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Week 14 Blog: A recap of the news

Wednesday, December 8

Practice squad update: The Steelers have signed punter Drue Chrisman and long snapper Rex Sunahara to the practice squad and terminated defensive back Linden Stephens and wide receiver Tyler Vaughns from the practice squad

Tuesday, December 7

True love: Linebacker T.J. Watt is doing what Coach Mike Tomlin would say are 'T.J. Watt type things' this year.

But those things, that just aren't the norm in the NFL.

They are above and beyond the norm.

Watt currently has 16 sacks on the year, tying James Harrison for the most sacks in a season in team history. It's a record he could hold on his own as early as Thursday night.

He could break the NFL's single-season sack record held by Michael Strahan at 22.5 sacks if he keeps up the ridiculous pace he is on.

And the crazy thing is, he has missed two games this season due to injuries.

If you ask anyone in Pittsburgh about Watt and his sacks, they will talk glowingly about him.

Just don't ask Watt himself about if he thinks about the potential of setting a new Steelers sack record.

"No, not really," Watt said in a matter-of-fact manner that you couldn't dispute for a minute.

Watt is coming off his best performance of the season, with 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, three tackles for a loss and a forced fumble. Oh, and he missed practice all week on the Reserve/COVID-19 List.

It has regenerated the talk about Watt as a front-runner for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year, but again, it's one of those things Watt doesn't think about.

"This is such a day-to-day business," said Watt. "And especially the older that I get, it's more day-to-day. The more that I want to win games more than anything. This season has been so up and down with how I've been performing, how we've been performing, that I just want to continue to put together good performance, after good performance."

Watt's definition of an up-and-down season for him personally has been way more ups than downs with his play. And his teammates are his biggest supporters, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

"I don't know who else is Defensive Player of the Year other than that guy," said Roethlisberger. "He should absolutely get MVP votes as well because that's what kind of player he is."

While Watt certainly appreciates the support, he is never looking for it.

"It's great to hear my teammates give comments like that, but like I said, I'm just so focused on the day-to-day right now. We have a game in two days. I'm just trying to get my body recovered. Don't really have time to sit back and reflect on the season and I'm happier than ever that I don't have to sit back and reflect right now. I've got to go, go, go."

It's that attitude, that motor, and even an anger when he plays that drives him every day.

"It's just flipping a switch," said Watt of his attitude and anger on the field. "My dad growing up always said you have to have the effect. You have to be able to know how to turn it on and turn it off.

"I love football with all my heart. This is what I love to do. I'm the luckiest man in the world to get to do this for a living. So, I'm putting everything that I possibly can to become the best player that I can possibly be. Not only for myself, but for my teammates, for the City of Pittsburgh. People that would kill to be in my position. I feel like I haven't lost sight of that. I truly am so lucky to do this. That's why I put so much into it. That's why so much passion comes out on game days because it's just so authentic and real and nothing here is fake. I love doing what I do."

Trying to get the W: It's Tuesday. And normally that means Coach Mike Tomlin holds his press conference and the players have a day off.

But there is nothing normal about this week.

The Steelers take on the Minnesota Vikings on the road on Thursday Night Football, so the days of the week are completely off for Steelers players.

"It's weird being in on a Tuesday," said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who was named the Steelers Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee. "Everybody's been saying the same thing. We couldn't play a game on Tuesday because our bodies are not there right now. We've got to really take care of our bodies and then hop on a plane and get ready to play."

It doesn't help either coming off an intense AFC North game against one of their biggest rivals, the Baltimore Ravens. It's always a physical game, but this week, there is no rest for the weary.

"Usually you expend a lot of energy in that game," said Heyward. "But new challenges arise and you gotta get your body right and your mental has gotta be up. But you got to relish these moments.

"As much as we like to talk about short turnaround, on the back end there's a bit of rest space if you take care of your business. All we're thinking about is trying to get a 'W' in Minnesota."

There is normally a "24-hour rule" to either enjoy a win or get over a loss. This week, that window was about two hours as the minute the team came into the facility on Monday, the focus was on Minnesota and there was no time for anything else.

"We got a new challenge," said Heyward "We're playing Thursday night and it's a team we usually don't play so it requires a lot of guys to focus a lot more. You gotta be ready for Thursday.

"I think for the most part it is just trying to get your body back by Thursday."

In addition to the quick turn around there is heightened importance on the game because of the standings in the AFC and the AFC North in particular. The Steelers are currently third in the AFC North at 6-5-1, but there isn't much that separates them from the Baltimore Ravens, who lead the North at 8-4, the Cincinnati Bengals who are second at 7-5, or the Cleveland Browns who are in last place at 6-6.

"I feel like our division is always up for grabs," said Heyward. "It always comes down to the last four weeks of the season. No one really runs away with it. We all understand that. There's a lot of football to be played. Each team has a chance to leave their imprint on it, but that's the way we want it. We knew this wasn't gonna be easy. We knew we had some (high) caliber teams out here. And we just asked for a chance to compete.

"I think you just appreciate the good talent in our division. We knew going in, we're going to be playing against some really good teams. And they come from our division. We don't look over that. We embrace that. We look forward to those challenges. We're 2-2 in our division. We've got a lot more big games."

It's how you finish: When the would-be touchdown pass he dropped in the second quarter against Baltimore was brought up following Sunday's 20-19 victory over the Ravens, wide receiver Diontae Johnson acknowledged had that happened last season he would have "probably folded."

Not this time.

Johnson saw the ball fall from his grasp at the goal line on first-and-10 from the Ravens' 35-yard line with 43 seconds left in the first half.

The Steelers ultimately settled for a field goal and headed to the locker room at the break trailing, 7-3.

Johnson had been targeted three times and had managed one catch for 14 yards in the first 30 minutes.

"When I dropped it I was just like, 'Dang, I gotta make that play, they're counting on me,'" Johnson said after practice today. "I just moved on from it instantly. There was still a lot of game to play. It was still the first half.

"I couldn't keep worrying about that drop because it would have shown in my play. I had to move past it. I just had to come back in the second half with a spark. I was able to do that."

Johnson bounced back and caught seven passes on eight targets in the final two quarters.
Two of his receptions ended up in the end zone (from 29 and 5 yards away).

He finished with eight catches for 105 yards and two scores overall.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's first pass for Johnson in the second half fell incomplete.
He caught the next seven thrown in his direction in succession.

"I was consistent," Johnson said. "That that shows maturity when you go out there and make plays after a big drop like that and you get in the end zone twice, it shows growth. I feel like I did that in a big way.

"Just staying positive, just having that confidence in myself I'm gonna make that next catch. Whenever the ball comes to me, at any time I'm gonna make it, regardless."

Johnson bounced back without a lot of encouragement from his teammates.

It wasn't needed.

"No, they just let me be," he said. "I can handle it myself. I'm old enough to take responsibility for that.

"It's on me at the end of the day. I just gotta catch the ball and I made up for it in the second half."

Monday, December 6

Patience pays off: With Joe Haden missing his third straight game, it was time for Ahkello Witherspoon to make the most of the opportunity in front of him.

After being inactive for eight of the first nine games, Witherspoon made his first start of the season against the Ravens, stepping in at Haden's left cornerback spot.

He finished the game with five tackles and a pass defensed.
Witherspoon has played in four games this season, with the one start on Sunday, and has eight total tackles and the one pass defensed.

"I knew I was gonna start throughout the week," said Witherspoon, who was acquired via a trade with the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 3. "I would say that just starting and having all those reps, that kind of puts me back into my zone of being out there every single snap. Coming in on other downs hasn't been as routine for me, because it's not something I did for four years with the Niners. I was actually out there playing every snap. It puts me back in my comfort zone."

Witherspoon signed with the Seahawks during the 2021 offseason but didn't play any games with them prior to the trade. He spent four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he started 33 games, so being inactive to start the season was a challenge. But he handled it perfectly.

"I think just being consistent and being diligent with my craft and my daily approach, not really getting caught up in being out there being active," said Witherspoon. "Just believing in myself, day in and day out, and then putting that on tape and in practice. Then understanding that when that opportunity comes, I'm not going to have to be anybody different. If I take that approach, I'm just gonna have to replicate what I've been doing. It's been a fun process, a challenging process, understanding the defense, learning the defense, so I can go out there and play fast.

"I didn't really get caught up in what I wanted the process to look like. I knew that being traded set me up in a position to re-establish my identity and learn a new defense and find my way to make plays in that defense. I didn't mind having a little bit of time to put all that together and make that mesh naturally. In the beginning, and just with a new defense, I wasn't as comfortable, wasn't as fast. I know that to make plays in this league at a high level, at a consistent level, you have to have the details of the defense down first, and then the rest will follow."

Take a closer look at scenes from the Steelers' Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens

Tearing up: It's been the mantra all season long.

Next man up.

And on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, guard John Leglue did his part and then some as the next man up.

After B.J. Finney left the game with a back injury, playing only three snaps, Leglue stepped in at left guard for the remainder of the game, playing in his first NFL game.

"It's a great opportunity to go out there," said Leglue. "It's a lifelong dream. As a kid you dream about playing in the NFL. To finally get that experience is an unbelievable feeling. It was an awesome team win.

"You prepare every week like you are going to be playing. One of the biggest things is every day in practice we all practice with a purpose to be able to maximize our opportunity when we get it. We say Coach (Mike) Tomlin puts us in the right position to be successful on the field. The way we prepare as a whole offensive line, as a whole team, everybody's ready for the moment whenever their number gets called. I'm very thankful for the outcome."

Leglue was signed from the practice squad to the active roster on Nov. 27, right before the Bengals game. He didn't play in that one, but the emotions the last two weeks have been high for him.

"When I signed to the 53, I definitely teared up," said Leglue. "It was a dream come true. A lot of hard work has been going into this."

Leglue said his parents were able to come to last week's game in Cincinnati but couldn't make it to Heinz Field this week. He did talk to them immediately afterwards, though.

"They were thrilled," said Leglue. "They told me they believed in me all along and just go out there and show them and everybody back home. It's one of those things you come from a small town. I'm happy to be able to whip out the dream and show everybody that through a lot more work you can get to the places you want to go."

And draw some well-deserved praise along the way.

"Leglue comes in at left guard early in the game and steps up and does some amazing things," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. "We have to run the ball on that last drive a bunch, and then we threw it, but we had to run the ball."

And he wasn't alone in giving him his props.

"How about guys like Leglue? How about (Montravius) Adams?" said Tomlin. "Adams just got here and played a bunch of snaps for us. (Ahkello) Witherspoon started in place of Joe Haden. I just can't say enough about the contributions we got from new Steelers or Steelers that are getting an opportunity to get their train out of the station in terms of their careers.

"Leglue, awesome."

Leglue originally was signed to the Steelers practice squad in 2020. He entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent, signing with the Denver Broncos following the 2019 NFL Draft. He was released by the Broncos following the 2019 training camp and was signed to the New Orleans Saints practice squad. The Green Bay Packers signed Leglue off the Saints practice squad in 2019. 

Throughout his time in the NFL and in college, he has worked at every position on the line, knowing to make it at this level versatility is a key. That's paid off.

"Any time I get to play, I try to make sure I know it front and back," said Leglue.  

And that will be the case this week if he is once again called up to get the job done.

"I'm just going to be prepared," said Leglue. "Each week, even when I was on practice squad, I was preparing like I'd be out that week, because you never know in this game and I'm just going to continue with the same approach I've been having this whole year."

In the last two games, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has come through with his first two interceptions of the seasons, and he might have receiver Diontae Johnson to thank for them.

Johnson's intense work habit, which includes being one of the last players off the field every day at practice, is something that has rubbed off on Fitzpatrick, especially after he wasn't pulling in any interceptions early in the season.

It's worked for Johnson, who after dropping a potential touchdown against the Ravens on Sunday bounced back with eight receptions for 105 yards and two touchdown receptions.

"Diontae does a lot of extra work. He actually inspired me to do extra work," said Fitzpatrick. "He's always catching probably 100 extra passes and he's catching tennis balls. I started doing the same thing. I was struggling catching earlier this year. I feel like it's helped me tremendously too. He's definitely challenged me to take that extra step for sure."

Fitzpatrick might not have created as many turnovers as he would have liked at this point of the season, but the one he had on Sunday against the Ravens came at the perfect time.

Fitzpatrick intercepted Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson in the endzone as Baltimore was moving the ball on their opening drive.

On third-and-6 from the Steelers 10-yard line, Jackson looked for tight end Mark Andrews but with T.J. Watt applying the pressure, Jackson threw an errant pass and Fitzpatrick picked it off in the end zone to keep the Ravens off the board.

But in Fitzpatrick's mind, it's time to move on with another big game on Thursday night against the Minnesota Vikings and a short week to prepare.

"We have to put the win yesterday behind us," said Fitzpatrick. "It was a great win. It was a must needed win. But Thursday is 10 times more important because it's the next game.

"The last five games are almost like playoff games for us. We need to win this game."