Week 11 Blog: All the news and notes

Friday, November 20

Making plays: Linebacker T.J. Watt has made it clear time and time again.

His stats, even though they are out of this world right now, are not what matters.

What matters is the defense as a whole, getting the job done, and getting it done as a unit, not as individuals.

"We've said from the very start we want to make plays, we want to be great," said Watt. "We don't really care who makes the plays, as long as they are being made. This isn't a defense where you can really play out of your gap and try to do too much. That is why we are playing our best, because everybody is playing their gap and everybody is doing their job."

This is a message that has come out of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex multiple times over the past week, from different players, both younger ones and seasoned veterans.

This is a team that is playing for each other, playing for the man in the locker next to him, the guy who lines up beside him on the field.

"It goes back to the brotherhood that we're trying to build," said defensive tackle Tyson Alualu. "When you're close both on and off the field you build that bond. So, every time we take the field, when I'm on that field I don't want to let Cam (Heyward) or (Stephon) Tuitt down, or Bud (Dupree) down. So, I want to do my job the best I can, and I know if I do that, I know they're doing the same.
"It just takes it to the next level when you care so much for the people you're playing with."

And talking about taking it to the next level, that is what the defense is doing once again when it comes to takeaways. The Steelers lead the NFL in takeaways with 17, which includes 11 interceptions and six fumble recoveries. Taking the ball away is something this defense prides themselves on, works on, and is relentless in pursuing.

"More than anything we are trying to control what we can control," said Watt. "That's trying to punch the ball out whether you are the first guy there or the second guy there, trying to bat passes, make sure the ball doesn't fall to the ground. The ball can bounce whatever way it wants to on game day, but we can control certain things and that is what we are trying to do on a weekly basis."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 11 matchup against the Jacksonville Jaguars

Getting rolling: The Steelers run game is currently ranked 11th in the AFC and 24th overall in the NFL.

Last week they had just 44 yards on the ground, with James Conner having 13 carries for 36 yards.

During his weekly press conference Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged the run game is not where he wants it to be and said it would be a point of emphasis this week.

"I think the biggest significant component or analysis, or critique of the game is our ineffective run game," said Tomlin when talking about the Bengals game. "We spent a lot of time talking and thinking about that in an effort to move forward. One of the things I'll acknowledge is as a team, you always go through lulls in the season where components of your play are lacking, and it requires a re-center of energy or attention or focus. I believe that is where we are in regards to the run game right now. We will get about that task this week.

"I look forward to getting into the lab with the coaches and the guys and attacking this run game situation. It's something that we shouldn't have a difficult time pushing through, to be quite honest with you. We have very capable people in that area, but it is below the line as we sit here today."

Conner said they did put focus on the run game and it's just a matter of continuing to work on it.

"Just stay at it. It's going to come," said Conner. "Just different flows in the game. We're not worried. We're going to get it going. At the end of the day it's about wins and losses. We are just going to keep working at it week in and week out.

"We came to practice and practiced hard this week, just like we always do week in and week out. It's a journey. When we do go for 100 yards and running the ball on the ground, everybody is going to have something to say, which is expected. This is what we do. But at the end of the day we just keep going, keep trying to get better. Like I said, it's about winning, and we've been doing that. We are going to keep that going."

One thing that could give the running game a boost is using fullback Derek Watt more. On Thursday, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said, 'it's time to use him,' regarding Watt.

Conner agrees that he could be a big asset.

"He will bring another blocker out there," said Conner. "He is a smart player. We just want to get him back out there."

A brotherhood: The sense of togetherness and camaraderie with which the Steelers' defense is playing has been apparent.

It's also been a much-discussed topic this week, from inside linebacker Marcus Allen to defensive back Cam Sutton to free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Nose tackle Tyson Alualu was the latest to chime in on the subject this morning.

"We had that sense of how good we can be last year and just kind of took it upon ourselves to try to be even better," he said. "I think it just comes down to the guys that we have on our defense just really caring about each other, taking on that brotherhood to the next level. When you care about people that way, you don't want to let them down. And then when it comes to game time we're just out there having fun.

"Put those together and you build something special."

From Alualu's perspective, what the defense shares goes well beyond a collective desire to create turnovers, get stops and win games.

"It goes back to the brotherhood that we're trying to build," he continued. "When you're close both on and off the field you build that bond. So, every time we take the field, when I'm on that field I don't want to let (defensive tackle) Cam (Heyward) or (defensive end Stephon) Tuitt down, or (outside linebacker) Bud (Dupree) down. So, I want to do my job the best I can, and I know if I do that I know they're doing the same.

"It just takes it to the next level when you care so much for the people you're playing with."

--blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Kicking is kicking: The lack of fans or relatively small gatherings attending games this season has affected most players one way or another.

Not kicker Chris Boswell.

"Honestly, I don't really pay too much about it because I'm so locked in to (punter) Jordan (Berry) and what he does and the holding and stuff that I don't really pay attention to their team or the fans or the sideline or anything.

"To me, kicking's kicking whether it's out here at practice, whether it's in a game. You've got to make every kick no matter what the circumstances and no matter if there's people yelling at you or not."

Boswell is much more interested in being methodical.

His current streak of 25 consecutive field goals, the longest active such run in the NFL, includes a 59-yard effort on Nov. 8 at Dallas.

That set the Steelers' franchise record but to Boswell it was, for the most part, just another kick.
"Honestly, I don't really compare them too much," he said. "That was just a kick I had to make at that time. It is 59 yards and the hairs raise up on your arms a little bit because you know you really have got to hit that ball really well to get it to fly that far.

"The one thing I told myself is it wasn't coming up short, so I was putting everything into that kick and it went in."

-- blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Thursday, November 19

One goal: If there is one storyline that has been consistent for the Steelers this season, it's the fact that the team has been able to have a 9-0 record because of the attitude of the players, coaches and staff.

While there are numerous personalities on the team, they have all come together as one, checking their egos at the door and just working toward a common goal.

"There are no individuals," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "That is something I said last year when I first got here. There was not a lot of ego. We all have it naturally, especially as football players and men, but everyone knows how to put it to the side once we walk through the doors at the facility.

"Everybody has the same goal. To be the best possible defense we can. Sometimes that takes sacrifices, not doing everything you are capable of doing and just doing what the team needs you to do right now. nobody complains about it because it works. It's easy to push your ego to the side when it's working. Not just for the overall team, but the individuals too it's working.

"The thing I appreciate most about the team is the selflessness and how there are no individuals."

The team has been working together as one from the time they arrived at Heinz Field for training camp, dealing with challenges that have come their way, and never batting an eyelash, rather facing things head on. For the last two weeks the team has been meeting virtually because of intensive protocol due to COVID-19, and while it's been inconvenient at times, they aren't letting it become a detriment.

Fitzpatrick even pulled out one of his favorite sayings, which is something he used growing up, but finds it even more appropriate now.

"Adapt or die, to put it in dramatic terms," said Fitzpatrick. "That is something they used to say in South Florida. I think it's a very applicable quote right now. Every single day there is something new you have to adapt to. If you don't, if you complain about it or you think it's too big an inconvenience, it's going to take you off your game or what you need to think about.

"What I mean is adapt, when there is an issue or a problem, you have to able to adapt and not let it set you back. Yesterday, we were in our film thing, and mine was bugging out so I had to call rather than use the actual video thing. Then we had to adapt to use the zoom, rather than the video system we use. Then not being in the same room. That is different. I sit next to Terrell (Edmunds) and we can have a private conversation and pick each other's brain. We can't do that over the zoom calls. We might text back and forth. It's the little things."

He said it:
Safety Antoine Brooks Jr. on playing in his first game Sunday vs. the Bengals:
"It felt good. I am out here working to get to where I want to be in life and football. They are really helping me with that. The older guys are really connecting with me, telling me what to do and how to do this, and how to do certain stuff. It feels amazing. When I first got out there it felt really good."

Mess with me: Marcus Allen had a sheepish look on his face when he was asked how Coach Mike Tomlin has kept him motivated his first two seasons, when the former fifth-round draft pick only saw action in three games during that time.

"He'll say, 'Mess with me,' because that's something we had my rookie year," said Allen. "During the preseason I was playing a game, it was like the fourth quarter, I was making plays and I was like, 'Mess with me, mess with me.' That is something he always says going past me in the locker room. 'Come on, mess with me, let's go.' That is something that always stuck with me. I always want them to mess with me, so I go hard every day. Practice, meetings, outside the field, everything."

That isn't the only way Tomlin has kept him motivated. He has continually encouraged him, making sure he kept on going hard even though his opportunities weren't coming.

"He'll always just be in your ear basically saying keep working," said Allen. "Your opportunity can come at any second so just stay on it every day and never take a day off. For me, being in practice I always went hard whether I was on scout 'D' or getting opportunities or first team reps sometimes."

It's all paid off for Allen. At the start of the season the Steelers experimented with Allen at linebacker and so far, it's stuck. His snaps early on weren't plentiful, but against the Bengals he saw more action in the dime package.

"We like him where he is at, bringing him in in passing situations," said defensive coordinator Keith Butler. "He is still learning the linebacker role in terms of how deep he has to drop in coverage, what is the situation. Most of the time we put him in there is situational football. He is still learning what the linebackers do in terms of blitzing or faking like they are going to blitz, or a threat to blitz. He is still figuring that out, but he is getting better every week, so we are going to continue to use him."

Allen, who has been at safety since he was drafted by the Steelers out of Penn State, said he didn't mind making the switch to linebacker, feeling more comfortable each week.

"I like it a lot. I am open to it," said Allen. "I am willing to get better at it every day. I am just excited to get this opportunity at this position especially with a team I that I always wanted to be a part of.

"I feel as though I have come a long way. I am still getting better at it week by week, learning more within the position. I am excited just to see how we become better and better each week. I love the opportunity I have right now.

"It's basically incorporating more of what I already knew. When you come from safety you know the ins and outs of the defense. It's a different position and just same concepts. I already knew what to do when I was at safety."

Allen said the move to linebacker was a surprise when it happened, but he has never flinched at it.

"This was something new this year to get moved to linebacker," said Allen. "I didn't know I was going to get moved to linebacker. I am open to anything to better the team. This was pretty new when the position switched. At Penn State I was used in the box a lot in passing downs as well. I'm pretty used to it. I've got a good grasp of it."

Allen is having fun being involved with the defense, enjoying the energy and excitement they bring every day.

"The energy behind the defense and the connection we all have," said Allen. "Everybody is going to trust everybody within the defense. Everybody is on the same page. Since workouts in the summer we have all been having this same vision of what needs to be done. You can lean on your brother. That is why I like playing on this defense. You are playing for your brother."

He said it:
Allen on the leadership on the Steelers:
"The leadership of this group is outstanding, from the coaches to the vets, even to the second, third year players. Everybody has a role on the team to better each other. I don't feel like there is anybody in this building who is out to get you or not help you excel in your job. I feel as though the leadership on this team is (through) the roof."

Wednesday, Nov. 18

Bread and butter: The Steelers have a group of wide receivers that would give any defensive coordinator a headache.

JuJu Smith-Schuster. Diontae Johnson. Chase Claypool. James Washington. Ray-Ray McCloud. And don't forget tight end Eric Ebron.

So far, opposing defenses haven't found a solution to shut them down. Sure, one week one player might not have as much of an impact, but there is always someone there stepping up.

So, if you were a defensive coordinator, how would you defend the Steelers receivers?

"I don't know. That's tough," said Smith-Schuster. "That is something. We haven't been stopped yet. It's tough. You can play man-to-man across the board, but Ben (Roethlisberger) is going to put us in the best situation to get the ball. You can play zone, but we're going to have all the spot balls.

"It's going to be tough. I don't know. No one has stopped us yet doing it. It's our bread and butter and we are going to keep on doing it."

Smith-Schuster is leading the way for the receivers with 54 receptions for 516 yards, and his physical style of play has been huge on third down, which has helped build a bond between him and Roethlisberger.

"Trust. There is a lot of trust there," said Roethlisberger. "He is a guy that has been in the system for a while. He is a guy I can line up anywhere and he knows what to do. What you see from him in terms of his demeanor, his attitude, when the ball is in his hand is determination. It's unbelievable. There have been times in the last couple of games when I have gotten the ball to him on third and whatever, and he has caught it a little bit short of the first down, and I have 100 percent confidence he is going to find a way to get the first down.

"He is just a competitor. He is fun to play with. I am so proud of him. He is not putting up gaudy numbers like he has in the past but the things he is doing is just as important for this offense and this team in any year he has done.

"He is tough. He can make combat catches. He gets those first downs when you need them. He is smart. He is a guy you can move around and put him pretty much anywhere and he knows what to do. He helps get other guys lined up. I think when you have a guy when push comes to shove, when the rubber meets the road, all the different slangs you want to use. When you have a guy like JuJu that I know and trust him, it makes you feel pretty comfortable."

Smith-Schuster said he loves making those third down catches, moving the chains and helping the team.

"Third down gets you paid," said Smith-Schuster. "You make plays on third down, you move the sticks, you get another set of three downs to make plays and drive to the end zone. On third down our goal is we don't want to be in that situation where it's third-and-long, third-and-10, third-and-five. I love and I embrace those moments. I am hoping the ball will come my way. I pray the ball comes my way. I just want to make a play. It's not just me. I am pretty sure everybody on the team they want to make a play for the offense."

Getting respect: Coach Mike Tomlin deserves every bit of respect he receives, but this might be one of the cooler forms of respect that has come his way this season. Los Angeles Lakers star Lebron James gave Tomlin a shoutout today on Twitter, and an appreciative Tomlin replied.

Stop the run: There are just four players listed as starters on the current Jacksonville depth chart who were starters back on Jan. 14, 2018, when the Jaguars visited Heinz Field and ushered the Steelers out of the playoffs.

Three of them are offensive linemen (left tackle Cam Robinson, center Brandon Linder and right guard A.J. Cann; linebacker Myles Jack is Jacksonville's other carry-over starter).

Rookie running back James Robinson's 689 rushing yards (fifth in the NFL) and 917 yards from scrimmage (fourth in the league) also betray what the Jaguars will likely continue to emphasize when they host the Steelers on Sunday.

That much in Jacksonville hasn't changed.

"We let them stay comfortable in their offense," defensive tackle Cam Heyward remembered regarding the 45-42 playoff loss that brought the 2017 season to a stunning halt. "They were able to run the ball. They were able to control the tempo. And they didn't put their quarterback in harm's way, whether it was rolling out the quarterback, staying on schedule with your runs and being quick and decisive in your approach."

"We've got to stop the run early to get to the point where we want to get the sacks and everything. Hopefully, we do that on Sunday."

The running back then was Leonard Fournette and the quarterback was Blake Bortles.

This time it'll be rookie Jake Luton making his third career start under center and, if the Jaguars stay true to form, heavy doses of handing the ball to Robinson, an undrafted rookie from Illinois State.

Jacksonville's second-leading rusher is injured quarterback Gardner Minshew (25 carries for 122 yards).

The Jaguars ran the ball 23 times (Robinson every time) and attempted 38 passes (including three sacks) in last Sunday's 24-20 loss at Green Bay.

"You've got to start early," Heyward repeated, presumably for emphasis. "You've got to get off the field as a defense. Stopping the run is paramount. You look at how they're constructed and what they want to do, it's not like they want to continue to go downfield and have these big plays throwing the ball. They want to just possess the ball. They want to make your offense feel like they have to be impatient because they're not going to have a lot of chances.

"As a defense we've got to get off the field. We've got to create the splash and I think if we do that we'll be successful."

Protecting their leader: If there is one thing the Steelers offensive line takes particular pride in, it's protecting their quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is their leader, and the last thing they want to have happen is see him take a hit.

So far this season, they have been getting the job done in that area.

Through nine games Roethlisberger has only been sacked 10 times, something that gives the line joy.

"Our job is to keep him upright," said guard Matt Feiler. "He's one of the leaders that we have on the team and we want to keep him as clean as possible and keep him on rhythm. We take tremendous pride in doing that.

"He is our leader. He always has been. He takes that role seriously. He wants to motivate the guys as much as possible and he has been doing a good job of that."

Feiler was a bit surprised when he was told that with all of the success Roethlisberger has had in his career, that he has never received one vote for NFL MVP. He thinks it's something that should change, but also looks at the big picture.

"He's definitely going to be a Hall of Famer," said Feiler. "I think he is deserving. He is doing everything right. He is helping us win games. That is what matters."

He said it:
Matt Feiler on working on the run game:
"It's the rhythm of the way the game has been going. I don't know if it's because we are down or whatever. We just call passes. I think we have to get on a better rhythm and maybe stay on our fits a little bit longer and just kind of communicate. We just have to get back to our base fundamental stuff and keep working off of that and strength that first.

"I think we are pretty balanced. When we are passing, we have to be on our Ps and Qs. The same thing with our run job. We have to make sure we get the right fits and get up to the second level when we can."

Monday, Nov. 16

The standard is the standard: In a year that has been topsy turvy at best, the Steelers have somehow, some way, been as stable as they come.

With a 9-0 record, something that would almost seem impossible for any team considering the circumstances of no real offseason, no preseason, etc., the Steelers have found a way, a lot of it thanks in part to Coach Mike Tomlin.

"The standard is the standard," said safety Terrell Edmunds. "It's big. Regardless of any situation or circumstance, we know we have to go out there and win football games. Regardless if someone is in the protocol this week, or not, we have to go out there and it's the next guy up.

"That has been the whole mentality and something we live and die by now. It's something we take into every stadium and focus on getting in and out 1-0 each week. If we win, if it's good, bad or ugly, as long as we are winning, we feel good about ourselves."

That standard is something Tomlin preaches. Every day, every meeting, his message is consistent. And that consistency goes a long way.

"We know how 2020 has been going thus far," said cornerback Cameron Sutton. "The offseason was challenging. Guys being in different states and areas. Guys not being able to travel and move around. All those things played a factor in not being able to do the things we would normally have on schedule. Just the constant communication, the brotherhood we have. Guys staying together. We set up some things with protocols to put us in the right direction leading into camp.

"It's a mentality. It's an approach. It's how we conduct business. Day in and day out, it's preached in the organization, it's preached through the guys. It's the standard we carry, the expectation that is behind the Steelers brand of football. That shows out there each and every week. Guys are behind each other. Guys are playing for one another, playing with a lot energy and passion. It's exciting. Everyone is making plays. Guys are flying around on both sides of the ball, special teams as well. You can't do anything but gravitate to that. It's appreciated from a man like that who has been doing it for so long and is still so much loved."

Stepping up wherever asked: With cornerback Mike Hilton out with a shoulder injury for the past four games, others have been stepping up, including Cameron Sutton.

Sutton, who pretty much can play anywhere on the field, has stepped into the nickel spot, forcing a fumble for the third straight game when he knocked one free against the Bengals.

For a player who has been all over the field during his career, making an impact on the defense at one spot has been a welcome feeling.

"It feels good," said Sutton. "Overall, it feels really good just being able to control a lot of situations, down in and down out. Having control of the middle of the field you are talking about being a part of every aspect of the game, especially the roles I am in, down in and down out. We are based upon getting off the field, stopping our opponents and shutting teams down.

"If we aren't doing that, I feel like especially in those critical situations, that starts with me. I hold myself accountable overall with everything as far as holding us to a standard of getting off that field. That is just the expectation.

"All of the guys are hungry. All of the guys are playing for each other. There is so much energy and passion out there week in and week out. It feels really good."

Sutton has been known for his versatility during his career, and while he hasn't objected to settling in a little bit with Hilton out of the lineup, he accepts whatever role he has with open arms.

"I take reps everywhere," said Sutton. "Week in and week out, I am never stationary. It might depend on the day of the week or situation throughout the week. Normally throughout the week I am not stationary at one position.

"What is more special than being versatile. I never want to be a stationary guy. That is just my style of game. Being versatile is being able to come from outside to inside, being able to play safety and come down to being able to play dime, nickel. Whatever it takes to be on the field and around the ball, that's just what it is.

"Everyone always talks about do you want to keep moving around. I just want to play. I just want to ball. That's it."

He said it:
Sutton on the Steelers coming out as a team vs. individual players being introduced pregame at Heinz Field:
"We're coming as a unit. We're coming as a team. We're carrying the fight each week as a team, as a unit."

He said it:
Edmunds on Vince Williams:
"He is that type of guy you want to have on your squad. He makes a big hit almost every game."