Week 14 Blog: All the news and notes

Friday, December 11

Big-time game: If someone would have told you in Week 1 of the season the Steelers would be without Bud Dupree, Vince Williams and Devin Bush at linebacker in Week 14, it's likely you would have never believed it, and there is a strong probability you would have cried. 

But that will be the case on Sunday night when the Steelers take on the Buffalo Bills. Dupree and Bush are both out for the season with knee injuries, while Williams is on the Reserve/COVID-19 List. 

Add to that linebacker Robert Spillane, who was replacing Bush, has also been ruled out for Sunday's game after suffering a knee injury against Washington.

But there are no tears in the Steelers locker room. Yes, there is sadness for the players who are out, but there is also confidence in the 'next man up.' 

"We miss all of the guys we don't have and wish everybody could be here," said linebacker T.J. Watt, the only one of the four starting linebackers from Week 1 playing this week. "At the same time everybody is a professional football player. Like I say every week, everybody has been preparing like they are a starter since they got here. Everybody in this locker room is more than capable of stepping up and being a key contributor for this team.

"Everybody around is going to have to pick it up too to help make the transition as easiest as possible for these guys. Whether it's just things like communication or things like that."

Avery Williamson will be the one called upon at inside linebacker to provide experience after arriving in Pittsburgh last month via a trade with the New York Jets.

"I feel like he has done a great job since he has been here of just trying to learn as much as he possibly can and embracing the culture we have here," said Watt. "I am excited for him to get the opportunity to get a good amount of reps this weekend. He has done a great job this week in practice of being more vocal."  

It's going to take all hands on deck against the Bills, who are 9-3 and like the Steelers looking to clinch a postseason berth.

"All parties know it's going to be a big-time game," said Watt. "We want to get the loss out of our minds. We feel like we had a great week of practice this week. We are going to go on the road for the first time in a while and it's going to be a good matchup for us."

He Said It:
Vance McDonald on being named the Steelers Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee:
"It overshadows any football accolade or player moment that I will ever have, barring we don't go and win the whole thing this year," said McDonald. "I am so greatly honored. I have so much appreciation for being recognized in that way. My wife and I have taken the opportunity of being in the NFL to give back. It's so much more than football. It's a great affirmation to know that we have helped people out because that is what we set out to do."

Full story on McDonald being the nominee.

Getting his turn: When Avery Williamson was traded to the Steelers on Nov. 2, the inside linebacker didn't imagine just over a month later he would be the only healthy experienced inside linebacker heading into Sunday night's game against the Buffalo Bills.

Devin Bush was already on the Reserve/Injured List, but the team had two solid linebackers in Vince Williams and Robert Spillane holding down the inside.

This week, though, that has all changed.

Spillane suffered a knee injury against the Washington Football Team on Monday and has yet to practice this week. Williams was placed on the COVID-19 List on Thursday and won't be available for Sunday's game.

That leaves Williamson, a seven-year veteran who came to the Steelers from the New York Jets, and Marcus Allen, a converted safety who hasn't had much work in the base defense, as the only two options currently on the active roster.

Williamson said it's been tough to see what has transpired at his position over the past week but is ready and excited for his opportunity to be the man in the middle.

"It can be tough," said Williamson. "I have spent time with Spillane and Vince, building chemistry with them. Rob went down. And then Vince, out of the blue yesterday, get that news and I am like, shoot, okay next man up. It's hard to get the chemistry but the biggest thing is to make sure the communication is well and whoever is out there we are talking. As long as everybody knows what to do that is the main thing.

"I hated, especially with Rob, to get that injury, thankfully it wasn't anything that needs surgery. Vince, I hated that too. But I am super excited and ready for this opportunity. I didn't know how things were going to play out, but it's kind of crazy the way the last week has spiraled. I have been a starter for a long time, and I am ready to go out there and prove myself again."

Williamson said he is more comfortable with the defense now than when he first arrived, something that will be beneficial on Sunday.

"I feel a whole lot better with where I am," said Williamson. "I thought I was ready the first week I got here, but I was nowhere near ready. It took me a little time. I have never been in a situation where I got traded and had to learn a new playbook in the middle of the season. It's definitely difficult. Thankfully the playbook isn't too crazy. That helps out a lot. The coaches are helping me as much as possible. I feel a lot more comfortable."

While no decision has been made yet, it's possible Williamson would wear the 'green dot' on his helmet for the defense, which signifies which player has the radio receiver in his helmet that allows him to receive communication from his sideline to call the defensive plays. He wore it against Washington after Spillane went out and said he wore it with the Jets as well.

"We'll see what the coaches are going to do," said Williamson. "I have worn the green dot pretty much my whole career. I didn't wear it this past year with the Jets. I am familiar with it. If they want me to be the green dot I can easily jump in there."

Thursday, December 10

Allen is a 'catalyst': The Steelers will face a tough challenge on Sunday night going against Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who can hurt a defense in multiple ways.

Allen has led the Bills to a 9-3 record on the season, while throwing for a career-high 3,405 yards, with four games to play, and 26 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

"Very versatile quarterback," said cornerback Cam Sutton. "A leader. He is the definitely the catalyst on that side of the ball. Everything starts with him and runs through him.

"He has done a great job of taking that step. He is making a lot of checks and calls at the line. They have given him a lot more freedom, moving guys around, putting himself and the offense in good situations to stay on schedule, make plays out there on the field. That is just a testament to him. I'm sure he is a hard-working person, a humble guy.

"He is playing good football right now. We just have to be on our game and be ready."

Coach Mike Tomlin referred to him as a 'big-time challenge' because of his passing ability combined with the way he can extend a play and scramble. Allen has 87 rushes for 321 yards, a 3.7-yard average, and six rushing touchdowns.

"Overall, we have to get to him first and foremost," said linebacker Alex Highsmith. "He is dangerous, so we know we have to keep him in the pocket. That is what makes him such a great quarterback, is because not only can he throw the ball, but he can run the ball as well.

"I think our key to stopping him on defense is to get after him and rush the passer and keep him in the pocket. If we are out of our rush lanes or whatever he might be able to get out. It's about keeping him in the pocket and being aggressive in that aspect."

Allen isn't the same type of running quarterback that Ravens' quarterback Lamar Jackson is, but Highsmith said the Bills do have some designed runs for him.

"There are definitely some that they have," said Highsmith. "It's not as much like a Lamar Jackson. There are definitely some. We have a good plan in place for him. It's going to start with getting to him and rushing the passer. We have a good plan in place, we just have to execute it."

He Said It:
Alex Highsmith on embracing the next man up mentality:
"I think it's everyone being prepared. That is what makes us such a great team and such a great defense. Everyone works so hard. We are all so dedicated to the ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl. It's just about being prepared. The next man up mentality is something that has always been here. Guys being prepared is the reason guys have been able to come in and fill in. I just know I am filling in right now. I just want to be my best self and be as productive as I can be to help this team win."

It's very simple: On Wednesday Ben Roethlisberger shouldered the blame for the drops by the Steelers receivers over the last few games, saying he had to throw them more 'catchable' passes.

"I think I just need to give them more catchable balls, put them into a position to catch balls where they're not going to get hit," said Roethlisberger. "I am not going to worry too much about pulling them aside and having a heart to heart that you need to catch a ball. I need to give them balls that are more catchable. I need to be my best so they can be their best. When they are at their best, we are pretty good."

One day later, JuJu Smith-Schuster said it was on the receivers to make those catches, and one of the things he has seen in the drops is players trying to do a little extra before securing the catch.

"As far as dropping the ball it's more so people trying to make a play before it happens," said Smith-Schuster. "A lot of times you will see the guy try to run before catching the ball, trying to get up field. It's very simple. These are passes we can make if we just focus and concentrate."

Coach Mike Tomlin definitely showed his displeasure with the drops, clearly stating if guys don't make the catch, the ball won't come their way. 

"They can catch the ball, or they can get replaced by someone who will catch it," said Tomlin during his weekly press conference.

It was a message the receivers heard and understand the reasoning behind it.

"I think as far as that, it's motivation," said Smith-Schuster. "Coach T has always been transparent. If you can't do your job, we'll get someone to do it. That is something he has always said. He has proven that. He has fired players before and brought in new guys. That is not something new. He is definitely right about that. Some people take it differently. For us as a team we take it very personal and it's motivation to get better and catch the balls."

Smith-Schuster said he just wants to do his part, whatever is asked of him to help the passing game. But one thing he would always welcome is to get more deep passes thrown his way. His rookie season he averaged 15.8 yards per catch, and 12.8 and 13.1 yards the last two years. This year he is averaging 8.2 yards per catch.

"Ideally, I have always felt like I can run down field and catch those deep passes," said Smith-Schuster. "Compared to last year or two years ago, the route tree I was running was a lot different. This year everything is a lot shorter. At the end of the day whatever they put in front of me, that is what I am going to do."

Wednesday, December 9

Being ready: The Steelers' defense started Monday's game against Washington without inside linebacker Devin Bush, outside linebacker Bud Dupree and cornerback Steven Nelson, and finished it without inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who had been taking Bush's place, and cornerback Joe Haden.

But defensive tackle Cam Heyward, like head coach Mike Tomlin, isn't interested in who isn't playing being offered up as an excuse for a less-than-winning effort.

"We have to be ready for that," Heyward maintained. "We have to understand things are going to happen throughout the year, whether it's injuries, COVID, personal things that might go on. We have to be ready for all of that as a defense.

"I think we do a great job rotating, so when we do have to put that stress on other guys to step up they're not foreign to it. If it does happen or when it does happen we just have to make sure we're ready to accommodate that."

The Washington game ended with the Steelers on the wrong end of a 23-17 decision.

"We just got our first loss, man," Heyward said. "We have to appreciate it. This is a chance for us to learn and grow.

"Soon, we're going to be in single-elimination (in the postseason). We understand what a loss feels like, so we don't have to worry about it later on."

This Sunday's trip to Buffalo will pit the Steelers' defense against third-year quarterback Josh
Allen and the NFL's No. 3 passing attack.

But, as always, Job One will be to stop the run and make the opponent as one-dimensional as possible.

The Bills are No. 23 in rushing offense, but they're also better than advertised in that category in Heyward's estimation.

"If we sleep on this running game, then we're going to be wildly surprised," he said.

--Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

The Steelers prepare for the Week 14 matchup against the Buffalo Bills

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