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Week 17 Blog: A recap of the news

Saturday, January 1

A must win: There is no doubt a lot is on the line on Monday night when the Steelers host the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field.

The Steelers are still right in the thick of things in the race for a playoff spot in the AFC but winning on Monday night is paramount to keep those hopes alive.

The players are heading into the game knowing what is on the line but taking the same attitude and approach they have in the past, knowing every game matters. 

"I think we've been treating every game like its elimination all year," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "Obviously we haven't been able to get the results that we wanted. It's not like we can try any harder. It's just trying to find ways to win games.

"It's a huge game. I don't think it's a secret for either team. It's a must win. I feel really comfortable with the game plan that we have and practice that we've had and feel good where we're at right now."

The defense is going to be called upon heavily to shut down the Browns run game, which is led by the combination of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who returned to practice on Thursday after missing time with an ankle injury. The last time the two teams played the defense was able to contain the Browns run game, holding Chubb, who was coming off an injury, to just 61 yards on 16 carries. Hunt didn't play in the game, out for multiple weeks with a calf injury at that point.

They will need to do more of the same this week if they expect to come out on top, and Watt expects to see the Browns come at them on the ground, especially with the defense ranked 32nd overall in the NFL.

"It's one of those things where we haven't been able to stop the run," said Watt. "We always feel every week a team is going to try to run the ball. Just a matter of how quickly and effectively we can stop it to pin our ears back and be able to get up faster. But we've been saying the same song for a couple of weeks now, where we just need to stop the run game as soon as possible. It's gotten away from us in a couple of games and it's not a good situation to be in defensively if we can't stop the run.

"There's so much to improve on. The crazy thing about football in general and this game is there's always, no matter how far in the season you are, there's always still so many corrections to be made. We're definitely doing some good things but also some things that we can get better at. Like I said, game plan is part of it and then also the execution. Feel good about the week of practice that we had and hopefully we'll stop them on Monday."

Watt said the most important thing to replicate is what they did in the first meeting against the Browns, which was in Week 8, is to just execute the game plan.

"Tackling, getting a lot of hats to the ball at all times and guys winning blocks," said Watt. "Not missing tackles and get as many guys to the ball as you can. It sounds very simple but at times difficult. That's just something that we've been working to improve on all year long and I feel confident going into this week that we have."

The Ben effect: Wide receiver Chase Claypool knows what quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has said regarding the significance of Monday night's appearance at Heinz Field against Cleveland, and what it should mean to the Steelers.

"Yeah, definitely," Claypool said following practice today. "That's something that's super special for him, especially, and we all have to feel that."

Roethlisberger acknowledged this week Monday night could be his final regular-season home game.

"All signs are pointing to this could be it," he said.

Claypool emphasized it'll be up to Roethlisberger's teammates to provide the required response.

"I don't think there should be any added pressure in terms of the circumstance but I think we all just naturally want to play our best for him," Claypool said.

Claypool considers himself among the contingent of young Steelers who have benefitted from being mentored by Roethlisberger upon entering the NFL.

"Especially in the first year, transitioning into the league without a preseason, he was a great role model for me in terms of helping me with the transition and easing me into it and not throwing too much at me at once," Claypool said. "Obviously, it paid off really well.

"He's done the same with (rookie tight end) Pat Freiermuth this year, and (rookie running back) Najee (Harris). So he's really good when it comes to helping get settled and probably become, I guess, a more experienced player a lot quicker."

It promises to be an emotional night on Monday night, but the Steelers in general and the offense in particular will have to do their part in feeding the emotional frenzy, Claypool maintained.

"We have to help the defense feed off that," he said. "We make big plays, the defense gets fired up and they make big plays and then the crowd loves it.

"I'm excited. I've been in the stadium when the crowd's jumping and sometimes when things aren't going well. I prefer when the crowd's jumping 100 times."

At 7-7-1 the Steelers still have a potential path to the playoffs provided they can beat the Browns on Monday night and the Ravens on Jan. 9 in Baltimore.

"We're excited, despite everything that's happened, to be at this point in the season and still have a really strong chance to make the playoffs as long as we take care of business," Claypool said.

"We faced a lot of highs and lows, ups and downs. We started off the season really good, beating Buffalo. And then we went 1-3 and then we bounced back. I think this team has been through a lot and I think we've learned from it every week."

Friday, December 31

A potential great opportunity: For J.C. Hassenauer, being versatile has been a key to his success in the NFL, and that could continue on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns.

Hassenauer has stepped in at guard this year, and also in game at center for Kendrick Green when he was injured. This week, if Green isn't healthy, he potentially could start his first game at center in what might be Ben Roethlisberger's last game at Heinz Field. Green, who has a calf injury, didn't practice on Thursday or Friday.

"It's awesome. It's a great opportunity," said Hassenauer. "I don't think we feel any extra pressure. I just think we want to make it special. We want this to be a great showing for the fans, and also a memorable experience for Ben."

Hassenauer knows how fortunate he is to line up under center for Roethlisberger, a player who inevitably will be headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day.

"I've been working with him now for three years," said Hassenauer. "It's definitely a special kind of relationship. It's not too often that you get to snap to a Gold Jacket type of guy like him. I definitely have a lot of respect for him. I think he's a great leader, both on and off the field. I'm just blessed to be able to work with him.

"I think (our chemistry) has developed well. Over time that natural relationship builds. I think that chemistry has developed significantly. I feel very confident, and I think he has confidence in me as well."

That shared confidence will have to exist if Hassenauer is called to step in on Monday night, especially if the offense goes to the no-huddle, something that can be an adjustment for the offensive line.

"When we're going no-huddle, it's just kind of a change of pace, get the defense to stay on the field whatever they're in," said Hassenauer. "Kind of up-tempo type of offense that we're going to run. As far as the changes to the offensive line, we're just getting to the ball as fast as we can, we're going to make our calls. In the big scheme, it doesn't really change much for us. We're going to stick to what we do.

"We just have to get ready for the defense. They're going to line up quick. We just have to make our calls and be ready for the snap count. We're fairly familiar with these guys. We've played them a whole bunch now. We kind of know what to expect, what they're going to be doing when we go fastball. I think we'll be ready."

There will be no choice but to be ready. Monday night's game has a lot on the line, most importantly keeping the Steelers in the postseason hunt.

"One of my favorite Coach (Mike) T(omlin) quotes is, 'we're like firemen, we run to the flames.' I love that expression. I think that describes this team and I think while it might be a lot of pressure to the fans, to us it's a big game because it's the next game. It's one week mentality."

Monday will be assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan's first game running the line after offensive line coach Adrian Klemm was given permission to leave for a position at the University of Oregon. Hassenauer said the relationship Morgan has with the line, and how involved he has been all season, is making it a smooth transition.

"It's next man up mentality," said Hassenauer. "He's done a great job as far as leading the meetings, making sure there's no kind of transition errors or anything. There's no awkwardness at all. The whole transition has been really nice.

"They (Morgan and Klemm) did a great job coaching off each other. They each had their responsibilities, but they coached every position equally. One of (special teams coordinator) Danny Smith's great quotes that sticks with me is 'You could have a lot of voices, but it has to be one message.' The special teams people, they have tons of coaches on the field, but it's always one message. So that's something that stuck out to me. I think that's something that Klemm and Coach Morgan took into the into the room as well."

Message received: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been in rookie running back Najee Harris' ear all season.

Harris reflected today on what resonated most of all from what Roethlisberger's had to offer.

"It's never quitting, even when we're down, and always have a sense of urgency of what's going on and really just never giving up," Harris said.
That's one of many lessons learned.

"Beginning of the year when I just got here, not learning too much about the NFL, he really taught me some ways," Harris continued. "Just small stuff about the football game, and helping me with a lot of stuff that, I guess, fans don't really see but people in the game do.

"Stuff like that really helps a lot."

Roethlisberger has acknowledged this week Monday night's home game against the Browns is likely to be his last appearance at Heinz Field in a regular season.

"This being my rookie year and this being his last year, I guess it means a lot just because of what he means to the city and just to the game of football," Harris said. "Just for what he does for the whole NFL, he's done a lot for the game.

"I'm glad to be a part of it."

If the game plays out as Harris anticipates, as it did the first time the two teams met on Oct. 31 in Cleveland, the lesson learned about maintaining a "sense of urgency" might prove especially impactful.

"It's gonna be a dogfight," Harris said. "So that's one thing we gotta bring over, just to keep going for four quarters and not quitting.

"And really, it's making plays. Whoever makes the most plays, the game-changers, I think that's gonna play a big role in this type of game, just like how it did last game."

Harris will take the field against Cleveland 16 rushing yards shy of reaching 1,000 in his rookie season.

But he's not quite sure what achieving what admittedly was a goal heading into the season would mean given that he's averaging 3.7 yards per carry.

"I sit in my house and I think about that, I don't know," he said. "I think it's a good milestone but I don't know if it would really mean something. The way I got the 1,000 yards, it's an ugly 1,000 yards, I guess you could say.

"One thing I could take away is the amount of film I got to improve for next year. That's the one good thing, I think, about having 1,000 yards. There's a lot of plays where I could get better at and do better at. There's a lot of film I have of myself. I don't think it's so much about the yards but the plays I could get better at."

As the season has progresses, Harris has become more focused on team-oriented goals.

"I guess later in the season I switched it to just helping, I guess, improve together as a team because we're so young," he said. "I never really realized how young we were. I knew I had to focus on a lot more other things rather than personal issues.

"Now, it's like helping out the team any way, helping all the other rookies get the confidence. It wasn't too long ago where Pat (Freiermuth) was scared to walk out the tunnel, so I guess just being a captain, or something."

Cam appreciative to play with Ben: There isn't anyone on the Steelers roster who has played with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger longer than defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. They have been teammates for 11 of Roethlisberger's 18 seasons, and nobody wants Roethlisberger to go out on top, if Monday night against the Browns is in fact his last game at Heinz Field than Heyward.

"It's for sure not his last game," said Heyward, as the Steelers have two regular season games remaining. "I remember when I used to watch him. I remember that Super Bowl game, them playing Arizona. He's made some moments.

"I've been appreciative to just be his teammate. Two games left. That's all we're guaranteed. Hopefully we can make this tour last a little bit longer. As a teammate you appreciate what he's done. I just want to send him off with everything I can."

Heyward said he feels fortunate to have been Roethlisberger's teammate for so long, knowing what the quarterback has done to make the team tick for so long.

"I thought I was one of the luckier ones," said Heyward. "Not many guys can say they played with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Just the moments we've had, the plays he's made. The leadership he's shown. The growth he's had throughout his career. I'm just appreciative of it. Ben has always been a fighter. Always given us a chance. He's battled a lot. He was rewarded with two Super Bowls. But we've needed every bit of Ben Roethlisberger in every game he's played. You can't just replicate that.

"It didn't matter what Ben had, he always made it work. Ben just found a way to win."

Heyward praised Roethlisberger's competitiveness, something many have said is evident not just on the football field, but on the golf course and even in fun locker room games.

"We used to have the shuffleboard in there (locker room) and had tournaments back in the day an then it got out of hand," laughed Heyward. "Ben was always very competitive in that and somehow he always won. When it comes to being competitive Ben is one of the tops."

Heyward fully expects when Roethlisberger is introduced on Monday night at Heinz Field in front of the Steelers faithful, that he is going to get one of the best welcomes he ever has.

"I know the fans are going to give him the loudest applause and rightfully so," said Heyward. "I have always tried to play my hardest, but whatever it takes. This guy deserves a lot and we got to make sure we hold up our end of the deal."

And holding up their end of the deal won't just be for Roethlisberger. The Steelers are still in the playoff hunt, and beating the Browns is what will keep them in the hunt. The last time the two teams played the defense was able to contain the Browns run game, holding Nick Chubb, who was coming off an injury, to just 61 yards on 16 carries. They will need to do more of the same this week if they expect to come out on top.

"We did a decent job," said Heyward. "I think they had two explosive runs. But it was a lot of gang tackling. It wasn't just one-on-ones. The thing that stuck out to me was we didn't surrender touchdowns a lot. We gave up one touchdown, a couple field goals. But in that type of game, it comes down to beating a dead horse, running to the ball and never surrendering any points."

The defense was able to record four tackles for a loss in the 15-10 win over the Browns, something that they need to continue this week to keep them behind the chains.

"I think on first down especially," said Heyward. "If you can start a drive, they get to the second and longs and are playing catch up and then third down becomes an advantage your way. It's not an easy task. They got a lot of good athletes. A powerful offensive line. A great running game. We've got to make sure it's not just one guy there, it's got to be 11.

"I think the key is playing team defense. Run needs to be stopped. You make a team one dimensional. It's easier said than done. We were able to do a lot of things that put us in the right way. Offense took care of the ball. As a defense we took the ball. You have to be able to do things that go in your favor."

* * *

Monday night magic: The Steelers are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most wins on Monday Night Football with 50, and also have won 19 straight Monday Night Football home games.

Heyward joked that he didn't play in all 19 of those, as they date back to 1992, but also shared how special it is to play when the lights are on.

"It's like the Rose Bowl, it's the granddaddy of them all for the week," said Heyward. "It's the stage where all of your peers are watching. Everybody gets to showcase their abilities and talent. It's like a Friday night game (in high school). It's what you've been building towards. Everybody at school is watching. I'm just excited for Monday."

Thursday, December 30

Right on target: Last week against the Chiefs receiver Ray-Ray McCloud was targeted eight times, coming up with four receptions for 25 yards.

On the season he has been targeted 47 times, with 31 receptions for 205 yards.

"Some games, like last week, I had eight targets, the week before one or two," said McCloud. "Every game has its ups and downs. Every game has a difference. Some games they might let one-on-one be outside, some it might be one-on-one inside because we have to win those matchups as a group, as a whole. Same thing  with tight ends. You just have to be prepared when your number is called."

Offensive coordinator Matt Canada said McCloud's number has been called more because quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sees that he is getting open.

"We have a tremendously talented, smart quarterback who throws it to the guy that's open in his opinion at the time," said Canada. "We believe in Ray-Ray. We believe in all our guys. His number of opportunities, which I'm happy for him for, probably you talk about JuJu (Smith-Schuster) is not here. (Eric) Ebron is not here. Last week Pat (Freiermuth) wasn't here. Those opportunities are going to spread around."

When McCloud first came into the NFL as a sixth-round pick of the Buffalo Bills in the 2018 NFL Draft, he was mainly a return specialist. He even was on the Pro Bowl ballot this year as a returner, a role he has taken to heart for the Steelers. But he is more, and since joining the Steelers the last two years he has emerged more as a receiver.

"Early in my career, it actually used to bother me that it was just return man, return man that was on my name," said McCloud. "Once I honed in on that position and said let's make plays, I knew it was going to take care of itself on the offensive end. I just come to work every day. Every day rent is due so there is still a lot to be done.

"For me it's make plays when asked, when needed. Short routes, in the slot, be an asset for Ben in the short yardage, third and short, jet sweeps, stretching the field. Whatever I am asked, I am going to do and make plays."

And there is nobody he has enjoyed making plays for more than Roethlisberger. Like everyone in Steelers Nation, McCloud heard what Roethlisberger said about Monday night possibly being his last regular season game at Heinz Field. And he wants to do his part to make it special.

"I would say let's make it fun for him," said McCloud. "More like lay it on the line. More than a teammate, more than a brother in the locker room, I'm a fan. I have been watching him for as long as I can remember. To be playing with him, it's a big deal in itself. It's an honor. To play with him in his last home game as a Steeler, it's a blessing."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 17 matchup against the Cleveland Browns

Wednesday, December 29

Winning first down: The solution seems so simple.

But simple, isn't always easy.

The Steelers have had their struggles early on the last few games on both sides of the ball, starting off in the hole and on multiple occasions unable to dig out.

Cornerback Joe Haden knows what the solution is. It's just a matter of making it happen for the defense.

"We've got to win first down," said Haden. "We've got to win first down. We've got to stop teams on third down. If we win first down, getting behind the sticks. We haven't been playing behind the sticks. They might have a third and short, and run the ball consistently, really well on us. So, we've got to stop first down and then get those third and longs where we can get T.J. (Watt) after the quarterback and create some turnovers. So, winning on first and then winning on third down."

Yes, that was five times Haden just mentioned the importance of winning first down, something that the defense knows has to be a focus as the season is tightening on them with just two games remaining and the postseason on the line with every snap.

"Win first downs," repeated Haden again. "When you run the ball for first down and are in second and short, the playbook is so open for them they can do a little bit everything. When you win that first down and put them in a second and long, it makes them make a decision. So, we've got to win first down and that's going to set up our defense very well.

"We've got to get off the field, just shorten the time on the field. Three and outs. That's the best thing we can do. That all starts with coming out there and winning first downs."

If the Steelers want to keep their playoff hopes alive, they are going to have to put that approach into action on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. The Steelers beat the Browns, 15-10, in Week 8 in Cleveland, and the focus this week is keeping the ultimate goal in sight.

"We want to win the rest of our games," said Haden. "We've beaten the two remaining teams (including the Ravens) that we have, and we want to just give ourselves the best opportunity to still play and dance."

The NFL playoffs includes seven teams from each conference after the league expanded the playoff field last year, with the four division winners and three wild cards. With the way things are going in the AFC this year, that extra wild card spot has been wide open, with too many teams still having a shot at it to even predict who it could be.  

"It's definitely given a lot of teams more chances," said Haden. "You're not mathematically eliminated earlier. It's just giving teams more reason to play. For me, as a professional, you've got to go out there and ball regardless. Your tape is your resume. It makes these games a little more important at the end of the season."

While adding to his resume isn't something he is solely focused on, there is no doubt that it's on Haden's mind as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. For now, though, it's all about game day.

"I try to stay like Coach (Mike) T(omlin) says, he says stay singularly focused," said Haden. "Thinking that we're not mathematically eliminated, we still kind of control our destiny. What we can do is still win these last two games and then hopefully we can get into the playoffs. That's my biggest goal just trying to end it the right way. Trying to go out the season finishing strong. But then knowing that at the end of the day I will be a free agent after this year. So, I am thinking about it."

Meet the new boss: Assistant offensive line coach Chris Morgan has been doing what he does for a while now, in the NFL in general and for the Steelers in particular.

So the in-season transition from assistant offensive line coach under first-year offensive line coach Adrian Klemm to Klemm's late-season replacement doesn't figure to be a difficult one for Morgan.

Morgan was hired by the Steelers on Feb. 8 after stints on the coaching staffs in Oakland, Washington, Seattle and Atlanta (he was the Falcons' offensive line coach from 2015-20).

"I know a lot abut Coach 'C-Mo.'" guard Trai Turner said today. "I was able to play against him a few times. I like the way that he coaches, a lot of energy that he brings and I'm excited to get to work with him full time.

"It's not like he's a new face, a fresh face. I've seen him since we started, since we've been here. Already have a good rapport so I don't expect it to be too much of a new thing, I guess."
Turner said the Steelers have no choice but to process Klemm's departure and keep going.

"You hear about news the same way that you guys (in the media) hear about it, small conversations, personal conversations and you just move forward," Turner said. "It's just kind of the way that the business is run. It's no different than players coming in each week. It's kinda one of those things you have to deal with.

"You have to adjust, know that it's a part of the cycle we're in, a part of the business. Not to let it be a distraction, just to keep moving forward, keep plowing forward. We got a game to win Monday."

The Steelers finish the regular season by hosting Cleveland on Monday night and visiting Baltimore on Jan. 9.

Win those two and they may yet find themselves in the playoffs.

Either way, Turner stressed it's important for them to hold up their end of the equation.

"When you still have an opportunity to go out there and play a game, let's pull it all out, whatever it is, let's do it," he said. "We have two opportunities to go out there and get two wins. No matter what happens after that you want to end the season on as high of a note as you can.

"To go out there and play as hard as we can and get those two wins and see what happens after that, I feel like we owe that to ourselves."

The Steelers will attack the Browns and the Ravens without Klemm.

They'll also do so with no hard feelings lingering from Klemm's sudden departure for the University of Oregon, in Turner's estimation.

"I'm just happy for him," he said. "Whatever the decision was made, however the decision was made, just happy for Coach Klemm. I appreciate the energy that he poured into the room, that he poured into the guys. I know he's going to do good things where he's going.

"Now it's time to focus up on who we have in the room and what Coach 'C-Mo' has to offer to the room."

More moves: The Steelers restored wide receiver Rico Bussey to the Practice Squad and placed wide receiver Tyler Vaughns on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List on Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 28

More moves: The Steelers signed receiver Damion Willis to the practice squad on Tuesday.

Willis has spent time with multiple teams, including the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Giants, Jacksonville Jaguars and Denver Broncos. The Steelers currently have two receivers on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List in Anthony Miller and Steven Sims.

The team also restored guard Malcolm Pridgeon to the practice squad after spending time on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List.

The team also released guard Nate Gilliam from the practice squad.

Monday, December 27

Roster move: The Steelers placed receiver Anthony Miller on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List on Monday afternoon.

Miller played in one game this season as a game day elevation, with one reception for two yards against the Bengals in Week 12.

Earlier today the team placed safety Karl Joseph on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List.

Take a look at the best portraits from the Steelers' Week 16 game against the Kansas City Chiefs

Monday, December 27

Winning is a must: For the Steelers, the playoffs are now.

With only two games left, both of them AFC North games including against the Cleveland Browns on Monday, Jan. 3, there is no margin for error for the black and gold.

While they sit at 7-7-1 following a 36-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, they are still in the playoff hunt with the AFC North and the AFC overall still wide open in so many ways.

What it means for the Steelers is they have to give everything they have the next two weeks, and that began on Monday with the parking lot a bit fuller than most weeks as players are committing themselves to do everything they can to make a final push for postseason play.

"We've just got to play all-around, come out with better energy," said receiver Diontae Johnson. "We've got to win. We've got to do a better job all around. Definitely got to put more points on the board instead of just getting blown out like that (yesterday). That was embarrassing. It's how you respond.

"We talked in the locker room (Sunday), basically saying we got to get on our stuff. Getting in the facility. Watch film, workout, just trying to be around the facility and whatnot. Everybody's just trying to get better. I will continue my routine, get better, continue to make plays. I'm assuming the other players will do that as well. That's what we want to do, which is winning. We need to get ready for these last two games. Now we need to win to get in the playoffs.

"The parking lot (today), you see a lot of guys cars that on certain days aren't here. A couple guys came in, probably watching film, just doing something to get better. And after that loss I am sure a lot of stuff is going through their head on how we can bounce back and get better. I am sure the coaches are going to come up with a good game plan this week for us to go over and we're going to execute the best way that we know how. I'm not really worried. I got faith in my guys."

One thing the Steelers have working in their favor this week is playing at home, in Heinz Field where they have the comforts the road doesn't provide.

"I like playing at home in front of our fans, the energy they give us," said Johnson. "We feed off that energy. It's different. I don't want to count us out. We're going to game plan and execute and get ready to win on Monday."

Roster move: The Steelers placed safety Karl Joseph on the Practice Squad/COVID-19 List on Monday afternoon.

Joseph played in two games in 2021 as a game day elevation from the practice squad. He had two tackles and a pass defense against the Los Angeles Chargers.

Focused on the Browns: With Devin Bush inactive on the Reserve/COVID-19 List on Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs, it was Robert Spillane who got the start at inside linebacker, playing on 96% of the defensive snaps, as well as 46% of special teams snaps.

Spillane finished the game with a team-high 13 tackles, which included five solo stops, but he knows there was more he could have brought to the table in the team's 36-10 loss. While he was around the ball a lot, he wished he could have provided some splash on a day when the defense could have used it.

"I'm my biggest supporter, but also my biggest critic," said Spillane. "I expect all those plays to be made, whether it's right next to the ball or around the ball. I want to be in on the tackle, forcing fumbles, getting turnovers, finding a way to get my hands on the ball getting interceptions. Without doing that last night, I feel like I left something out on the table. But that's every NFL game that you ever play in. You're going to look back at the film and say, 'I should have done this a little bit differently.' But I know I play with my heart, and I play with high energy, and it shows on the film so I'm just going to keep continuing to do that."

The Steelers also didn't have inside linebackers Marcus Allen, also on the Reserve/COVID-19 List, and Buddy Johnson, out with a foot injury. It's been the story of the season for the defense, missing key players to injuries or the COVID list, but Spillane said that isn't an excuse.

"We fully expect the 11 men out on the field to be professional and to do their role and their assignments as they come up throughout the game," said Spillane. "I think we've always lived by that next man up mentality. Maybe you're not a starter day one, but when you're on the field play like a starter and to prepare like a starter. I don't think that's an excuse. Everybody's dealing with injuries, everybody's dealing with COVID. We just have to find a way to deal with it better than other people and at this point I don't know if we have done that. Going forward, that's what we need to do."

And going forward is what Spillane is doing. He knows some of the disappointment that is behind them, but more importantly he knows there are two key AFC North games ahead of them, beginning on Monday night against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field. The Steelers are still in the playoff hunt at this point, and nothing is more important this week than defeating the Browns.

"I think we need to dedicate ourselves individually and collectively on focusing on the Cleveland Browns," said Spillane. "We got them coming up Monday night and you can learn a lot from the previous outings that we've had and take that knowledge and learn to grow and continue to get better. That's what this NFL is all about, continuing to learn from mistakes and get better and move forward. I think that's our goal going ahead."

The Steelers defeated the Browns in Week 8 of the season in Cleveland, stopping their prolific ground game and holding them to just 96 yards rushing, including containing Nick Chubb who had 61 yards on 16 carries. The Browns run game is currently ranked fourth overall in the NFL, while the Steelers run defense is ranked 30th. 

"Coach (Mike) Tomlin always says it best in the run game. It's all about getting off blocks and making tackles," said Spillane. "It's the fundamental principles of run defense. Staying in your gap, staying square, being able to fall back and make plays as an inside linebacker. It's really just comes back to the basics and fundamentals being able to whoop a man's (tail) as who's in front of you is the terminology we use and then make a play. I think we just need to get back to that. Myself individually and collectively as a team and good things will happen."

Take a look at the best photos from the Week 16 game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium