Friday, November 13
Ben expected back: There was some good news out of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Friday as Coach Mike Tomlin expects quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to come off the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday. Roethlisberger, along with linebacker Vince Williams, offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins and running back Jaylen Samuels, were placed on the list on Tuesday.
"We do expect him to come off," said Tomlin of Roethlisberger. "We have that expectation because this week has gone according to plan in terms of his place in the procedure. If he comes off of the protocol, we are going to have an extended walkthrough tomorrow just to give him an in-helmet perspective on some of the situational things, to put the finishing touches on our work, to allow him to work with the eligibles that he will work with in game, to have any necessary informal conversations that allow us to have a level of comfort as we push into play."
The four players have had to work virtually all week, only permitted to take part in meetings and not practice. Tomlin said it wouldn't impact anything as far as the game plan, and that even though Roethlisberger dinged his knee in the Cowboys game, he came back in after being looked at during halftime and was fine.
"His knees are fine," said Tomlin. "He's gotten all the proper rehabilitation that he needs through the course of the week. To be honest with you, his knees weren't an issue at all anyway. He was able to back into the game and finish the game like I mentioned to you guys at the top of the week."
With Williams not practicing all week, newly acquired linebacker Avery Williamson got more snaps in practice all week to be prepared. But Tomlin believes Williams will also be back on Saturday.
"I anticipate Vince being available," said Tomlin. "I'm extremely comfortable in his body of work and level of preparedness that he can work much the same as Ben, so Avery's opportunities will be based on the play of the others."
Tomlin expects to have nose tackle Tyson Alualu back, but the status of cornerback Mike Hilton is in question.
"You can characterize Mike as questionable," said Tomlin. "He's been a limited participant all week. We will continue to monitor his progress in the last 48 hours toward game time. I think that Tyson is in a better place. His participation was a full one today. I have very little reservations regarding his abilities or availability, so he is a go."
Two rookies, running back Anthony McFarland and offensive lineman Kevin Dotson, were both missing on Friday and Tomlin explained why when asked if they were COVID-19 related.
"No, those are illness-related, but, obviously, being in the heightened circumstance that we are in terms of the intensive protocol, we are exercising all of the proper precautions and not allowing those guys to come to work even though it's an illness," said Tomlin.
Not satisfied: In the 87-year history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most storied franchises in the NFL, they have never started a season 8-0.
That is a statistic that today's players are well aware of. It's a statistic they take great pride in. But they also realize there is a long way to go.
"We're just trying to go 1-0 every week," said running back James Conner. "We acknowledge that we are 8-0 and it's our first time in team history and some of the best teams assembled in the NFL history, in the world, came through the Pittsburgh Steelers. For us to be 8-0 is special."
Satisfied, no. Not even close.
"I think it's cool, I guess," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "There is so much work that is left to be done. We weren't super thrilled with how we played last week, me personally too.
"We just want to continue to get better. We know there is a lot of meat left on the bone. We can continue to go out here and have great weeks of practice. We can continue to be a team on the rise and hopefully keep this streak going."
Watt said watching film from the Cowboys game was important for them to learn in an effort to keep growing before moving on to putting the focus on this week's game.
"Just trying to take as much as we can from the film and apply it to the practice field," said Watt. "I think it's very important you don't go over these victory Mondays and treat it like we're not going to look at the game, we're going to think about the Bengals this week. We made sure we looked at the Cowboys film to break it down and talk it through and make sure all of our ducks are in a row. Then we started preparing for the Bengals this week and feel confident with the plan we came up with and it's been a great week for us."
Thursday, November 12
All about winning: Avery Williamson might not have played a snap last week in the Steelers win over the Dallas Cowboys, but there likely wasn't a player happier after the game to enjoy the fruits of the team's eighth win of the season, while having nothing but a zero in the loss column.
Williamson was traded to the Steelers earlier that week from the New York Jets, a team that dropped to 0-9 this past weekend.
"Coming here, getting that first win on Sunday, even though I wasn't able to contribute physically, it was fun," said Williamson. "I hadn't won in a while. It was cool being in a winning locker room."
It was a whirlwind of a week for Williamson for sure. He was traded to the Steelers on Monday, Nov. 2, but because of COVID-19 protocols he had to quarantine and test negative for multiple days before being permitted to join the team in person on Saturday, Nov. 7, although he did attend meetings virtually. He was active for the Cowboys game but didn't play after not being able to practice all week.
"It was pretty crazy," said Williamson. "Once my agent told me the Steelers wanted to trade for me, it was pretty surreal, knowing I was going to an undefeated team. A lot of emotions, but it was definitely a very exciting feeling.
"It's been a smooth process so far. I am trying to adjust as fast as possible. It is different with COVID not being allowed to be around everybody immediately."
Williamson is getting more of his fair share of work this week in practice with fellow linebacker Vince Williams on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. The increased snaps are something that will benefit him if he is called upon to play extensive snaps against the Bengals this week, and he said he will be ready.
"I am feeling a lot more comfortable," said Williamson after his second day of practice. "Taking it day to day. Making sure I am good on my plays and locked in on everything, trying to soak in all of the information I can.
"I definitely feel like I have gotten enough work this week. Nothing is going to be perfect. I have to prepare for the worst. I feel like I have done a good job so far. Practice is definitely different from the game. I am soaking the information in and doing a good job in practice. I am going to keep on working.
"I am here to help out as much as possible. As long as we are winning, that is the main thing. We want to keep as many rush yards as possible off the table. As long as I am out there giving positive energy, making plays, helping this team out, that is what I am here for."
And what Williamson is enjoying during all of it, is the atmosphere he felt from the moment he walked into the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"It's all about winning, from the top down," said Williamson. "It's definitely cool. The level of talent in the building. We have some monsters up front, the d-line. It's definitely great when you have guys like that in front of you to get those offensive linemen off of you. It's a winning mentality. Every day it's focused on winning and we are getting those results.
"It's definitely cool and fun. It's a rich tradition. They have a lot of pride in this building and I am excited to be a part of it."
Wednesday, November 11
Holding everyone accountable: For Steelers players, this has already been a strange week.
Due to multiple players being on the Reserve/COVID-19 list, including one testing positive for the virus, the team is doing all of their meetings virtually, while holding practice at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
"Just stay light on your feet," said Cameron Heyward. "I knew every team would be affected by this. I didn't know how. We are all adapting. I don't think anyone has the perfect protocols in any sport or any job to eradicate COVID-19.
"Guys were wired in today. It's tough with the virtual meetings, but guys asked questions. Continue to stay involved. We got on the field and we were able to address the questions right then and there.
"We've got to do the same thing throughout the week. Whatever it permits, we have to be ready to attack on Sunday."
Heyward is one of the players who is making sure that players stay on track this week, doing what defensive line coach Karl Dunbar referred to on Wednesday morning as serving as his 'Paul Revere.'
"He has always been my guy to get my message out," said Dunbar. "I think having these guys being in the room for three years with them, they understand what we want to do and how we want to do it. I think they are going to come together, and they are going to do things to help us get ready for the game on Sunday. I think that's the thing Cam having that 'C' on his shirt, he does a really good job on the field, off the field and in the classroom with the players. I have confidence that we are going to do the things that need to get done for the game on Sunday."
Heyward doesn't mind being the guy to get the message out, whether it's for the defensive line or the team as a whole.
"I have just tried to relay the message, make sure everybody is held accountable," said Heyward. "Understand when we do good, it's okay to shine a light on it. Then understand we can still work. In this time, you have to be more communicative and make sure it doesn't get lost in translation. We have to say things. I want everything I say to be meaningful.
"Being able to be an outlet for the guys, whether they have concerns about what is going on or what they see on the field. I have seen things they haven't seen yet. If I can lend an extra hand or point them in the right direction, I try to."
Heyward definitely hit the nail on the head when he said he wants everything he says to be meaningful when asked a question about despite the team's record, national pundits still aren't acknowledging how well the Steelers are playing.
"They hate us cause they ain't us," said Heyward. "We don't really care what is going on outside. We've got to focus in. If it doesn't look pretty, who cares. We're 8-0. It's our job to keep stepping up week in and week out. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. For all of the guys saying it's got to look like this, all I have to say is the Super Bowl hasn't been determined. Our job is to make the playoffs and then win the Super Bowl, so I am going to leave it at that."
Living life virtually: The virtual meetings the Steelers are conducting this week while adhering to the NFL's intensive COVID-19 protocol are less than ideal but far from ineffective.
"I'll tell you what, everything's the same, even the camaraderie part of it," offensive line coach Sean Sarrett said on Zoom today. "When we're on virtual we're talking about other things and stuff, just like we'll do in meetings, guys are cutting up on one another.
"The only difference for me, per se, is I don't t see them. I don't see their eyes, so when I'm explaining something I can't look at the guy in the eyes, and that's just something we've got to adapt to as coaches."
Defensive line coach Karl Dunbar also finds the virtual meetings relatively impersonal, and that being the case there are some things that just can't be done as they otherwise might.
"Yep, take a nap, and watch them take a nap because, I don't know, sometimes they'll be sleeping on me," Dunbar said. "That's the only thing about the virtual stuff, you don't get a chance to see them. They can hear you, you can hear them but you don't get a chance to see them face to face.
"Coaching, just like most things with football, is personal and it's interactive and you don't have that when you go virtual. But this is the only way we can do it because it's 2020 and we have to learn how to do it."
Sarrett and the offensive linemen are working to improve a short-yardage running game that went a combined 1-for-4 converting third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 opportunities in last Sunday's 24-19 win at Dallas.
"They're spittin' at the bit, they know it," Sarrett said. "It starts at the top. We were below par on all of it. That's something these guys take great pride in and the coaches take great pride in it, we're the same way. We're just going to keep working at it and we're going to make it better.
"We've got to get better at it, they know we've got to get better at it, the players know. It was jelling early, and it just happens sometimes. We just have to keep working."
Dunbar is maintaining perspective after the Ravens rushed for 265 yards and the Cowboys 144 against the Steelers in successive weeks.
Nose tackle Tyson Alualu played only six snaps on Nov. 1 in Baltimore (knee) and hasn't played since.
The Ravens and Cowboys combined to gain 409 rushing yards and average 5.2 yards on 78 rushing attempts against the Steelers.
"I think it's inevitable because we play against pro football players," Dunbar said. "You play against Baltimore and those running backs and that quarterback, you're going to give up some yards. And then you play against (Cowboys running back) Zeke Elliott and, you know, we played against a quarterback (Garrett Gilbert) who broke the pocket a couple times on us.
"I just think our guys are doing their job and we're finding ways to win ballgames. Guys in this league, you've got to come to play every week and these last two weeks we've played against some stout running teams."
Monday, November 9
Stepping Up: Next man up.
It's something Coach Mike Tomlin has preached from Day 1 when he was hired by the Steelers back in 2007, and something he has always truly believed in.
On Sunday, it was the defensive line that needed to rely on the next man up mentality, and a trio of young players came through.
With Tyson Alualu missing the Steelers-Cowboys game because of a knee injury, the team relied on Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis to step in, and they did just that. They combined for six tackles, including two for a loss.
"It's such a big challenge when a guy like Tyson goes down, because he's such a good player, especially stopping the run," said Mondeaux. "He is a veteran and does a great job. I think me and Buggs, and Carlos Davis this last game, have stepped in and helped as much as we can. We have played two great running opponents.
"It's always a tough challenge when you go against the Cowboys offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott and you have the Ravens and Lamar (Jackson) and all their options running the ball. I think we are doing our best and trying to fill some big shoes from a guy that has been playing for a long time. We are going to be excited to have him back when he does come back."
In the meantime, though, Mondeaux is ready to take on whatever role has been asked of him since he was activated from the practice squad to the active roster on Oct. 23.
"They wanted me to help out on special teams," said Mondeaux. "We had a few injuries on the defensive line, so they wanted me to step in and take over some of the backup reps on defensive line and help out on special teams as much as possible."
Helping on special teams is something he doesn't mind doing at all. Mondeaux, 6-4, 280, can run down and cover kicks with the best of him despite his size.
"I think that has always been part of my game," said Mondeaux. "Back in high school I played a lot of linebacker and tight end, so I had some experience running around and being in those positions. Running is something I can effort, and motor and control."
Mondeaux credits the work he did this offseason, which included climbing Mt. Hood in Oregon, to getting himself in better shape.
"This last offseason got me in better shape to help run down some of those kickoffs," said Mondeaux. "Coach Tomlin talks about big guys running and little guys hitting, and I took that to heart."
Mondeaux is the latest in a list of names that might not have rolled off the tongues of Steelers fans a few months ago when talking about the team's defense, but like Robert Spillane and others, he is making his name be known.
"It's maybe unlikely from a fan's perspective, but I lived with Robert Spillane last year and we were talking about moments like this," said Mondeaux. "We were both on the practice squad and it's been part of our plan doing what we can, stepping in the games. It's definitely something we have prepared for and guys on our team prepare for if they are not in the position they are when the season starts. They are all getting ready whether they are on the practice squad or the inactive spot.
"We try and get guys ready to play. I don't think anybody bats an eye when people go down. We know we have guys that will step up and take on some of those loads."