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Week 12 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, November 26

Feeling fine: Minkah Fitzpatrick was activated from the Reserve/COVID list on Thursday and following practice on Friday he provided the news all Steelers fans wanted to hear.

"I feel fine," said Fitzpatrick. "The only thing I really had was a headache and that was it. I had little to almost no symptoms."

Fitzpatrick tested positive on Nov. 15, saying he has no idea how he was exposed to the virus.

One of the main concerns Fitzpatrick had during the 10 days he was on the list was being in physical shape when he returned. Fortunately, it isn't an issue.

"When you have 10 days that you're not able to work out you think you would be in not great shape," said Fitzpatrick. "But I came back yesterday, my first practice, and I felt fine. I wasn't struggling with running or breathing or anything like that. I feel good."

Text me: If there is a text thread you would want to be a fly on the wall for, it likely would be the one going on Sunday night between linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerback Joe Haden.

All three missed the game against the Chargers, Watt and Haden injured, Fitzpatrick on the Reserve/COVID list.

Throughout the game the three, antsy because they weren't playing, continually texted each other.

"It sucks. It sucks texting with Minkah and Joe all last game," said Watt. "You see all the effort that guys are giving and trying to spark the team, especially defensively. Watching Cam Sutton, Cam Hayward and it just sucks when you know that you can help but I just wasn't healthy enough to help. It's a helpless feeling but at the same time it's just more motivation to get back and get healthy as quick as possible so I can start affecting games again."

Fitzpatrick wasn't a fan of having to be a spectator, and texter, something he definitely isn't accustomed to.

"That was my first missed game since I've been in the league," said Fitzpatrick. "It's very, very different just watching, especially because it was a very important game for us on Sunday Night Football against a great team. It is what it is. It's out of my control what happened, but it was tough watching.

"We're all texting each other. All three of us are competitors. Saying how crazy it is while our boys are out there in L.A. They went out there and fought hard and did what they had to do." 

Watt was a full participant in practice on Friday, after being limited the two days prior with a hip and knee injury he suffered in the Lions game at Heinz Field.

"I just got rolled up weird," said Watt. "Knee felt a little unstable at the time. I went to get up, when I got up a lot of discomfort in my hip and couldn't really reach overhead and a lot of stuff. Felt discomfort in both my knee and hip. Luckily, it wasn't anything too serious and I feel a lot better this week."

Both Watt and Fitzpatrick are expected to play on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, with Haden listed as questionable. Getting pieces of the defense back will be a key as it's a huge AFC North matchup.

"It was tough for sure (watching)," said Fitzpatrick. "Our guys went out there and fought hard. The offense did a great job putting 37 points on the board. The defense, a lot of guys that don't normally play, played. They went out there and fought hard too. No matter who was out there, they played hard, they played well. There were things we could have done better.

"We're back healthy this week and we we'll get back to our normal standard."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 12 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals

Freshman sensations: Sunday's rematch at Paul Brown Stadium will feature two of the NFL's most productive rookies on the same field for the second time in Bengals wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase and Steelers running back Najee Harris.

Harris has no problem sharing the first-year spotlight.

"Ja'Marr Chase is my dude," Harris said. "I played against him in college, too, and we trained together during the (NFL Scouting) Combine.

"I'm happy he's doing good. I'm happy (Patriots quarterback) Mac (Jones) is doing good, obviously, he's my former teammate (at Alabama).

"There can be more than one person eating as a rookie, we all can share. It ain't gotta be a competition all the time."

Harris said he'll be a better player on Sunday than he was in the Bengals' 24-10 victory on Sept. 26 at Heinz Field due to the experience he's gleaned since then.

And Harris maintains he won't be the only one who has benefited in such a fashion.

"For sure," Harris said. "Every week we get better. Every week everyone on the team is getting more experience, especially us young guys. For (rookie offensive tackle) Dan (Moore Jr.) and 'K.G.' (rookie center Kendrick Green), specifically, I think they got better from Week One until now.

"Just to see the progress that's going on is good."

Harris is coming off a 12-carry, 39-yard rushing effort in last Sunday night's 41-37 loss at the Chargers that included a 1-yard dive into the end zone.

Harris scored out of a formation that included fullback Derek Watt, tight ends Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry and offensive tackle Zach Banner as a reported-eligible receiver (Banner's first offensive snap of the season).

"The more big guys we get in there, I feel like we get better push," Harris said. "But whatever play is called, I feel like I can get whatever amount of short yards it is or we can block it for what it is.

"It was just something new we put it. We're gonna keep using it, probably."

Harris said he won't campaign to head coach Mike Tomlin to run out of that personnel package more often in short-yardage situations.

"Whatever he picks, I'm behind him," Harris said.

The two talked during Thanksgiving dinner, but not about play-calling or personnel groups.
Harris said he was one of a handful of players who went to "Mike T's house" to celebrate the occasion.

"It was good to be in a new city on the holidays and spend time with my team and coach and just talk about stuff other than football," Harris said. "It was a good bonding experience."

Thursday, November 25

Mixing it up: After missing the Lions game with a toe injury, receiver Chase Claypool was a man who was happy to be back in the mix when the Steelers took on the Chargers last week.

Claypool had five receptions for 93-yards, bouncing back quickly from the injury. 

"I was super excited to get back," said Claypool after practice on Thursday. "I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to play. But I was able to come back, good recovery. It was nice to be out there because I knew I could contribute in a positive way."

Claypool suffered the injury against the Chicago Bears in Week 9 at Heinz Field.

"I got tackled on my toe and it was flexed so it was like a really bad turf toe," said Claypool. "I had to wait a little bit so I didn't hurt it more.

"There is definitely some PT you can do. More than anything it is rest and that is why I couldn't come back too early. It would be something that would be lingering longer than it should be."

Claypool looked like there were no after effects from the injury when he pulled in a 37-yard reception from Ben Roethlisberger that went to the Chargers five-yard line, a play he said Roethlisberger called himself. He said he welcomed the call, and also liked going out of the no-huddle in the game.

"I think we were moving pretty smoothly, calling good plays," said Claypool. "We were excited and having fun out there. That was the biggest thing. I think our confidence level is at an all-time high because we were moving the ball, doing long drives, the line did really good keeping up with Ben and the tempo called."

The key now is the offense keeping that momentum going, while also knowing when the time is right to go to the no-huddle again.

"We have to mix it up a little bit here and there, so they aren't prepared for it all week," said Claypool. "Some teams it works well, some teams it doesn't. We just have to keep the momentum, but not necessarily the same game plan."

A player to be thankful for: Cameron Heyward started off his media availability on Thursday morning wishing the small gathering of media who were up bright and early a Happy Thanksgiving.

And honestly, for anyone in Steelers Nation, one of the things they should be thankful for is Heyward.

If you want a player that exemplifies what it means to be a part of the Steelers legacy, it's Heyward.

"He's a Steeler," said Ben Roethlisberger on Wednesday. "He's one of those guys that could've played in any generation."

For a player who understands the Steelers tradition, who knows the defensive linemen who came before him like Ernie Stautner, Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood, and more recently Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and others, that means something to Heyward.

"It's a great compliment, but man I'm just trying to play in this era right now," said Heyward with a smile. "There are a lot of great players. You look back at the guys before and I would love to play in the era where you could do some of the stuff Mean Joe could do. But we're not playing in that era. It was a different era when they played. I've learned a lot from them over the years.

"I'm just appreciative of all of them, because I've watched them, and I've seen them do it for this team and have great careers and those are the guys you always try to emulate."

For the young players on the Steelers defensive line, and the team in general, Heyward is a player they can emulate.

"I just try to lead by example," said Heyward. "I think words can say a lot, but your actions and how you prepare and how you go about your business. I was always taught to run to the ball and instilling that upon my teammates I think I gotta try to do."

That run to the ball attitude is something he did on Sunday night against the Chargers. Heyward made a tackle in the game that was pure hustle, gut and heart when he tracked down Justin Herbert, going 36 yards down the field to make a tackle at the 11-yard line. On the play, Heyward was called for unnecessary roughness where it appeared he was punching Herbert.

Heyward admits when looking at the film in slow motion it looks worse than what it was, but he genuinely wasn't trying to be vicious or dirty, but rather simply trying to get off the pile, even while being tugged at, and just catch his breath.

"I honestly didn't even know what exactly happened," said Heyward. "I'm never going to try and be a dirty player. I never want anybody to think I am. I was already tired running down there in the first place. I was more ticked off when I got pulled up because I was trying to catch my breath for a second. But in slow motion it looks way worse. It was just trying to catch my fall and that's it."

Heyward knows he can't control the narrative of what people think of him because of the play, but he just wants to set the record straight.

"I never want to be looked at as a dirty player, but I can't change anybody's opinion," said Heyward. "That's their opinion. I just go out there and play the best for my team and stay focused on the task at hand."

As of Thursday morning, Heyward didn't hear anything from the NFL about the play but did say he reached out to Herbert.

"I reached out on my Instagram," said Heyward. "I haven't heard back, but they're focused on other things. He's a heck of a player. I have a lot of respect for him. If I do get a chance to reach out in person sometime, I will."

It's those actions, the truth in his words when he says he didn't mean for it to happen the way it did, is why Heyward is such a leader for the young players. He was asked if he even looked at them as kids, something the father of three got a laugh about.

"I got my kids at home. I don't have any kids at work. I've got teammates," said Heyward. "I love coming to work and I love competing with my teammates. I never look at it as age because at the same time what I've learned I'm teaching other guys. But I'm still learning things from young guys. Trying to better my game and when you feel like you've learned too much and you have all the answers, I think that's when you got to call it a career. I think if you're not learning then shame on you."

Throughout his career the lessons Heyward has learned are numerous. But none of them likely more powerful than the lessons he learned sitting and waiting his turn as a rookie, and even in his second season, waiting for his turn to become a starter, which didn't happen until his third season.

"I remember being a rookie and Mitch (Coach John Mitchell) yelling at me all the time and having me in for extra meetings," said Heyward. "Not thinking like I was ever going to play here. I remember living on the South Side and being depressed every day after practice because I'm not playing.

"But man, I think everything just becomes worth it. Everything becomes earned. What I appreciate most about Coach Mitch is he challenged me to come back better every time. And it made me work twice as hard and gave me the opportunity when I was ready to play to and actually seize that moment. So, full circle, whatever you want to call it, I'm just appreciative to be in Year 11."

Heyward wouldn't reflect on how things might have turned out if Mitchell, who is now the team's assistant head coach, wasn't as tough on him, but when he earned the opportunity his third season he didn't let go.

"I remember in that corner, Mitch working me like a dog and being like, 'Man I just want an opportunity at this,'" said Heyward, pointing to a corner of the field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex where Mitchell always worked with the defensive line. "I finally got an opportunity. What was the Year 3 versus the Jets? I made sure I was going to have it. I was going to take advantage of that. I know I played before. I remember my rookie year we went into Denver, and we lost two defensive linemen and we're stuck with three. So, I got opportunities to play, but to play consistently and to the start and not only just be a plugin guy but to be a guy that can contribute. That was always my goal."

Goal attained.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Preparation pays off: It doesn't just happen.

It's something that comes with studying, preparation, 11 playing as one, being in the right place at the right time.

And yes, so much more.

But somehow, some way, Miles Killebrew has a knack for continuing to make it happen.

Killebrew blocked his second punt of the season on Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers, the previous one coming against the Buffalo Bills, and his third one in two seasons.

"Anyone who studies special teams will tell you the same thing," said Killebrew. "Any time a punt is blocked, usually it is a combination of multiple guys effort on a play. Just take this last game. I am not getting to that open gap unless 3, 4, 5 guys do their job at the same time. It's a testament to (special teams coordinator) Danny's (Smith) preparation. It's a testament to our preparation.

"It was a great team we were playing last week, but when it came down to it, it was which team executed better in that moment."

Killebrew said the more you block a punt, the more comfortable you become with it. It's just the reality is, they don't come all that often. When they do, it makes an impact.

"When a big play is made on special teams, it's unexpected to a certain degree," said Killebrew. "When a big play happens on special teams, I love it because that is where my heart is. It's exciting because it's not as anticipated. We are looking for it and expect it every play. But maybe the crowd isn't. We like to ride that wave as much as possible.

"This special teams (unit) wants to make a severe, positive impact every game. We want to make a play. We're trying to make a difference in the game. I love everyone on that group. It's a special group we have. I thank God every day we are able to get that production."

It's a unit that definitely feeds off of the enthusiasm of Smith, someone who is as animated on the practice field and sideline as anyone you have ever seen in football.

"You have guys that want to be out there doing it," said Killebrew. "It's a very fine line between guys at this level being upset that their role isn't something else, and the other side I am here and giving it everything I have. I would say this year, with this team, under this coordinator, Coach Danny, he's got guys out there who want to be doing this at a very high level. We feed off each other. We feed off of him and it's a very good environment."

Wednesday, November 24

Slowing things down: At the beginning of the season, continuity was the hot button word when it came to the Steelers offensive line. They were a unit that didn't have much time playing together, hadn't put anything on tape to show what they were capable of.

Fast forward to Week 12 and the line has gelled, has come together with five truly becoming one.

And there couldn't be a better time for it to happen. The Steelers have a key AFC North game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium. The Bengals beat the Steelers in Week 3, 24-10, at Heinz Field, and the line has grown by leaps and bounds since then.

"We were watching film today and our offensive line coach (Adrian Klemm) mentioned just watching the film how much better we've got," said rookie tackle Dan Moore Jr. "I think we've taken a tremendous step. Regardless of what's going on in our room with injuries, everybody's coming to work every day and we're just getting better."

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger shouted out the offensive line on Wednesday morning for the success they had in running the no-huddle offense against the Chargers on Sunday night, the first time they went to it in the manner they did this season.

"The line was able to, for the first time, do that," said Roethlisberger. "Tell them protections and have them do it. Just being able to move the ball."

Moore said it's definitely a step in the right direction, but the ability to run the no-huddle is something that has been there for them.

"I think (Ben) noticed that the pace was hurting them a little bit early on in the game," said Moore. "I thought it helped us with continuity on the offense. It was definitely a good step for us. It's definitely wearing defenses out. I think that's a part and element of our offense. You always want to push the pace and I think that's the direction we want to go in our offense.

"I think it's a little bit of who we are as an offense. Just the pre-snap element of our play, the motions getting set, getting hurried up on the ball. I think that's part of who we are."

In addition to the line improving as a whole, Moore sees his own game improving just from the aspect that things are slowing down.

"The game is slowing down a little bit for me," said Moore. "Just different elements of it. The physicality of it, the speed of it. I think it's slowing down a little bit."

Growing up fast: As cornerback Cam Sutton had done on Sunday night in Los Angeles, defensive back Tre Norwood chalked up the 53-yard touchdown pass that wound up beating the Steelers to "miscommunication on the back end" after practice today.

But Norwood wouldn't attribute anything associated with his role in what became the Justin Herbert-to-Mike Williams dagger that provided the margin of victory in a 41-37 loss to the Chargers to any type of rookie mistake.

Norwood, a seventh-round draft pick from Oklahoma, said he doesn't feel like a rookie any more after 10 NFL games and three NFL starts, including one at free safety in place of Minkah Fitzpatrick (Reserve/COVID list) against the Chargers.

"I don't," Norwood maintained. "I feel like that's a scapegoat, if that makes sense. I feel like I've played enough snaps to where I'm getting more comfortable. I'm still learning each and every day. That'll never stop, God willing, for however long I play in this league. You never stop learning, so for me it's always soaking knowledge up from the vets, soaking knowledge up from guys that have been there in my position, and guys outside of my position. You can always learn something.

"So for me that's my biggest thing, coming in every day with an open mind and being eager to get better."

Fitzpatrick has been one of the sources from which Norwood has attempted to soak up all he can, and that process continued in the days leading up to the Chargers game.

"During the week he was all open for me to ask questions," Norwood said. "He's one of those guys that does it at a high level, been doing it for a few years now. So just kinda leaning on him, asking questions here and there, what he'd do in certain situations.

"That's something he's been doing for me since the time I got here. I'm just going to continue to pick those older guys' brains and continue to learn day by day."

Head coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday there's a "level of anticipation" Fitzpatrick will be available this Sunday in Cincinnati.

Norwood is prepared to either start again or chip in as necessary.

"I always prepare myself to be a starter so if it happens I'll be ready," he said. "If not I'll play my role every snap that I'm out there and contribute to the team the best I can."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 12 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals