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Week 1 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, September 9

Taking the lead: Coach Mike Tomlin often talks about the jump a player takes between his first and second season, taking the next step on the field being something extremely important.

But for running back Najee Harris, who was named to the Pro Bowl in 2021, the next step for him wasn't necessarily about his play, but his growth overall on the field.

Harris has grown from the moment he was drafted by the Steelers, developing into a player loved and respected by his teammates to the point he was voted one of five team captains, an uncommon occurrence for such a young player.

"Obviously honored, being a captain my second year," said Harris. "Only being here a year, these guys here, coaches, staff, taught me more about becoming a man and how to carry myself since I have been here. I appreciate all of them for helping me step into more of an adult-like person. There have been times I have been put in the spotlight for making plays. Schools I have been to tried to put me in a position to become a captain, but I shied away from it. Here I am put in the spotlight to be a leader, that's carrying myself. (It's about) be there earlier for stuff, carrying notes. Teammates, staff and coaches really taught me how to become that person. Appreciate them more than anything."

Harris said had previous stops, including college, he just wasn't ready for that next step. But last year as a rookie he showed signs of being a strong leader right off the bat, spending endless hours in the film room, being one of the last players off the field, constantly doing extra work. This year it's even more noticeable and when he asked Coach Mike Tomlin for advice on being a captain, it was simple.

"He said just be yourself," said Harris. "He said right now being yourself is good enough. Along the way all the other stuff will come with it. Right now, be yourself."

Harris has immersed himself into what it means to being a Steelers running back, with a legacy before him that includes Hall of Famers. He appreciates those who paved the way, including Franco Harris, who will have his No. 32 retired later this season. The two have had several opportunities to talk, including last week when Franco Harris visited practice.

"Me growing up, the Steelers were always a fun team to watch, especially being a running back," said Harris. "I heard of Franco, even though it was before my time. I talked to him a couple of weeks ago. Then he came again, and we were just talking. Just to get notes from him, take some words from him is always a good thing because he is an icon, especially in this city. You walk down in the airport, and you have a whole statue of him."

And is being an icon in the city something Harris would like when his career is over.

"I'm just worried about this upcoming game against the Bengals," laughed Harris.

The Steelers prepare for the Week 1 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals

He said it: Linebacker T.J. Watt on improving the run defense, which was ranked last in the NFL in 2021.

"We've been preaching that since March, April, just trying to be a better run defense. Obviously there's some things we can do schematically. But ultimately it comes down to guys defeating blocks, making tackles and not trying to do too much. I feel very good about where we've been. We've had a lot of good run game meetings. It doesn't matter unless we do it on Sunday, though."

Happy to be back: It was a long year for Tyson Alualu watching his teammates play while he was sidelined for the majority of the 2021 season, but he is happy to be back where he belongs this week when the team opens the season in Cincinnati.

Alualu suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 2 of the 2021 season, missing the game he loves so much.

But now, he is back.

"It's good to get back to football," said Alualu. "I kind of knocked off that rust, now it's time to get things rolling for the regular season. I am excited.

"I missed it last year, but it taught me a lot about the game and myself. Just my love for the game. Being out there where guys can rely and depend on me to get my job done. Now I am just ready to bounce back."

Dependable is a word that can easily describe Alualu. He is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, and there is no doubt his absence was missed in 2021, when the run defense ranked last in the NFL.

He is looking forward to getting back in the mix this week, but also likes the fact that the defensive line has plenty of depth, with Chris Wormley, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Montravius Adams and DeMarvin Leal available to rotate in and give the starters a breather throughout the season.

"It's great to have the depth we do, where we can just roll guys in, keep guys fresh throughout games and throughout the year," said Alualu. "Later in a career, it definitely helps when you have young guys, or just guys in the mix, who can go in there and you don't miss a beat.

"We have a lot of great players who know this defense. I have a lot of confidence in them. I am excited about our group and what we are able to do."

Honoring Haskins: Steelers players will honor their late teammate, Dwayne Haskins, when they take the field on Sunday and all season by wearing a '3' sticker on their helmets, which was Haskins number. Haskins, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Washington Commanders in 2019, spent the 2021 season with the Steelers.

Feeling at home: Jaylen Warren was all smiles as he stood in front of his locker.

And for good reason.

He now has an actual locker.

A week earlier his locker was a temporary metal one in the middle of the locker room, off by itself until he made the 53-man roster and found a permanent home alongside the other running backs.

"It's not as lonely," laughed Warren. "I am sitting by friends now. Before I wasn't sitting by anybody but dirty cleats."

Warren has come a long way from being an undrafted rookie in the spring to the 53-man roster, and now hoping to contribute this Sunday when the Steelers open the season against the Cincinnati Bengals. While he admits he doesn't know much about the AFC North rivalries, he does know one thing. It's going to be intense, and he will be ready.

"Coach (Mike) Tomlin says we like that adversity, we like that it can mold us as a team," said Warren. "It's iron sharpening iron."

It will be Warren's first NFL game, and he is hoping to get all those jitters out of the way with the opening kickoff.

"I am on kickoff and kick return, and I like it because you just bang the first play," said Warren. "You get that first ding, and you are good for the rest. You get all the jitters out. I am excited for it."

Tune in: The Steelers open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Sept. 11 at Paycor Stadium. For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Thursday, September 8

One-two combo: Rookie receiver George Pickens has yet to play in a regular season NFL game, but he has already caught the attention of players, coaches, media and fans across the NFL for his circus catches and devastating blocks.

And while he doesn't even realize the full scope of the attention, what he does realize is he loves the reason it's coming.

Pickens thrives on making the splash plays, and for him, it doesn't matter if it's a catch or a block, as long as it helps the team.

"I don't say it enough, but blocking can really throw a DB off in his game and then we can hit him with the pass," said Pickens. "It's like a double whammy type of thing. The DB gets in the game and thinks work on technique, work on covering this guy and he is not really ready for the blocking. I use it as a one-two combo.

"That is the thing about the one-two combo. You can get excited over pancaking a guy or you can make a one-handed catch and still be excited."

Pickens said his blocking started when he first began playing football and was on the defensive side of the ball, and just continued to develop.

"That has always been a part of my game," said Pickens. "At an early age playing football I used to play defense. I was always a little aggressive. When I got to play offense, it was more about technique, getting the plays right, catching. I wouldn't say prima donna, but that is the stigma on it. I kind of flipped the narrative."

The narrative isn't the only thing he has flipped. He has also sent his share of defensive backs flat with his blocking, including on jet sweeps where he can be a lead blocker.

"With me knowing I am a good blocker, knowing the type of stature I play with on the field, it's perfect," said Pickens. "You can run the jets to my side."

In the back of his mind: Minkah Fitzpatrick can sometimes be a man of few words, but he didn't need many to share his thoughts on the rivalries in the AFC North, with the first one on display this Sunday when the Steelers travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals.

"I don't like any of them," said Fitzpatrick.

It's a natural reaction with how the AFC North is, a division that thrives on the fierce rivalries. And after the Bengals defeated the Steelers in both games last season, it takes it to another level.

Fitzpatrick said the losses are still in the back of his mind, but he is careful not to let it overtake his mind.

"Of course, especially in the fashion that we lost, especially the last game," said Fitzpatrick. "You think about it. Then some of the remarks that were said after the first game, those you pay attention to. You think about it, let it resonate in the back of your mind. Not necessarily dwell on it, but I am going to remember it.

"You don't dwell on it. You learn from it. You keep it in the back of your mind, but you don't let it beat you up.

"We didn't do our job. We didn't execute, too many big plays, we couldn't stop the run. A lot of it was on us. They have talent, they have great players. We aren't coming in here trying to revamp everything we are doing. We are coming in here saying we have to do our job."

And job one is stopping the run and Joe Mixon, who went for 165 yards in the second meeting last season.

"Football is a game that is won in the trenches," said Fitzpatrick. "Joe Mixon is their leading guy in the trenches. It's crucial we don't allow Joe Mixon to win the game for them."

One of the key factors in preventing that is everyone being on the same page. The secondary has some new faces this year, including cornerback Levi Wallace, and communication has been spot on so far.

"The communication has been great," said Fitzpatrick. "The guys that we have brought in are really intelligent guys, guys that have played in the league a long time, have a lot of experience. Communication has been very good, and we have to continue to do what we have to do, communicate and we will be good."

These games count more: It's AFC North football for the Steelers this week.

And that means one thing.

You better be on your Ps and Qs, or it could be costly.

"This game counts a little bit more because it's AFC North," said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. "You lose once in the AFC that's one thing, if you lose in the AFC North, it's two things. It slides you down a little bit further. These games count more. You have to approach them like they are life or death for your team."

That approach might be kicked into overdrive even a little bit more with the Steelers facing the Cincinnati Bengals, the defending AFC North and AFC Champions.

"It's AFC North. They have the crown," said Heyward. "They put in enough work to award themselves to go to the Super Bowl. They lost, but it's a feat in itself to make it that far. We are excited to play them.

"They can run and pass. They have a lot of great skill players. They got our number last year twice. It's a new year and new things to worry about. Both teams are different, but who would you rather open up with than the AFC Champions. I'm looking forward to it. It's a great way to see where we are."

While the Steelers did lose to the Bengals twice in 2021, Heyward stressed the importance of this being a new year and not dwelling on the past.

"It's a new season," said Heyward. "If I was to hold a grudge and be petty, at the end of the day it's a chance to go 1-0. It doesn't tally on from last year. It's a new season and I am just trying to get a W. It's just about seizing this opportunity."

While it's a fresh season, one thing that hasn't changed is Bengals' running back Joe Mixon can create havoc for an opposing defense, and Heyward knows they have to be on top of their game.

"Run fits. Knocking the line of scrimmage back," explained Heyward of what they have to do. "They do a really good job of not only being in the A, B, and C gaps, but it transfers out to those C, D and E gaps that our corners, linebackers have to fill. Sometimes even me. These are things we have to be cleaner on this year. It comes down to team defense. Tackling well. They want to get Mixon on DBs. They feel like that is a win. We don't want to get to a point where it's just one on-one. We want to corral it and play physical."

Plenty of weapons: The Bengals offense is loaded with weapons, including receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins, running back Joe Mixon and quarterback Joe Burrow.

It's going to be a test for the Steelers defense, especially in the secondary where the trio of receivers can stretch the defense.

"It's very difficult," said cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. "They are talented, multi-faceted at the receiver position with a quarterback that can sling it. They do it in a variety of ways with a healthy amount of run game.

"It makes you play a complete game, and we are excited for the challenge."

The Bengals had two 1,000-yard receivers in Chase and Higgins last season, and Boyd wasn't far behind. Containing them on Sunday is going to be tough, but a must for the defense.

"I think you have seen it," said Witherspoon. "They are all high-caliber receivers. That is what makes a receiver group unique at this level."

Starting fast: Alex Highsmith remembers the last time the Steelers played the Bengals, a 41-10 loss where Joe Mixon rushed for 165 yards and Tee Higgins had a 114-yard game.

The Steelers got in a hole early in the game, down 31-3 at the half, and were never able to rebound.

This week, in the season opener against the Bengals, he knows things have to be different.

"This is a test for us, going into Cincinnati Week 1," said Highsmith. "I think it's about what we do. I am excited to go in there, especially after last year we didn't get off to the best start, the last two times. It's important for us to get off to a fast start.

"We have to play a lot better than we did last year. We got off to a slow start, so I think the big thing for us is getting off to a great start, a fast start this weekend. I know when we get off to a fast start, we can be successful. We have to stop the run. We have to stop the pass as well because they are multidimensional."

Quarterback Joe Burrow, who underwent an appendectomy in late July, appears to be back to full strength and ready to go on Sunday. 

"He is intelligent, he is smart," said Highsmith of Burrow. "Not only is he great throwing the football, but he can also run and get out of the pocket. We have to keep him in the pocket because he can be dangerous like that as well."

Tune in: The Steelers open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Sept. 11 at Paycor Stadium. For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Wednesday, September 7

Stopping the run: The Steelers run defense will face a tough test right off the bat going against the Cincinnati Bengals and Joe Mixon on Sunday at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati.

Mixon had his best season yet in 2021, with 292 carries for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns, all career highs. He also had 42 receptions for 314 yards and three receiving touchdowns.

The run defense was ranked last in the NFL in 2021, and linebacker T.J. Watt knows it's time to turn things around.

"Anytime you are playing another team in the National Football League, you know they are very capable of running the ball, let alone a division opponent like this with a great running back and a revamped offensive line," said Watt. "You know they want to establish the run early in the season like a lot of teams do. That's something that we need to be able to turn back early in the season and set the tone for how the season is going to go.

"It's no secret they are a pretty balanced offense. They have a lot of key weapons at the skill position. They also revamped the offensive line. I feel like it's going to be a tough challenge for us. I feel like we have to establish that we can stop the run, not only against the Bengals but for the whole season. That is what setting the tone is. I feel very confident with that. We know what we can do when we pin our ears back in this defense."

Watt said the defense didn't show everything they have in their bag of tricks in the preseason, but you can expect them not to hold back on Sunday.

"We definitely haven't shown our full hand as far as the run defense," said Watt. "I think there's a lot of things that we've done really effectively and do well. We're going to continue to grow and get better as a unit. I am comfortable with where we are in the game plan and having the extra week to prepare for these guys. I am just looking forward to being able to right the wrongs as far as the Steelers and stopping the run."

Always working: Rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett said he was in the same situation as veteran Mitch Trubisky, learning previously that he would be the No. 2 quarterback when the season started.

It wasn't something that surprised Pickett as he is still learning and growing in the Steelers offense.

"I was kind of expecting it to be that way," said Pickett. "Mitch has done a great job. And I was running with the twos and threes all camp…getting better. That's what I'll continue to do now going into the regular season. A little different than college. Film study, that's something I'm trying to iron out early in my career here, but I have some previous experience with it. I'll be with Coach (Mike) Tomlin just trying to learn as much as I can."

One of Pickett's main roles on game day will be helping Trubisky, serving as an extra set of eyes and coach on the sideline to help with what he sees.

"Whatever we need, whatever Mitch needs to help him out," said Pickett. "Give the guys a great look on the card and then be the guy for Mitch on the sidelines, echo what I see."

While Pickett won't be taking first team reps, he will still be preparing every day as if he is the starter, always wanting to be ready at a moment's notice if he is called upon.

"I think it's mentally more than anything," said Pickett. "In meetings I'm asking questions, taking notes. When that time comes, whenever it does, I'll be ready for that day. I think that's kind of how it goes."

AFC North fun: Just the mention of AFC North football is something that lights a fire in Steelers defenders, and linebacker T.J. Watt loves the opportunity to open against the Cincinnati Bengals this week at Paycor Stadium.

"Coach (Mike) Tomlin is always talking about never warming up to it," said Watt. "I don't want to say when it's not a division opponent you are warming up to it, but it's a little bit more of a sense of urgency because there is a lot of weight behind this game and that's not lost in the shuffle just because it's early in the season."

The Steelers lost both games to the Bengals last year, so getting off to a strong start in the division is paramount for them.

"It's huge," said Watt. "Anytime, Week 1 it's huge to start off on the right foot. Let alone it's AFC North football. It's the Bengals who we didn't have a great outing with the last two times we faced them last year. It's just something we want to get off to a good start."

Practice update: The Steelers signed receiver Jaquarii Roberson to the practice squad on Wednesday.

Roberson was originally signed by the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted rookie following the 2022 NFL Draft. He was released during the preseason.

Roberson played at Wake Forest where he saw action in 40 games. He finished with 145 catches for 2,158 yards and 17 touchdowns, including 16 in his last two seasons. He was a second team All-ACC selection in 2020 and 2021. Roberson holds the school's single season record for receiving yards per game, averaging 102.9 yards a game in 2020.

To make room for him on the practice squad the team placed linebacker Hamilcar Rashed on the Practice Squad/Injured List.

Tune in: The Steelers open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Sept. 11 at Paycor Stadium. For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Monday, September 5

Taking nothing for granted: For Cameron Heyward, being voted a defensive captain by his teammates is nothing new for the veteran defensive tackle. As a matter of fact, this year is the eighth time his teammates have bestowed the honor upon him.

But it doesn't matter how many times he has been voted a captain, it's always an honor.

"I don't take that for granted," said Heyward. "There is a lot of responsibility that comes with it. You want to be an extension of your teammates. I want to represent them the right way. I want to be accountable. I want others accountable and make sure we get this thing going right.

"Every year it's a new opportunity. I do it because these guys voted for me. All I asked is when I do that, I represent them. I make sure that I do my part. I want to be the reason that we win. I want to make sure everybody plays up to that standard, including myself."

Heyward is one of five players who were voted captains on Monday, with him and T.J. Watt representing the defense, Najee Harris and Mitch Trubisky on offense, and Miles Killebrew on special teams.

This is the second time Heyward and Watt have shared the captain duties on defense, having done so in 2020 as well, and Heyward likes how Watt has grown since then.

"He is always growing," said Heyward. "I know he said it before, he was more of a quieter guy when he first got here. As I get older and he starts to grow, I like seeing that one day down the road it's going to be in good hands. He is all about the team. His play speaks for itself. The way he challenges guys and matured, he became a better captain because of it."

Heyward likes what each of the captains bring to the table, including Harris who is the youngest captain in just his second season in the NFL.

"I think it shows the leadership he has," said Heyward. "He is a guy that leads by example. I think he was destined to be a captain. When you look at our roster, he is the bell cow. Sure, we have had bell cows that haven't been captains, but it's what he does off the field. He is locked in. Guys follow him. He is learning how to challenge guys.

"He is going to be that one guy years down the road you are going to be saying Najee Harris, Steelers captain, again and again."

Trubisky came in as a veteran free agent this offseason and Heyward saw him immediately take on the qualities you need in a leader.

"I just think he is a guy people rally around," said Heyward. "He is all about team. He is very bought in. He understands, Coach T (Mike Tomlin) says it, he is carrying our hopes and dreams on every single play. He has gotten more and more comfortable. He came in with the right mindset, always trying to get better."

Tremendous honor: In just his first season with the Steelers, quarterback Mitch Trubisky was voted by his teammates as one of five team captains.

Trubisky is an offensive captain along with Najee Harris, while Cameron Heyward and T.J. Watt were voted defensive captains and Miles Killebrew the special teams captain.

"It's a tremendous honor," said Trubisky. "Any time you are voted by your peers, your teammates, it means a lot. I just come in here and try to lead by example, earn the trust of my teammates and for them to vote for me means a lot."

Trubisky, who signed with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in March, said he didn't do anything other than be himself when he first arrived, and that is what he has stuck to since he got here. 

"I come in here every day and work my tail off," said Trubisky. "Just showing knowledge of the offense and all of that. Being a great teammate and leader, someone the young guys can look up to do things the right way. A guy who wants what is best for this team and leads us in the right direction. It means a lot they thought I was worthy of this honor, and I am going to make sure I live up to it."

This is the first time Trubisky was named a season-long captain in the NFL, as in Chicago they named captains on a game-by-game basis. He was a captain while in college at North Carolina, and is thrilled to be back in that role, something he said he has always had in him.

"I feel like I have been that, but you can grow into it as well," said Trubisky. "It's just me being myself. It's something that comes with the quarterback position. You are leading the offense, leading by example, but you want to lead the whole team as well, special teams and the defense. You want to be that guy day in and day out that guys can look to and be, 'Hey, if I do it the way this guy does it we are heading in the right direction.' I try to do that every day."

A joy to be here: Cameron Heyward is in his 12th season with the Steelers, the longest tenured Steeler, even though Tyson Alualu has been in the league for 13 seasons.

Heyward loves every minute of wearing the black and gold, especially what it represents.

"It's a joy to be here," said Heyward. "You start thinking about your draft class and who is left. I appreciate these moments. I don't take them for granted. I go in with a new perspective every year, trying to get better.

"All those guys who have gone different places, retired, done other things, I wear them on my sleeve. I appreciate them. I don't have a 12-year career without every teammate I have had. I represent those guys. Hopefully one day I can say we won a Super Bowl because of those guys."

Numbers game: The Steelers began their preparation for the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday, working inside at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex because of rain in the Pittsburgh area.

When they took the field, there was a number change for the black and gold as veteran defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi is now wearing No. 99.

In addition, several newcomers to the roster also have been assigned numbers.

The number updates to date are:

Jamir Jones – 48
Malik Reed – 50
Trent Scott – 72
Jesse Davis – 77
Larry Ogunjobi - 99

Practice time: The Steelers filled out their practice squad on Monday, signing three additional players.

Those signed include safety Andrew Adams, cornerback Josh Jackson and linebacker Delontae Scott.

Adams signed with the New York Giants during training camp, his second stint with the team. He was released as a part of the Giants cutting down to their 53-man roster. Adams has played in 86 games, starting 35. He has 175 tackles, including 141 solo stops, six tackles for a loss, seven interceptions, 23 passes defensed, and two forced fumbles. Adams, who is entering his seventh season in the NFL and also had a short stint with the Philadelphia Eagles, played the last four seasons for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was a member of their Super Bowl LV team. He played in 57 games for Tampa, including 18 starts, and played in seven postseason games. Adams originally signed with the Giants as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2016 NFL Draft. He played two seasons with the Giants, playing in 14 regular season games, including three starts. He also started the NFC Wild Card Game.

Jackson was signed by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2022 offseason but was released on the final roster cut. Jackson was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, starting 10 games his rookie season. He was traded to the New York Giants in 2021, spending time on their practice squad. He also spent time with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2021, playing in two games. He has played in 44 games with 15 starts and had 78 career tackles, 12 passes defensed, two tackles for a loss and a fumble recovery.

Scott, who was released when the Steelers cut down to their 53-man roster, was originally signed to the Steelers practice squad in 2021 and spent time on the Active/Inactive roster as a game day call up last season and played in one game, against the Los Angeles Chargers in 2021. Scott was signed by the Green Bay Packers as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2020 NFL Draft. He played at SMU where he appeared in 40 games and had 97 tackles, 36 of them for a loss, with 18 sacks and five forced fumbles. In his senior season he had 10 of his 18 sacks as well as three forced fumbles.

Tune in: The Steelers open the regular season against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, Sept. 11 at Paycor Stadium. For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.