Friday, November 12
Starting strong, finishing strong: The Steelers defense has come out of the gates a fired-up unit the last four games, limiting their opponents to just 12 points over the last four games in the first half.
But in the second half, things have changed, with them allowing a combined 64 points during the same four-game stretch.
This week, facing an 0-8 Lions team that is searching for their first win of the season, the defense knows they have to shut them down for a complete game in order to pull out a win in the end.
"We had a lot of good film to watch from this past week and we know the record doesn't portray the skill level and the talent this team has coming in this week," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "We know, just like everything, we have to smash the run. We have to make them one dimensional and get after the quarterback and not allow those second half points. Just be able to continue to play good football. That's the thing we have to do throughout a full game is continue to play good football no matter what happens on offense and special teams."
Stopping the teams early is something that hasn't been an issue as of late, and Watt said they have had a good week preparing for the Lions with hopes that it translates into a full game of slowing down the offense.
"I think every single football team preaches starting fast," said Watt. "It's one thing to say and one thing to do it. It's one of those things that each week you have to treat like its own thing. You can't say last week we started fast, this week it's just a given. It starts with coming out here and practicing. We had a short week, so hone in on the film a lot and study hard on Tuesday and Wednesday. Came out here and had a good week of practice. So hopefully we get the result we want."
One of the keys to stopping the Lions offense is going to be stopping tight end T.J. Hockenson. He is the Lions leading receiver with 48 receptions for 448 yards and two touchdowns. He is averaging 9.3 yards per reception, and also has 172 yards after the catch. Hockenson is another in a long line of top notch tight ends the Steelers have had to face this season.
"It's one of those things you notice each and every week," said Watt. "It seems like teams have a guy at tight end. It's kind of becoming a trend in the National Football League. He's the guy that can do it all and that's why tight ends are so special. They can block in the run game. This guy gets out in the passing game. He can run the intermediate routes. He can run the deep routes. He can pretty much do it all. It's going to be a tough challenge for us for sure."
Required response: Coach Mike Tomlin assessed the performance of the offensive line in Monday night's 29-27 victory over the Bears as "a step back relative to recent weeks."
Guard Kevin Dotson said the line has reacted as it needed to this week.
"Every practice has been real clean," Dotson assessed after today's session. "We all feel confident about what we can do and we know what we need to do.
"This is a game that can be a trap game if you allow it to be. So we play it as 'we need this game' just as bad as any other week."
The "trap" would involve taking the 0-8 Lions lightly on Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
A return to recent form up front is both advisable and attainable, in Dotson's estimation.
"I think we can just do what we've been doing," he said. "We've been progressing a little bit. We had one down week. Everybody has a bad game or two.
"We're just gonna try to get back on what we were doing before."
Dotson also discussed the growing relationships with running back Najee Harris and with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger the line continues to forge.
"If we're doing a run play, we want to know what he's thinking, where he's looking first so we know how to block," Dotson said of the unit's ongoing interactions with Harris. "It definitely helps us jell a little better."
As for the group's connection with Roethlisberger, "I think we're closer," Dotson maintained. "We're closer than we were at the beginning just because everybody was kind of new and he's from his old, old line.
"We're definitely getting a little closer than we were."
The two-minute drive that won the Bears game is a positive the Steelers can glean from a contest in which a step back was admittedly taken up front.
"We know we have the capability to do it," Dotson said. "We get down in that situation again or the next time some stuff like that happens, we can pull that in the back of our memory and be like 'we can do this. We've done it before. We can keep going.'"
Thursday, November 11
You don't have to search social media for long to see people wanting the Steelers to use fullback Derek Watt more as a regular part of the offense.
The tweets are plentiful, many of them tagging Watt so that he is sure to see them as well.
And of course, Watt himself would love to see more playing time.
But he also knows, the decision isn't his and it's more about matchups and game plans than it is what he can do on the field by a longshot.
"I see a little bit of stuff on Twitter, people tagging me and things like that," said Watt. "I know people aren't happy with how little I do play apparently and things like that. I see that a little bit. It's not up to me. I don't decide when I go in and when I don't. That has nothing to do with anything I'm having input on. They tell me to go in and I give it everything I have."
Watt has played in every game this season, starting two including Monday night's game against the Bears. He hasn't had a carry or reception, but when he is in there, there is no doubt he is giving it 110% every snap.
"I was out there on the first play and I'm always excited to be out there on the field and looking for more opportunities," said Watt. "It's a week-by-week game plan thing and I'm always ready for whatever the game plan contains for me. I'm just going to do whatever they allow me to do and whatever I'm asked to do and just give it everything I have."
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada loves what Watt can bring to the offense, but he too stressed that it can be a matchup factor.
"I'm a big fan of his," said Canada. "His intelligence, his ability to do a lot of different things. He can block, he can do different things. He is so smart. Very versatile. It's a matchup deal. We're trying to decide who we're playing, who goes on the field when he comes in, who comes off the field when he goes out. What does that do for everybody else involved so we can find a way to score. Every game is different. I think he is a really good player and appreciate him."
One area where Watt isn't lacking snaps is on special teams. He is tied for the lead with seven special teams tackles, six of them solo stops, and the special teams captain also provides great leadership for the unit.
"It means a lot to have been voted captain by my peers and my teammates," said Watt. "It's special. I try to lead by example and encourage guys. It takes everybody on special teams. It's a crucial part of the game and everybody's got to do their role and keep the unit together. I give it everything I have in that phase because that's where I get the bulk of my reps."
And when he says he gives it his all, he means it.
"A lot of (special teams) is film study," said Watt. "But you can't be afraid of anything out there. You've got to be a madman and willing to throw your body around and be aggressive."
Hold the popcorn: Inside linebacker Joe Schobert said today improvement on defense can be achieved by avoiding breakdowns that have plagued the Steelers of late.
"We're playing well," he said. "We just have to execute full 60 minutes better. There's just a couple times throughout the game that various spots on the defense, the line, 'backers and the defensive backs, where there's just, like 'Coach T' (head coach Mike Tomlin) says, a 'popcorn' mistake. It's a 'my bad,' a 'popcorn, my bad' where one guy just has a brain fart on one play and that allows a big play for the other team.
"We just have to focus on eliminating those. Everybody has to stay locked in and focused for the whole 60 minutes."
Schobert said the emphasis there needs to be on the week of preparation as well as the game.
"I think just come to work throughout the week and understanding, we're going through the same meetings, the same practice we do every week, and we can't let it get monotonous and repetitive," he continued. "We gotta come and learn and execute it in practice and be able to take it to the game on Sundays."
Schobert and fellow inside linebacker Devin Bush might need to be especially attentive to their details when Detroit visits Heinz Field this Sunday.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson has been targeted in the passing game more times than any other player on the Lions (64).
Running back D'Andre Swift is second with 57 targets, 17 more than the highest-targeted wide receiver (Kalif Raymond, 40).
"That's usually where the game is played for linebackers, the running backs/tight end matchups," Schobert said. "You gotta be on your 'A' game. They're obviously two talented players."
Hockenson leads the Lions in catches (48), receiving yards (448) and touchdown receptions (two, tied with Swift, Raymond and wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who is on the Reserve/Injured list).
Swift is second in catches (47) and receiving yards (415).
"Within the structure of the defense, just know what your job is, what your assignment is where you don't have to try to do too much, just trust yourself," Schobert said. "When running backs and tight ends are the highest-targeted guys usually there's a lot of schematic plays for them. They're just trying to get them in space against matchups they like. You gotta trust your eyes, trust the defense, trust where your help is gonna be, know your role and not be fooled."
The same approach: The Lions come into Heinz Field on Sunday with an 0-8 record, but don't think for a minute that the Steelers' players view them as an 0-8 team.
Just the opposite.
And they know they have to be on top of their game in order to come out with a win.
"They're very competitive," said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. "I know they don't have the record they want. They're aggressive in their approach. Sometimes the ball doesn't bounce your way the first eight games, but we got to be on our P's and Q's to get a 'W.'
"You have to approach it week-in and week-out the same way."
One thing the Lions have in their favor is they are coming off of a bye, a well-rested team, while the Steelers are working on a short week coming off a Monday night game. The time off gives the Lions an edge in preparation, allowing them to throw a few curves.
"Off of the bye, I think you've got to be all ears, trust your eyes," said Heyward. "They've had time to look at your past game and see where you've made mistakes. We got to be ready for everything.
"They're well-rested. It gives them a chance to reset and really evaluate things and see where you've come up short. You also get a chance to look at your next opponent and really dive in two weeks into it. They've had time to really look at us, at least that's what I would do."
Heyward said that while Coach Mike Tomlin is known for motivating the players, nothing extra needs to be said to them this week because of the Lions record.
"I don't think we need motivation," said Heyward. "There's no guarantee. There's no way to say we've already won the game before. The best way to do that is go out there and dominate on Sunday. We've been close in a lot of games and we need to make sure that we play our best game."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 10 matchup against the Detroit Lions
Wednesday, November 10
Production plans: Alex Highsmith is quick to admit it.
He is his own worst critic.
And right now, he is criticizing his production in the first half of the season, that has him with only 1.5 sacks so far.
"I'm not happy with the way I'm playing production-wise," said Highsmith, the second-year linebacker. "I'm starting to see the game slow down for me, but production-wise, I know I can be a lot better. I know that production is going to increase over the season. That's what I'm looking forward to, starting with the Lions game."
The Steelers drafted Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and the team has been pleased with his play, enough so to trade veteran Melvin Ingram recently. Highsmith knows the sacks will come as long as he keeps doing the right thing.
"I just try to do my job," said Highsmith. "I know that when I do my job, the plays will come. Just give it full out effort. Ultimately, it's just doing my job and that's what matters most to me. Just helping this team be the best they can be.
"I am very critical of myself. I'm just going to go out there and play for the rest of the season. I'm excited for the rest of the year, what this team and what this defense can be because I truly believe we're not even close to our best selves right now. I'm excited for what this game, and these games that are coming, have in store."
Saying thank you: One of the hardest working units at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex isn't a unit you will find on the field.
It's the staff in the team's cafeteria, who take care of feeding the players, coaches and staff three meals a day during the week, working tirelessly to keep everyone happy, their stomachs full.
So, on Wednesday, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster decided to do something special for them. Smith-Schuster slipped into the cafeteria in between meals with a gift for everyone on the staff, a Beats by Dre Pill+ portable speaker.
"I just wanted to show my appreciation, my gratitude to them for taking care of not just me, but all of the team, my teammates," said Smith-Schuster. "They work hard."
Take a closer look at scenes from the Steelers' Week 9 game against the Chicago Bears
The mental game: Rookie punter Pressley Harvin III has had his moments through his first eight NFL games.
He's working hard with the staff this week to ensure he'll have more of them more often.
"Consistency is the key," Harvin insisted. "The biggest things we're just doing is breaking everything down a little bit more, making it a little bit more mental, because the physical part is there. I believe 110 percent in myself, the ability to do the job. The mental part is just continuing to get that mental block in my head of 'I gotta produce, I gotta produce.'
"The more and more we do that in practice, the more and more better I'll get."
Harvin spent some time after practice today contrasting the NFL game with the one he used to play at Georgia Tech.
"The physical part is everyone in the NFL is fast," he said. "But also it's the mental part, too. College ball, you're around a group of guys that you've been around for one to four years and it has a different type of camaraderie.
"The NFL level is more of a mental game than physical. Everyone is here for a reason and we're all up for a challenge, it's just how mentally tough are you? In college, they gear you to try to get to that mental toughness but you don't really get the chance to really fully understand it and go through it until you get to this level."
Harvin is confident he'll achieve the consistency he's seeking.
And he's adamant he has the backing he needs to get there, especially from Coach Mike Tomlin.
"This team and this organization is behind me 110 percent," Harvin insisted. "Being under 'Coach T,' it's not even the things he says, it's just how he goes about things. When we're in punt period in practice he's right behind me every single rep, telling me, 'You gotta produce for the team. You gotta put us in a good position. You gotta get the ball out if we're backed up punting.' Or, 'You gotta put it inside the 20 (-yard line), try to stick 'em inside the 10.' It's just small stuff like that that a lot of people don't really understand that he's saying but in my head he's telling me I have to do my job. But not only just that, he believes that I can do my job.
"'Coach T' watches every single thing we do in practice, whether it's warm-ups or if it's just hitting on our own. It's the small, little things like that that he says that also just motivates me to just continue to tell myself, 'Hey, I can do this. I'm here for a reason. Let me go ahead and produce on the field and show it.'"
Take a look at the best black and white photos from the Week 9 game against the Chicago Bears at Heinz Field