Week 17 Blog: All the news and notes

Friday, January 1

Fired up: Quarterback Mason Rudolph said on Friday that he is motivated to play on Sunday against the Browns, simply because he is motivated to have an opportunity to play this season, something that hasn't happened much.

And his teammates are excited to have Rudolph start this week with Ben Roethlisberger sitting out, simply getting a rest.

Running back James Conner said the key factor is for everyone on offense is to come out ready to go to help Rudolph as the Steelers want to close out the regular season on a high note before heading into the playoffs.

"Just play a complete game and be our best selves," said Conner. "That is what we preach. We've got standards. It doesn't matter who the QB is in there. I know Mason is going to give us some energy at the spot. I know he is fired up to play. We are fired up to play with him as well. Line do what they do, backs, ball placement, run hard, receivers got to make plays. That's really all it comes down to, play making."

Conner said he really likes what he sees from Rudolph, especially the approach he takes on a daily basis.

"He comes to practice with the same mindset every day," said Conner. "We measure our improvement in the work week and how we perform on game day. His approach to practice ever since I have seen him, he prepares like he is the starter. That is just how he works. Making plays. When we are in a practice setting, we see guys making plays. That is the time when we better ourselves. I have seen him be consistent with his approach to the work."

For the Steelers offense to find success overall as the season winds down and they head into the postseason next week, the ground game is going to have to step things up. Yes, the offense has relied heavily on Roethlisberger and the passing game, but it's going to have to be the complete game that Conner mentioned for them to keep the season rolling.

"We definitely need the running game," said Conner. "It's adversity, things that we deal with. It's not a lack of effort, it's none of that. Football is a humbling game. We're not going to keep trying to search for answers and this and that. We are going to keep trying to play our football. That is what we are going to do this week. It's always about the next opportunity. It is the journey you have up and down. I am familiar with adversity. I like it. I am looking forward to the next challenges and getting the running game going and more important winning."

He Said It:
Conner on handling testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this season and how he is progressing:
"No lingering effects. Just the symptoms of COVID, taste and smell. That was fun. Missing those two games. I wasn't happy about that. That was when the Ravens game kept getting pushed back. I had to miss that one and the following week. That was tough just not being out there with my teammates. I have just been trying to be in the grind. Just keep trying to make plays. Finding my footing and just trying to make plays. We have more football left so I am just excited about that."

An opportunity for Mason: Sunday will be about an opportunity for Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph.

"I think I'm just motivated that I have this opportunity," Rudolph said today. "All the guys that maybe have an increased role this week, Coach (Mike) Tomlin has talked about engineering victory. When you don't have your leader on offense, being Ben (Roethlisberger), our Hall of Fame quarterback, as well as some other players it's important, we know we have to bring the energy as a team.

"It's very motivating in and of itself, 'Hey, I have a chance to play this week,' as well as some other guys."

Tomlin has said Roethlisberger won't play in Sunday's regular season finale at Cleveland.

Other players will also sit or see their roles decreased with an eye toward keeping the Steelers as healthy as possible heading into the postseason.

The Steelers have won the AFC North Division but can't catch Kansas City for the AFC's No. 1 postseason seed.

Rudolph started 8 games for the Steelers in 2019, the last two of which came in back-to-back games versus the Browns on November 14 and against the Cincinnati Bengals on November 24. The Steelers were 1-1 in those games, losing to the Browns, 21-7, at FirstEnergy Stadium.

This season, he's completed three of four passes in four relief appearances this season and will take the field on Sunday in Cleveland believing he's a starting-caliber QB.

"I see myself as that," Rudolph maintained. "There's plenty of quarterbacks that have sat behind Hall of Fame quarterbacks and it has benefitted them down the road. Like I said before, what a positive to sit and watch a guy work like Ben that has so many banked years of reps and so much knowledge of the game and he's willing to pass that down."

Rudolph, a third-year pro, has a 5-3 career record as a starter (all last season).

He's played 21 offensive snaps this season, most recently six on Nov. 22 at Jacksonville, but he perceives himself as ready for the Browns from a preparation standpoint.

"When you're a backup quarterback in this league every week you're trying to take advantage of the reps you get in practice," Rudolph said. "You know Wednesday is kinda my game day of the week when Ben rests. I've tried to treat that day as well as every other day I practice, whether
I'm getting reps or not, as a development day.

"Even the mop-up time, I think I threw like two passes, three passes, it still kind of keeps you sharp. It's been a few weeks now since we have had a mop-up but it's just fun being out there. It's just a totally different feel. It'll be the real deal on Sunday."

-- blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Playing for his teammate: Rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith isn't just playing Bud Dupree's position.

Highsmith is also playing for his injured teammate.

"Just going out there and doing it for Bud," Highsmith said today. "He would give a ligament of his, definitely, to be able to go back out there and play. He'd give an eye to go back out there and play."

Highsmith has started at outside linebacker opposite T.J. Watt in the wake of Dupree suffering a season-ending knee injury on Dec. 2 against Baltimore.

Highsmith has played at least 83 percent of the defensive snaps in the four games since, including 91 percent on Dec. 13 at Buffalo and 95 percent on Dec. 21 at Cincinnati.

He continues to be utilized on special teams, as well, although not as extensively as he had been prior to Dupree's injury. 

"This is the moment I've been preparing for my whole life, just to be able to play at this stage," Highsmith said. "I felt like I was prepared going into that first game (as a starter on Dec. 7 against Washington). I felt like I've been growing over every game, that's just what I want to continue to do."

Highsmith had two quarterback hits in a game for the first time and also contributed a season-high four solo tackles and a season-high eight combined tackles in last Sunday's 28-24, come-from-behind win over Indianapolis.

Highsmith characterized his performance against the Colts as a confidence-builder but also "definitely not to my standard.

"I didn't end up hitting home," he said. "That's what matters most to me, hitting home and getting sacks. I was able to provide some pressure, more pressures than I did the first three games (as a starter).

"I try not to focus on that. No matter if I play a good game or a bad game, I just try to move on to the next one and just try to kind of erase it. It doesn't matter what I did. It matters what I do coming up."

-- blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Thursday, December 31

Room to grow: It came as no surprise when linebacker T.J. Watt spoke about winning the Steelers MVP award for the second-straight year on Thursday, the first thing he did was give credit to his teammates.

It's par for the course for Watt, who always shies away from taking credit and instead deflects it to the talent around him.

"I am very appreciative of my teammates and coaches for voting me team MVP," said Watt. "Very special honor for me because it's my teammates and peers, people I am around on a regular basis. Very fortunate to play alongside these guys and none of it is possible without them.

"This award is very important to me because it's the people that see me on a regular basis, the work that I put in not only on the field but off the field. I am just really grateful the guys thought enough of me to vote me MVP, but it really is a team award. We're all here, and I am here to win a Super Bowl.

"I feel like I have a lot more to do still. I feel like I have a lot more room to grow."

While winning the Steelers' MVP is a huge honor, it shouldn't be the only one that comes Watt's way this year.

Watt is having another season that has many talking about him being the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Watt, who was voted to the Pro Bowl for the second time, leads the NFL in sacks with a career-high 15, quarterback hits with 41 and tackles for a loss with 23, while adding 53 tackles, 43 of them solo stops, seven pass defenses, two forced fumbles and an interception.

He is the third player in the NFL to record at least 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss and 40 quarterback hits in the last 15 seasons. Watt's older brother, Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (2012, 2014 and 2015) and Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald (2018) also accomplished the feat and won NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

It's an award he is more than familiar with, attending the NFL Honors show four times, three to watch his brother J.J. win the award, and last year when he was in the conversation for the award himself.

"I have been to that award show, three to four times," said Watt. "I tell people every time I went, I would always leave more motivated than when I walked in the building. That is going from when I was in high school and he won the first award and in college. Even last year when I didn't win the award, it's so special to be surrounded by your peers who are the elite of the elite in the National Football League. It's special company to be around. Just to be up for the award, none of that is even up yet, I think it just really cool to be in that conversation. Winning it is something for a different day. I am just trying to get better each and every day. I am not satisfied."

Watt got a plug for the award recently from former Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Kevin Greene in his final interview before he recently passed away. Greene spoke with Morten Andersen on his 'Great Dane Nation' podcast and praised Watt.

"He looks, to me, to be the most complete linebacker in the NFL right now, whether inside or outside," said Greene in the interview. "He rushes, plays the run hard, drops in coverage, hunts people with a hunter's heart. I really like the way he is playing, and I say that over Khalil Mack and Von Miller or any of those guys, or any of the interior guys you could mention. I know I'm a Steeler - and maybe I'm being a little prejudiced there - but I really like him and the way he operates."

Watt said people shared Greene's comments with him and it meant a lot to hear what he had to say.

"Very special," said Watt. "I didn't see it at the time, but I have seen it the past few days, people sending the video to me. Just listening to someone who was the best at what they did at the time. A Hall of Fame player. It's awesome to hear someone say that. It's my responsibility to keep that end of the bargain up, keep playing and keep performing. I just want to leave a legacy here, not individually but as a team. A guy like that left a hell of a legacy. To hear someone say that about you, it's awesome but it's also a whole lot of responsibility I am willing to take on."

Watt is on pace to break the Steelers single season sack record, currently sitting at 15 sacks, just one shy of tying James Harrison's record of 16 sacks set in 2008, and one and a half away from breaking it with one game left. But whether or not he plays on Sunday against the Browns, a game where Coach Mike Tomlin has only indicated that Ben Roethlisberger will sit, is yet to be seen. He said nobody has talked to him about that yet.

"All of those decisions are way above my pay grade," said Watt. "Right now, I am practicing like I normally do and whatever the coaches decide, it's their decision. Obviously, I'd love to play."

Leading the way: While T.J. Watt is always singing the praises of his teammates, it's impossible for them not to sing the praises of the team MVP even louder.

His teammates love him, not just because of his talent on the field, but the way he approaches everything, from practice to games, film study to fun off-the-field competitions.

They know what he brings to the table, and it's special.

"I just think he is a really good football player," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "Very good at what he does. Very consistent in what he does. It's hard to lead the league in the categories he does. He does it consistently. He did it throughout the whole year this year. His preparation is unmatched, unrivaled. He spends countless hours working on his body, his film. He is a competitor. 

"Me and him, we're always competing in stuff, whether it's before practice or after practice. Stupid little games. We're always competing and I think that definitely translates to the field where the man in front of him, he is just trying to beat and breakdown every single rep. His competitive nature, he is who he is."

One of the things Fitzpatrick really respects is that Watt is a player who brings a good mix to the field as a leader. He talks a little bit, but more than that he leads by example.

"I think T.J. is a good mix of both," said Fitzpatrick. "He is a guy who talks to us and is very energetic, but more of his personality is lead by example. He is a guy that does things the right way. He is the first guy in the building, one of the last ones to leave. He is watching film all of the time. Guys follow because he has success and he is doing it the right way. I see Alex Highsmith doing the same things T.J. is doing before and after practice. He is vocal when he needs to be, but he is more of a lead by example guy."

He Said It:

Kevin Dotson on dealing with having COVID-19 earlier this year, missing time, and dealing with being quarantined:

"I haven't had any lingering effects, but when I was sick it got pretty bad. All of the stuff I started getting.

"On top of that I had to sit in the house all day. If I had a camera in my house, people would have seen me laying in every room in my house. At one point I was laying in the hallway because I just wanted a new scene. I didn't know what to do.

"I went and drove for like 50 minutes. I can't get out and go to the store. I was just driving. I couldn't sit there. It was just horrible."

Wednesday, December 30

Ready to work with Mason: Chase Claypool has only caught one pass from Mason Rudolph in a game, a one-yarder near the end of the first half against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 9 when Rudolph came in briefly for Ben Roethlisberger.

But he said he already has a relationship with Rudolph, much of that based off of regular communication in the locker room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

"His locker is close to mine, so we talk every day," said Claypool. "Mason gives me advice. Even on the bench in games, he looks at film, tells me what to do, or what Ben would like me to do. We have been developing a relationship so I am excited to see him play and maybe get a glimpse of what it will be like in the future.

"I think he will do really well based on what I have seen in practice and I am just excited to see him go to work."

Roethlisberger isn't playing against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, instead resting as the Steelers have already wrapped up a playoff spot and the AFC North Division title.

With Roethlisberger resting, Rudolph will get the start in Cleveland, seeing action for only the third time in 2020. Rudolph previously played sparingly in the Week 6 game against Cleveland and in Week 9 at Dallas. He has completed three of the four passes he attempted for nine yards.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, who worked with Rudolph last year when Roethlisberger was injured, said he likes what he has seen in practice from Rudolph, especially on Wednesdays when Roethlisberger normally rests.

"It's been good," said Smith-Schuster. "Last year I had a great amount of time with Mason. Even this year, every Wednesday when Ben doesn't practice, we still build that connection, we are still there. We keep growing. I am excited to see him play this weekend."

The overall decision of who will play, who won't play on Sunday hasn't been determined yet by Coach Mike Tomlin, only stating that Roethlisberger won't. Smith-Schuster said one of the key factors no matter who plays is keeping the momentum going.

"You just have to feed off the energy that we bring to the table, offense, defense, special teams," said Smith-Schuster. "It's just the momentum of plays being made. Playmakers make their plays. Keep the energy going, keep the vibe going. I know that our offense and defense is happy to have Mason back, so we just have to keep going."

He said it:
Chase Claypool on his playing time being managed so he didn't hit the rookie wall:
"Coach (Mike) Tomlin has been in this game for a lot longer time than I have. I think he knows what he is doing. I am feeling good now, so whatever he did, whether necessary or not, I am feeling good heading into the playoffs and that's all that matters."

He said it 2:
JuJu Smith-Schuster on the motivation to knock the Browns out of the playoffs on Sunday:
"It means a lot of motivation, for a lot of us, being an AFC North team and knocking them out of the playoffs. We want to go out and win every game. Our mindset is to go out here, win the game and go home. They're a good team. I can't to see what they can do and what we can do to Cleveland."

Turnovers make a difference: It wasn't just an offensive resurrection that turned the tables so dramatically on Indianapolis.

The defense held the Colts to three points and 148 total net yards, including 83 on Indy's last five possessions, in last Sunday's come-from-behind, 28-24 triumph.

"There were things that stuck out, especially in the first half, whether it was our level of tackling, not being sound in the run game and then giving up big plays," defensive tackle Cam Heyward said today. "I thought we addressed that in the second half."

Indianapolis rushed for 77 yards, gained 217 total net yards and scored 21 points in the first two quarters.

But it wasn't a total loss for the Steelers' defense.

"That turnover by (outside linebacker) T.J. (Watt) and (cornerback) Mike (Hilton) picking it up just to set up a scoring drive (a 3-yard drive for a touchdown) was huge," Heyward said.

After marching 65 yards for a field goal on the first drive of the third quarter, the Colts managed one first down over their next three possessions.

The Steelers countered with three consecutive touchdowns for a 28-24 lead.

The Colts' first possession after falling behind lasted three plays and ended on an interception by Hilton.

"I thought our pressure really picked up," Heyward said. "(Defensive end) Stephon Tuitt and (outside linebacker) Alex Highsmith really got going. We needed all of that.

"In the second half they didn't run the ball as much as they wanted to but that was indicative of us stopping the run up front."

Watt finished with two sacks, a forced fumble, a quarterback hit and a tackle for a loss, his latest splash-play display in a season Heyward characterized as worthy of recognition as the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

"I thought he was deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year last year," Heyward said. "Now we're in the playoffs, everybody's gonna see what this guy is capable of.

"T.J. is a guy that we can rely on to be a play-maker for us week in and week out. He's the ultimate competitor and we're very lucky to have him. He's very deserving of this award."

Whether Watt gets a chance to add to his NFL-leading 15 sacks this season this Sunday in Cleveland remains to be seen (the Rams' Aaron Donald is second at 13.5).

Heyward might not play much, if at all, against the Browns, either, in what for the Steelers is a relatively meaningless regular-season finale.

"We haven't decided yet," Heyward said. "My impression, I'm still playing, I should be ready to go. I signed up for 16 weeks, right? I need to be ready for all 16 weeks and I'll ride this thing out."

-- blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Monday, December 28

Whatever it takes: A few months ago, Avery Williamson never could have imagined he would be a division champion.

But what a difference a few months makes.

Williamson was traded to the Steelers from the New York Jets on Nov. 2, going from a team that at the time was winless to an undefeated team.

And now, almost two months in, he is headed to the playoffs and is an AFC North champion, enjoying the thrill of winning the division on Sunday with the win over the Indianapolis Colts, while still knowing there is a lot to accomplish.

"It was very surreal," said Williamson. "It was something I have seen growing up and since I have been in the league, teams win the division, hats and t-shirts. It was something I never experienced before. It definitely was a surreal feeling. That fourth down when we finally got off the field, I was like, what we actually won it.

"It was a great feeling, but we still have a lot of hunger. We have a lot of work to do. Ready to go get to these playoffs when they get here and compete for a Super Bowl."

Williamson was traded for after the team lost Devin Bush to a season-ending knee injury. But his value escalated every week after Bush's replacement, Robert Spillane, also ended up on the Reserve/Injured List and Vince Williams on the Reserve/COVID-19 List for two games. Williamson held down the fort at inside linebacker, even though he didn't have the luxury of training camp or even a full season to pick up the defense.

"It definitely was a lot at times," said Williamson. "I didn't expect that to happen like that. I have been a starter before, my whole career. But it's different when you go to a new team. You haven't been able to work with guys in camp. It definitely was different. I feel like I handled it as well as I could. I don't think the coaches wanted to overload me mentally the last few weeks. I am glad Vince is back. It helps a whole lot. He knows the system well."

Having Williamson and Williams on the field together against the Colts was definitely a benefit, but so was the fact that the Steelers never gave up.

"The big thing is it's 60 minutes," said Williamson. "I have been through enough games where you can have a bad first half or quarter and you just stay the course and things will change. That is the big thing. This team is resilient and that is what I love about it, don't give up, continue to fight and play for the full 60 minutes and see what happens."

The Steelers have just one regular season game remaining, Sunday at Cleveland, before hosting their first playoff game since 2017. Williamson said the key is keeping the momentum going, and in a Zoom call when he was asked about his favorite 'Tomlinism' from Coach Mike Tomlin, he used a line frequently said by legendary Coach Chuck Noll multiple times when talking about momentum.

"We just have a good week of practice this week and come out and ball out on Sunday. That's it," said Williamson. "Whatever it takes. We definitely want to keep the momentum going. It felt good to have a complete game. It was a really good feeling. Whatever it takes to stay locked in."

Keep on fighting: For Eric Ebron, being a division champion is something completely new to him.

The tight end, who signed with the Steelers this offseason after playing for the Colts and Lions during his first six seasons, never experienced that joy.

But that is all behind him now. Ebron is an AFC North champ, sporting the hat and t-shirt division winners are handed postgame for the first time.

"I think that whole day was super dope," said a beaming Ebron on Monday via Zoom. "It was like everything I was taught in my career. When adversity hits you just grab it by the throat and choke it. That's my Larry Fedora line, sorry (in reference to his college coach at North Carolina). You just fight and fight.

"That day against that opponent with hat and t-shirts on the line was the ultimate. I am happy for it. It was a dope day."

That same joy wasn't how he felt at halftime, though, when the team was down 21-7 and frustration was seeping in. Even when his teammates gave a rallying cry, including Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey, he just wasn't hearing it.

"I was angry because we were losing to Indianapolis and I didn't want to lose to Indianapolis," said Ebron, who said Pouncey was telling them to have fun. "We lost who we were, we lost our identity. Somehow we found it in that football game to win."

Ebron said the team played with the swagger they had during the stretch when they went 11-0 after they took the field following halftime, and he doesn't see that changing.

"Once you get it, you don't ever lose it," said Ebron. "Well I guess we lost it. Once you get it back, hopefully you don't lose it again. Hopefully we don't lose it again. Hopefully we understand we can play football. We need to stop overthinking and letting everybody else affect the way you think or play the game. With a group of young talented guys that can affect you.

"It's good to see our young people fighting, move out of the funk and get their swagger back. That's what we needed from our young, stud group. It's my job as an older guy to boost them to keep their swagger."