFL. He definitely helps us out big time."

One of the key factors in the secondary is communication, something that hasn't been an issue with Kazee and actually improved as he got more time when Fitzpatrick missed time during camp.

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I think with Minkah out that helped Kazee tremendously, just him getting those extra reps," said Edmunds. "Him getting out there with the one defense and the two defense and getting those extra reps. He understands exactly what we want to do. He went out there this past game and he showed exactly what he can do multiple times. He is out there making plays and he is a play maker.

"(The communication) is going well. It starts right here in practice. We are going to work on it this week. We finally have some game film on it last week, so now just keep on building off of it."

He said it: Cameron Heyward on competition periods with offensive line in practice.

I relish those opportunities. It's a chance for me to sharpen my craft. It's a chance for them to get better. You will never see me back down from a competition.

Added on: The Steelers signed offensive tackle Adrian Ealy and waived offensive tackle Jordan Tucker.

Ealy, most recently released by L.A. Rams on Aug. 16, originally signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent in May 2021. He spent time on Baltimore, Denver, Rams and Green Bay practice squads' last season.

Ealy was a member of four Big 12 championship teams and three College Football Playoff squads in his four seasons at Oklahoma (2017-20). A second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2019 (by league's head coaches) and in 2020 (by coaches and media), he started in each of his 23 games over the '19 and '20 seasons. During his two years as a starter, the Sooners ranked second nationally in pass efficiency rating (179.8), fourth in total offense (518.8 ypg), fifth in points per game (42.5) and eighth in yards per rush (5.4).

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