Friday, December 17
Having the 'want to': Rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth has come through for the Steelers offense time and time again this season, and there isn't anyone who is harder on him than he is on himself.
That is why he was disappointed following the loss to the Minnesota Vikings last week when he couldn't hold on to a would-be touchdown pass in the closing seconds of the game.
But, keep in mind, that would-be catch was defended and knocked away by one of the best safeties in the game, five-time Pro Bowler and a former first-team All-Pro Harrison Smith.
"It definitely sucks not being able to come away with that catch, but credit to the Vikings for making a good play and Harrison Smith," said Freiermuth after practice on Friday. "But at the end of the day that's a catch I've made a couple of times in camp and in my past. I should've made that play. I hope to be in that situation again and make that play."
And chances are good he will be in that situation again.
"I have zero worries or thoughts about not going back to him anytime," said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
It's that trust between the rookie tight end and the quarterback in his 18th season that has Freiermuth on the right path to be one of the best and become his QBs security blanket. Because contested catches, combat catches, are something that Freiermuth has proven he is more than capable of making.
"I think it's the 'want to' to get the ball," said Freiermuth. "The mentality that I've kind of had since college, and now my tight ends coach Fredo (Alfredo Roberts) has done a great job making us every single day have those contested catches drills. It just builds confidence up in that element of the game. Credit to him and credit to the rest of the guys and Ben throwing it up there and making sure I am going to come down with it."
Freiermuth is a player teams haven't been able to fully get a feel for yet, someone who is getting more opportunities each week and the game continues to slow down for.
"Ben and my relationship has grown immensely throughout the whole season, game in and game out, practices," said Freiermuth. "We have developed a comfort level for each other. I also think the game is slowing down for me. I've seen a lot of coverages and ways different NFL teams attack our offense and stuff like that. Just slowing it down and the chemistry I built within the offense and with the staff."
They're back: One day after Alex Highsmith declared himself "good to go" for Sunday's hosting of Tennessee at Heinz Field, fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt did the same.
"I'm gonna play," Watt confirmed after practice today.
Watt was only able to play 25 defensive snaps (36 percent) in the Steelers' 36-28 loss to the Vikings on Dec. 9 in Minneapolis due to a groin injury.
Highsmith (quad) only played 31 defensive snaps (44 percent) in Minnesota.
Watt also started but didn't finish games against the Raiders on Sept. 19 and the Lions on Nov. 14.
He was unable to play at all on Sept. 26 against the Bengals and on Nov. 21 against the Chargers.
Watt missed two games in his first four seasons, one as a rookie in 2017 (on Sept. 24 at Chicago) and one last season (the regular-season finale at Cleveland, a game in which several starters were rested).
"It's not like I'm out here trying to get hurt," Watt said. "I'm trying to do everything I can each and every week to play and perform. Sometimes, the soft-tissue stuff is tough to really pinpoint how or what is happening.
"I don't know, I wish I had the answer because, obviously, I'd fix it."
The Steelers will be trying to fix their run defense when they take on the Titans. They allowed a season-high 242 yards on the ground against the Vikings, who were able to repeatedly exploit uncharacteristically large holes in the Steelers' defense.
"It doesn't take a football expert to know that those holes were bigger than normal holes you see," Watt said. "It's something that we definitely tried to correct."
Titans running back Derrick Henry is on the Reserve/Injured list (foot), but quarterback Ryan Tannehill can be an effective runner, either on scrambles or by design.
Tannehill is third on the Titans with 225 rushing yards (he averages 5.5 yards per carry) and second on the team with six rushing touchdowns (Henry has 10, no one else has more than one).
"He's just one of those guys that you have to be very aware of how you rush, the rush lanes," Watt emphasized. "Also, in situational football he can do the zone/reads and the zone/read-keeps and stuff like that.
"We can do some things schematically to help out, as well. But I think more than anything it's us being disciplined in our rush lanes and in the run stopping when he does those zone/read-keeps."
-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta
Ready for more: The Thursday night game in Minnesota admittedly came up in a hurry for rookie running back Najee Harris, but he was able to produce and emerge no worse for the wear and tear.
"I'm good," Harris said today after practice. "It was a fast-ass turnaround, I'll tell you that much. But I handled it well.
'My body was like 'bring it on.'"
Harris carried 20 times for 94 yards and a touchdown and also caught three passes for 10 yards and another score against the Vikings.
He leads the Steelers in carries (237) rushing yards (873) and rushing touchdowns (six), and ranks second in receptions (60), third in receiving yards (397) and third in receiving touchdowns (three).
And he's ready to handle the ball as much as necessary the rest of the way.
If he ever encounters a "rookie wall," Harris maintains he'll be prepared to run right through it.
"If it's a problem, I'll tell them but it has not been a problem," he said of his work load. "I think you fall in the stereotype of like, 'Oh my God, there's so many hits on a running back.' I don't believe in that at all. I train for stuff like this. I really train to carry the load, I train to do that.
"How do you train for that? You work out a lot. I work out a lot. Stuff like this, it doesn't really affect me. Will it affect me down the road? I don't know. But right now, I'll tell you that I am perfectly fine, 100-percent fine."
Harris and the Steelers will host the Titans on Sunday well aware they're still in the thick of the races for the AFC North Division championship or a Wild Card invitation to the AFC Playoffs.
"That has been brought up to us," Harris said. "We're really focused on the Tennessee Titans but yes, that has been brought up that even though we lost last game (36-28 on Dec. 9 in Minneapolis) we're still in the hunt, still much alive.
"We actually control our own destiny. We win out, we'll be in the playoffs."
A faster start against Tennessee than the Steelers have managed of late would help keep them in the hunt. They trailed the Vikings 23-0 at halftime and the Bengals 31-3 at the break on Nov. 28 in Cincinnati.
"I think it starts off with just doing the little things," Harris said. "Finishing plays, finishing our blocks, for me in pass protection, finishing runs or just finishing though the catches and trying to dig out extra yards.
"Even after catches, try to get more Y.A.C (yards after catch), and try to execute better is the main thing. It's a lot of factors but I think the most eye-standing-out thing is just execution. We need to execute better, 100 percent."
Thursday, December 16
Highsmith feeling 'great': The Steelers will need as many healthy bodies as they can get in the final stretch of the season to make a run at the playoffs, and linebacker Alex Highsmith expects to be one of them on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field.
Highsmith suffered a quadriceps injury against the Minnesota Vikings last Thursday, but thanks to a little bit of rest he said he will be good to go this week.
"I'm feeling great," said Highsmith. "I'm feeling great for Sunday. It's been a good week of practice so far. So, I'm looking forward to seeing how my efforts have paid off on Sunday. But I feel great."
Highsmith suffered the injury in the second half, missing the remainder of the game even though he tried to walk it off. A weekend off with plenty of ice hopefully will pay off for him.
"It was a weird play," said Highsmith. "I remember making the tackle and I got up and it was like a quad contusion. It hurt pretty bad. I tried walking it off. I tried my best to. I know it's just gonna take rest, but I feel good. I've been icing it all week, staying off of it all weekend was good to get rest. I'll definitely be good to go for Sunday."
Being available this time of year is something Highsmith understands the importance of. There is no margin for error now, and he wants to do everything in his power to help the team get as far as they can.
"Every game is a big game. Every game is a huge game from here on out," said Highsmith. "We know that. Coach (Mike) Tomlin has told that to us. He's preached that to us. Every day we come out here, we have got to have that mindset and every game from here on out we got to have that mindset, raise our level of play these next few games because we know that the last game wasn't our best performance at all. We know we can be a lot better."
And to be better, it's time to get more physical.
"You've got to look yourself in the mirror and say, we got to go out there and hit them in the mouth every play," said Highsmith. "That's something that Coach Tomlin talks about. It's about going out there and playing old school football, hit people in the mouth. That's what football is about."
Searching for answers: The offense will be looking for a faster start when the Steelers host the Titans on Sunday at Heinz Field.
After falling behind the Vikings 23-0 through the first two quarters and 29-0 in the third quarter on Dec. 9 at Minnesota, the defense will, too.
"For us defensively it's us not stopping the run," free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick maintained after practice today. "And then there's one or two big plays that we give up in the secondary that shouldn't happen. I don't know what you can equate it to or not equate it to. You can say energy and all this other stuff but I can't give you a clear-cut answer.
"I know this week we have to come out hot."
Fitzpatrick also took himself to task for losing his composure at times in heated moments in Minnesota.
"There were plays I expressed my frustration, I shouldn't have," he said.
That's more challenging some times than others.
The unnecessary roughness flag Fitzpatrick drew in the third quarter on what became an incomplete pass to wide receiver K.J. Osborn in the end zone was one such occasion.
"When you hit a guy clean, the way that I did; there was actually a play later on, one that I broke up on the 'over' to (wide receiver Justin) Jefferson, while the ball's in the air I gotta think about 'how am I gonna hit this guy?' rather than just playing the ball," Fitzpatrick explained.
"It's part of the game. It is what it is, nothing I can do about it. I can sit here and complain all that I want, nothing's gonna change. Just gotta go out there and play ball."
Fitzpatrick also disagreed with defensive coordinator Keith Butler's "I-gotta-do-a-better-job-coaching" mea culpa in terms of getting the defense properly aligned.
Butler had taken himself to task this morning but Fitzpatrick wasn't buying it.
"That's not Coach Butler's job," Fitzpatrick said. "He's just taking responsibility for it as the D.C. but that's not his job. That's our job as players to know where we're supposed to be lined up and thinking ahead when people move, who can move and where we're supposed to go to when people move."
The gauntlet's been laid: The Steelers have four games left.
Four games to pull out everything they have to make a push for the postseason.
And Cameron Heyward, he is making sure everyone knows how important they are.
"I think these four games are show me how much you want it and see where we fall out," said Heyward.
It all starts on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans at Heinz Field. The Titans are ranked fifth in the NFL on the ground, while the Steelers run defense is ranked 30th. But they are without Derrick Henry, who is still the NFL's fourth-leading rusher despite missing the last five games on the Reserve/Injured List.
Without Henry they have used multiple running backs, including D'Onta Foreman, who had a 101-yard performance against the New England Patriots.
Heyward said they are watching film from when Henry was in there, and with the new crop of backs, just to get a feel for their offense overall.
"I look at both just to get a sense of what they did before and if they changed at all," said Heyward. "I think they really tried to settle back into the run because that opened up a lot of their offense. Everybody's gone through their hiccups, but I think the run really settles everybody down and allows them to really play with their play action a bunch. You have to watch it all.
"It's a myriad of backs now. With Henry it was just one guy. He could carry the load and the team. Everyone has a prescribed job. I think D'Onta Foreman is their main back, but they have two other backs they use and are able to use in different ways. Everybody gets their share of the carries."
The defense also knows if quarterback Ryan Tannehill can escape the pocket, he can be a danger. Tannehill is the Titans third leading rusher behind Henry and Foreman.
"Tannehill is very good," said Heyward. "A lot of situational running, especially in the red zone. He is very dynamic. We have to be very alert in the red zone game and do a good job of keeping him in the pocket."
One of the main forces on both sides of the ball is finding a way to not get in a hole early, like they did against the Vikings, Chargers and Bengals, and then having to fight and claw their way to just get back into the game in the second half.
"Our first halves have been atrocious, and we really have to kick it into gear to climb back into it," said Heyward. "It starts here. It starts at practice. We have to understand when you start a game you can't spot people points. This game is already hard enough as it is. To go into a game and be down 20 some points, that is not a recipe for success."
Heyward said there has been some halftime conversations to get back into the game, but it shouldn't have to come to that. He also said everyone should have the message now of what needs done from the get-go.
"The gauntlet's been laid," said Heyward. "Hopefully we'll have something to be proud of this week."
Wednesday, December 15
Waiting his turn: It took some time, it took some patience, but rookie inside linebacker Buddy Johnson finally got some playing time the last two weeks.
After being inactive the first 11 games of the season, Johnson played against the Baltimore Ravens and Minnesota Vikings, getting the opportunity he had been preparing for since Day 1.
"Coach (Mike) Tomlin always says just prepare to play," said Johnson. "You never wait on a moment. When that moment came, I know I've been preparing since I've been here.
With Robert Spillane dealing with a knee injury and being placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 List for those games, it was Johnson who got a hat on game day.
"They give us a heads up from the beginning, just say always be prepared for that moment," said Johnson. "When my number was called, he'd been telling us from the jump just always be prepared."
For a young player, being inactive can be a challenge. It's something new for them as in college they were accustomed to getting all of the snaps and being 'the guy.' But Johnson handled it well.
"It's just something that's been instilled in me, just control what I can control," said Johnson. "I come to work every day, show up, get better. When my time comes, all I can do is control what I can control."
Johnson said it did feel good to get some defensive snaps and contribute, but no matter what the situation is, his preparation isn't going to change.
"I come to work every day, showing up, doing my job," said Johnson. "Doing my 1%. Getting better as a team.
"I'm ready to show what I can do. I won't try to force it. I'll keep doing what I've been doing, preparing, taking baby steps. Coming to work every day and laying my 1%."
Johnson said the one player who has helped him the most has been Spillane, taking him under his wing even though the two are competing for playing time.
"I think he's done a great job," said Johnson. "He knows that I'm his competitor and we're in this together. But honestly, I'm the guy that is behind him. He understands that, but he's done a great job of taking me under his wing and helping me even though I'm behind him chasing him."
Veteran leadership: Guard Trai Turner chose not to address in any detail the specifics of what transpired with wide receiver Chase Claypool and the ball getting away and precious seconds ticking off the clock in the final minute and the Steelers desperately trying to tie the game last Thursday night in Minnesota.
"It's family business," Turner maintained. "Deal with it internally, take care of it internally, address it. It's been addressed by a few people.
"Move on and worry about the Titans and this week forward."
Turner, who is in his eighth NFL season, was much more expansive when asked his approach to providing leadership for players such as Claypool, a second-year pro, and the Steelers' collection of young, inexperienced offensive linemen.
"I just give information, not keeping information," Turner explained. "I find the more that you speak and the more that you give out your knowledge, the more that you start to remember and it brings back those times when you were learning and you're able to teach yourself more things. So just constant communication, learning from mistakes like we're talking about that happened last week, using those not as tools to harp on, to get down on but using those as tools to grow on so it won't happen again.
"Get a problem, fix that problem and get a new problem, not to have the same problems over and over again and let it be a continuous thing. That's what's important, especially with having some young guys, addressing issues and fixing those issues, finding a new problem and not having the same problems over and over."
Turner understands players progress at their own pace as they work through that process.
"A lot of that has to do with routine," he continued. "A lot of that has to do with just your space and how you correlate with your surroundings. Sometimes that's longer than others for people. We play offensive line, a little bit of a tougher position, so it might be harder for younger guys to find their groove and get their niche on what they need, but it comes.
"Those guys are battling. We're going out there, we're battling. It's just a continuous ebb-and-flow type of deal. You take the ebb and flows and you continue to learn and you continue to grasp knowledge as you play this game."
The Steelers were much better in the second half against the Vikings, individually and collectively.
Turner said there was no alternative but to play better than they'd played in the first half.
There was determination, he said, but no soul-searching at halftime.
"It's never one of those things," Turner insisted. "Sometimes, man, (stuff) happens. Sometimes you go out there and it's not going the way that you want it to go. And you realize, not necessarily that you realize, but you know can't nobody else save you. There's not another person coming to play this next half. There's gonna be a game. There's guy in front of you gonna line up and try to beat you so you go out there and you play. Every time you line up it's not gonna be perfect, it's not gonna be pretty, but you just have to get the job done.
"I give kudos to those guys up front. They battled back and came back and played really hard in that second half. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough. We have to come out and we have to start the game like that but there's no soul-searching. It's not like it was different guys playing in that first half. Sometimes you gotta lock back in and hone back in, there's games like that. I just wish we could have got it done sooner than we did."
Back in the swing of things: Offensive lineman J.C. Hassenauer will return to practice today but remains on the Reserve/Injured List. He was originally placed on the list on Nov. 27.
The Steelers have a 21-day window to activate Hassenauer to the 53-man roster or he remains on the Reserve/Injured List for the remainder of the season.
The timing is good for the Steelers as offensive lineman B.J. Finney was placed on the Reserve/Injured List today. Finney injured his back on Dec. 5 against the Ravens.
The Steelers prepare for the Week 15 matchup against the Tennessee Titans
Monday, December 13
Speeding things up: The Steelers have had some slow starts on offense, including Thursday night against the Vikings when they were down 29-0 in the third quarter, before putting 28 points on the board when they went to the no-huddle.
It's a method that has worked for them, but something utilized later in the game rather than from the get-go.
Receiver James Washington said there is a different feel when they are in the no-huddle, and it's also something that hurts the defense because they can't substitute in the manner they would like.
"I feel it allows teams to not have the right personnel on the field to continue to stop us," said Washington. "When you let Ben (Roethlisberger) just kind of go with the flow of the game, he usually dials up some stuff that that works and gets us down field and usually gets us a touchdown or what we need. I like the fact that we do it.
"We'll go no-huddle and we'll usually get a spark, and somebody will make a play downfield or whatever it may be. And that's really all we need is just that one play to pop off and I feel like we're going from there."
Washington said that Roethlisberger has been able to make changes at the line of scrimmage in games when he doesn't like what he sees, adapting not just with the RPO but with changing the call.
"We did a few weeks ago; we changed it up a little bit," said Washington. "I thought it worked pretty good. I feel like we're able to do pretty much anything we want to do. As far as the coaches going into this week, the game plan that they have for that scheme or that week, you know, just based on what they want us to do."
He said it: Washington on if the coaches talked to them before the season about situational awareness to avoid the situation that occurred on Thursday night when the Steelers had only seconds left and Chase Claypool was doing his first down signal instead of getting the ball back to the official.
"Coaches have talked to us about it," said Washington. "It's just kind of one of those common sense deals. But when you're in a moment against guys you make mistakes and do things. It was a costly deal for us. But at the end of the day, we're still a team and we just have to move forward from here and win these next games."
Progress report: Inside linebacker Devin Bush provided some insight today on what he's been dealing with throughout this season while working his way back from a knee injury that limited him to five games in 2020, surgery and rehabilitation.
"The biggest part is mental," Bush said. "If I had to make a good example it would be like, if you get bit by a dog who's to say the next time you go pet a dog?"
Bush played in 16 games as a rookie in 2019 (15 starts) and finished with a sack, a forced fumble, two interceptions, four passes defensed, four fumble recoveries and nine tackles for a loss. He returned one of his fumble recoveries for a touchdown, a 9-yard effort on Oct. 13, 2019 at the Chargers.
Through 12 games this season (all starts; Bush missed the Steelers' loss to the Raiders on Sept. 19) he's accounted for one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two sacks, two tackles for a loss and three passes defensed.
Bush's 2020 season ended after five games due to the knee injury he sustained on Oct. 18 against Cleveland.
"I think my first year and my second year was definitely two good years," Bush said. "My third year (this season) was a year I've never experienced before, especially coming back from an injury like that. It was my first time going through an injury like that, first time getting surgery, first time doing rehab and first time being away from the game for a full year. So it definitely was a learning experience for me. I had a lot of ups and downs, a lotta good times, a lot of bad times. But I think I'm still the same player, I feel like I'm the same player and I know I'm the same player. The stat sheet may not reflect that but nobody out here on the Steelers football team is playing up to their potential.
"Early in the season it was definitely a learning process for me just getting my mind back in football mode. Towards the middle of the season I was going through some more mental issues of just being out there and knowing I had to make plays, and winning was my biggest thing. Up until this point I think I'm settling pretty good.
"I got a lot of that stuff to build off of, a lot of things during the season that I did good, a lot of things during the season that I didn't do so well. We always have something to work on, so it just gives me a map of where I need to start and what I need to work on.
"My first day of training camp until now I think I progressed tremendously. Obviously, nobody on the Steelers is playing up to their potential, nobody's playing their best football right now. I'm not gonna sit here and single myself out or anybody else out because at the end of the day we're a team. We just gotta keep building. We got a lot of work to do right now. We have a lot of work to do next year."