Week 15 Blog: All the news and notes

Saturday, December 19

Bouncing back: On Sunday night, after Diontae Johnson dropped the ball multiple times, Coach Mike Tomlin did what he said he would and sent him to the bench in the first half. 

"When I dropped the first one, I thought I have to make a play," said Johnson. "When I dropped the second one, I had it, tucked it and it slipped out of my hands. After that he pulled me. I was upset. At the end of the day I have to catch the ball, plain and simple."

Tomlin gave the young receiver another chance, and he responded.

Ben Roethlisberger hit Johnson in the third quarter for completions of five and six yards, and Johnson caught one for 17 yards in the fourth quarter.

"I thought he responded appropriately," said Tomlin. "He didn't pout. He waited for his next opportunity and when his next opportunity came, he was productive. So, we'll move forward."

Roethlisberger said he went over to Johnson and spoke to him late in the first half, giving him some encouragement.

"We had a nice talk on the sideline at the end of the first half," said Roethlisberger. "I won't tell you what we said. If he wants to divulge what was said, that's fine. Just trying to encourage him, and I was encouraged by the second half. I thought he came out and made some plays and showed some physicality in some of those catches, putting his head down and trying to get his yards and stuff like that. I was encouraged by his bounce back, really proud of him."

Johnson said that talk was huge for him, helping him to get his mind right and get back on the field and produce like he has done all season. Roethlisberger came over to him with just a few minutes left in the half, and that is when Johnson knew he would have another chance to make things right in the second half.

"It showed that he cares about me," said Johnson. "Some players wouldn't do that. For him to come up to me and give me some motivational speech to get my mind back right, it felt good to me. It got me going. He was telling me to keep my head up and asking me if I really wanted to play. I answered yes, I really want to play and help this team win. I came back and went out there and made plays I knew I was supposed to make whenever the ball came to me. I felt like I got back to myself as the ball was coming my way more."

Johnson admits that once he had a drop that it's definitely something that is in your mind and you have to let it go in order to get the job done.

"It has to do with a little bit of overthinking," said Johnson. "Overthinking about catching the ball. Once you get a drop that is all you think about. When you see the ball coming your way and you are thinking about it in the back of your mind, you are just like, ugh. You don't want to try and shy away from it. I have been dropping the ball, but I don't let that define me as a person and a player. I know what I am capable of doing. I showed that earlier in the season up until this point. I keep a mindset that next play mentality and when the ball comes my way try to make a play.

"That is what we do for a living, caching the ball. It's been a lack of focus. We know what we are supposed to do when we catch the ball. We try not to think about it too much. We are just trying to go forward by making plays and locking in a little more than what you normally would do."

Learning about speed: It was Avery Williamson, Marcus Allen and Ulysees Gilbert III handling the inside linebacker positions last Sunday night at Buffalo and the arrow is pointing toward the same threesome being deployed on Monday night in Cincinnati.

"I think it's going to be us three again," Allen said today.

Inside linebacker Robert Spillane, who took over when Devin Bush was lost for the season on Oct. 18 against Cleveland, remains on the Reserve/Injured list.

And Vince Williams missed his first start of the season in the Bills game and remains on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Williamson, acquired from the Jets on Nov. 2, made his first start with the Steelers in Buffalo.

And Allen, converted from safety in training camp, made his first career start.

"The game went good as far as my play," Allen said. "I definitely had fun out there for my first time being at inside linebacker. It was a great experience but we didn't get the 'W 'and that's the biggest thing."

The Steelers miss Williams, Allen confirmed, not just for Williams' production but also his personality.

"We miss it a lot," Allen said. "He's the Alpha dog in the room, he leads us. He's always on point with everything. He has a lot of energy on and off the field.

"Not having that guy in the building and on the practice field, it makes us a little down. We definitely miss him."

Gilbert, a second-year pro, made his third appearance of the season in the Bills game. He had spent the previous five weeks on the Reserve/Injured list.

Allen, a fifth-round pick in 2018, had played previously as the lone inside linebacker in the six-defensive backs 'Dime' defense.

Williams played 89 percent of the defensive snaps in Buffalo (67), Allen 75 percent (56) and Gilbert 25 percent (19).

"I just learned that it's a fast game," Allen said. "Being out there with all the starters, you just have to be on point with everything, communication, physicality, speed of game, everything.

"That's probably the first thing that I learned being out there with those guys, that everything's just a little faster."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Playing Steelers football: After losing two straight games there is one thing nose tackle Tyson Alualu knows the Steelers have to do.

And that is get back to playing Steelers football.

Alualu feels like they have strayed away from what is their strong point and it's time to get back on track on Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.

"We definitely have to get back right," said Alualu. "It's always been about us, how we play. Us executing the game plan. We just have to get back to playing Steelers football.

"Late in the season it's always about getting hot at the right time. Our mentality has to be about getting back to playing where we want to be. Our mentality doesn't change. We just know we have to find a way to get things done and come out with a win on game day."

And when it comes to playing Steelers football, Alualu is well aware of what needs to be done.

"Any time you think about Steelers football it's always been hard-nosed, physical football," said Alualu. "It's just coming back on game day and being ready to play better. Overall, as a team we can always do a better job executing the game play, whether it's offensively, defensively, or special teams. We just need to play better collectively to give ourselves a chance to win."

Friday, December 18

Having a short memory: The AFC North Division championship can be wrapped up on Monday night in Cincinnati if the Steelers beat the Bengals, or on Sunday night in East Rutherford, N.J. if the New York Football Giants beat the Cleveland Browns.

But outside linebacker T.J. Watt hasn't even begun to think about Saturday just yet.

"I'm not even looking past today, to be honest with you," Watt maintained this afternoon.

Watt is, likewise, unconcerned with perceptions of the Steelers in the wake of the two-game losing streak they'll take into Monday night's game against the Bengals.

Just as he was when the Steelers opened the season 11-0.

It's a task-at-hand mentality Watt said is shared among his teammates.

"I think we're a very even-keeled group," he said. "That's kind of the NFL, you can never get too high, you can never get too low because you'll get humbled both ways in this league.

"You always have to have a short memory. From play to play, game to game, week to week. We feel very confident with the guys in this locker room and I've said that every week, after wins and losses. We just have to go out there and put together a complete game."

Other subjects addressed by Watt today included:

Attention he's received from offenses in the absence of outside linebacker Bud Dupree: "You notice a little bit more of the chips and the help. Just have to finds ways around it and watch more film and practice those situations more."

An emphasis on physicality in practices this week: "I think we're just trying to have clean practices and just trying to play as fast as we can in practice to make sure the film can be corrected before we get to Sundays, Monday this week. I think we had a great week of practice this week and I'm excited to go for Monday night."

What needs to change to snap the losing streak: "I just think we have to play better overall. All three phases, we just have to play a lot better football. We're more than capable of playing better football."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Tuning it out: There has been a lot of talk this week about physicality when it comes to the Steelers. It started on Tuesday when Coach Mike Tomlin said the Buffalo Bills played a more physical game on Sunday night. It continued when other players, including Ben Roethlisberger, talked about needing to play more physical.

The talk of playing physical has been on the news, in print, on social media and in stories on the internet.

But one person who hasn't heard the talk is tackle Alejandro Villanueva. Maybe he heard it a little bit when watching film, but he definitely hasn't heard anything of the talk outside the walls of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

And the reason is simple.

He has tuned everything out.

"I don't have any access to the internet," said Villanueva. "I have been in a media bubble almost the last year of my life."

Villanueva then admitted, yes, he does have internet. It's just that he doesn't really use it for anything news related, and that includes sports. 

"I do have access to the internet. I would rephrase it and say I got a flip phone this offseason," said Villanueva. "I felt that every time I was looking at my phone I was getting upset. I was thinking too much about what is going on in the world. I thought it was all in my head. Existentially, if you look at my life, nothing has changed. I still go to work, I still go fishing, I still have my friends.

"I started getting more disconnected from the world. I don't have time to track all of them. I am somewhere in between a 2020 millennial and an Amish person somewhere in Pennsylvania."

While Villanueva doesn't pay attention to the outside talk, he does look deep inside his own play on a regular basis, and is tougher on himself than anyone could ever possibly be.

"When I assess my play I always dwell on the negative plays, never anything positive," said Villanueva. "The only thing that matters to me is the next snap. Dwelling and bathing in this negativity before every snap and having a mental breakdown is somehow how I have learned to play football. I know a lot of tackles do the same thing. I am not going call them out by name. Shoutout to the mental sufferers out there. It's just the way you play.

"It reminds me a little bit of jumping out of airplanes in the Army. There is very little upside. The best thing that can happen when you jump out of an airplane is you survive. Everything else that can happen is all negative. Playing tackle is the same way. The best thing that can happen is nothing happens and everything after that is just a negative something of some sort."

Thursday, December 17

It's all in the details: The last two weeks the Steelers have given up halftime leads in losses to the Washington Football Team and the Buffalo Bills.

Against Washington, the Steelers were up 14-3 at the half, and lost 23-17.

Against Buffalo the Steelers had a 9-7 lead at halftime, losing 26-15.

"What happens in the second half is a lot of us not executing, not paying attention to the details," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "It's late in the season, guys are beat up, guys are hurt, guys are mentally tired. It's not an excuse, but it's something we try to fix and correct.

"Any game is close when we give up big plays on defense. We could be holding them the entire game and then like what happened against Buffalo, where I missed a tackle and they ran it for 20 plus yards. They got in good field position. When plays like that happen iy puts teams in good position. It gives them extra juice. It all starts with stopping those big plays that happen. We watched some film over the last five games, and we see it's a trend when we are not doing well is when we give up one or two big plays a game."

While others have pointed to a lack of physicality, including Coach Mike Tomlin saying the Bills were the more physical team last week, Fitzpatrick didn't think that was an issue.

"I don't think it's a lack of physicality that led to the things that happened the last two games," said Fitzpatrick. "Like I said, it's late in the season and people are a little beat up. I don't think a lack of physicality is a concern for this defense or team at all. We did practice in pads last week to work on being physical, shedding blocks and stuff like that."

He said the focus this week has been being more detail oriented in their work, something they are talking about and making sure happens.

"The conversations are more detail oriented because I feel like we lost because we strayed away from that," said Fitzpatrick. "That is what happens when big plays happen, the small little details you weren't paying attention to. That is what gets you beat. The conversation is more detailed oriented, more solution oriented. Talking about the problems. We have great leadership in Coach (Mike) Tomlin, the OC and DC and from the vet guys. We are a very solution-oriented team. That is what we are going to focus on."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 15 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals

Wednesday, December 16

Being physical: The theme remains the same: It's a topic that won't go away right now for the Steelers.

All it took was Coach Mike Tomlin mentioning it, then Ben Roethlisberger, and then Cameron Heyward.

And now, it's the hot topic in every Zoom with the players.

Being physical.

As a refresher, on Tuesday during his weekly press conference Coach Mike Tomlin said the Buffalo Bills were the more physical team last week. That's not something players take lightly, especially players who pride themselves on being physical.

"When I really look at the tape, you can go through some of the minutiae and things of that nature, but the bottom line is they were the more physical football team," said Tomlin. "It can be highlighted in terms of their (defensive) front and our inability to run the ball, but just in general, I thought in all elements of play, they were the more physical group."

The key factor in the physical play is it doesn't fall on the shoulders of one position. While some outside of the organization might try and pin it on the offensive line, those who take the field each week know it's the whole group.

"I have been on this team," said receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. "We are blue collar. We are known for being a physical team just from our past and history. We haven't been doing it the past few games on both sides of the ball. On the offensive side there were a couple of plays we got 'un-physicaled' in the running game, in the passing game, making blocks downfield. That is something we have to live with and move forward."

For his part, Smith-Schuster is one of the more physical receivers in the NFL, not afraid to take a hit, or deliver a hit.

"You talk about running the ball, ball in your hand, ball not in your hand, physical blocking, downfield by wide receivers, by running backs, blocking for the quarterback, physical runs when you catch the ball," said Smith-Schuster. "That has always been in my game play. Before the game started Ben said you have to be physical, you have to lead this group. For me I can tell my receivers to be physical. At the end of the day I have to show them if I can go out there and be physical, you can go out there and be physical too. That is definitely something we have to do going into the game, starting off fast, starting off physical."

Tomlin had the players wearing pads in practice last week, and it's something that might continue this week.

"I think we can get nothing but positive out of it," said receiver James Washington. "We need to start faster on offense. Like Ben and everyone else is saying is right, we have to be more physical up front and everyone has to be more physical across the board."

While it's all easy to say, playing physical isn't just a switch you can shut on and off. Smith-Schuster said that it's something you have to have inside of you.

"It's an 'it' factor," said Smith-Schuster. "I think it's something you have it in you. You go out there and you can be physical. Then again, it's something you can learn as you pick it up being on this team. Being physical, putting your head down and working takes you a long way."

Getting after it: It might not be time to circle the wagons, but it's time to get after it.

Defensive tackle Cam Heyward intends to lead in that direction by example.

"I don't have to verbally say it but I like to let my play show urgency, and I think we have to start having that," Heyward said today. "I think you can get lulled to sleep into thinking it's only been two losses. But I'm one of those people, I like to hit things running.

"We really have to pick up the tempo."

Head coach Mike Tomlin cited a lack of physicality as perhaps the defining factor in last Sunday night's 26-15 loss in Buffalo.

Heyward said the appropriate level of physicality was also absent in the Steelers' 23-17 loss to Washington on Dec. 7.

"I think it just comes down to inflicting your will on your opponent," he said. "These past two games, we haven't been in a situation where we've been able to wear teams down on both sides of the ball. The Washington game, it came down to a couple last possessions but we didn't really get a chance to physically impose our will. And then this past game, they were able to run the ball, sustain drives on our defense. And then on the flip side, we weren't able to sustain anything up front on offense.

"I think it's a collective thing. We've got to get better in all facets of our game."

Heyward ruled out complacency as a factor in the Steelers' slide from 11-0 to 11-2 heading into Monday night's visit to Cincinnati.

"If that was the case,  we would have got beat a long time ago," he said. "We have to understand where we fell short. We're coming off two big losses, how do we respond?

"We've got to get back to what made us good in the first place, what we did well. Converting on third downs and getting off the field on third downs, our pressure and our sacks and our turnovers as a defense and our offense putting up points, those are things we have to get back to.

"If we can get back to that we can be successful on Monday."

--Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

The Steelers prepare for the Week 15 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals

Monday, December 14

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