Friday, January 7
Spinning on air: If you see Alex Highsmith out and about in Pittsburgh, and out of the clear blue he does a spin move on air, fear not.
Trust me, he's not crazy. He is just working on perfecting a move that has added a lot to his game as an outside pass rusher.
Highsmith has been working for a few years now on his spin move, and it showed up big-time against the Cleveland Browns last week when he got to quarterback Baker Mayfield for two sacks, using the move to perfection.
"I've been working on it since 2017," said Highsmith. "My freshman year of college I only had one or two sacks. Pass rush was something I wanted to get better at. I remember watching a lot of NFL film, guys like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, those guys who were great at the spin move. I was like, 'Okay, I want to learn that.' So, I looked up videos and how to do it, guys like (former NFL defensive end) Chuck Smith.
"I would literally be walking around and spin on air. People would look at me like I'm crazy, but it helped me to be able to polish that move into what it is today. I can still continue to get better at it because there's been times where I have been stopped at it. I just want to continue to work on it. I'll continue to polish it throughout my career."
Highsmith said developing the move has helped his overall confidence, adding something to his bag of tricks that he can use.
"Just to continue to add moves and develop confidence in yourself and knowing that you can go out there and execute those," said Highsmith. "If you're going to go out there and be half-hearted not go all out with it, it's not going to work and so it's something that I have worked so much that I have built up confidence for that move and something I want to do for other moves as well. It's just continuous repetition of that move to gain that confidence in yourself. That's what's going to help you do that."
Memorable night: Rookie defensive back Tre Norwood's first career interception was special, in no small part because it was extra special for 18-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
Norwood's first interception of the season, a theft of quarterback Baker Mayfield with 10 seconds remaining in Monday night's 26-14 win over the Browns, afforded Roethlisberger the opportunity to come back out onto the field and take a knee to seal victory in his final Heinz Field appearance.
"Man, that means a lot, and that might be an understatement, honestly," Norwood said today. "Just being able to be a part of that moment, he's been doing it here in Pittsburgh for 18 years at a high level. Just how much the city loves him, how much the organization loves him, being able to be a part of that, to give him the opportunity to go out there one last time in the 'Victory' formation, that means a lot to me.
"It's something I'll always remember, especially in my first year as a rookie. That's something that'll go in the memory box that I'll hold tight from here on out."
Although they play on different sides of the ball, Norwood maintained he's been trying to learn from Roethlisberger this season.
"We interacted here and there," Norwood said. "But me just sitting back and watching, just watching a guy like that, I feel like I can always learn something from anybody no matter what position they play. With him being here 18 years, playing at a high level, has won Super Bowls, has seen a lot, just sitting back and observing him, seeing how he goes about his day is something that I can take nuggets to incorporate to my routine.
"This is my rookie year and I plan, God-willing, to play as many years as I can. So just trying to take nuggets and take notes from him in any way possible."
Norwood cited cornerback Joe Haden, a 12th-year pro, as another example of how to be a professional, and also as a mentor.
"He's a great vet," Norwood maintained. "He's been playing at a high level as well, I think 12, 13 years, at corner that says a lot. Just having that guy in the room and just being able to learn from him every day in meetings, going out to practice, being able to watch him and just see the way he goes abut things. Huge props to him, especially playing physically one of the hardest positions on the field.
"Having a guy like that in the room that's always open to, I can ask him as many questions as I want. He's always there with answers for me, always looking to help me and the other guys in the room. Having a guy like that in the room means a lot to me, especially as a young guy trying to get to where he's at in his career later down the line in my career."
Norwood also acknowledged the cherry on top of his first career interception.
He and Mayfield were college teammates for a season in 2017 at Oklahoma.
"Coming back four or five years later, here in the NFL, a big rivalry in the same division, being able to get my first career interception as a rookie against him, I think it's pretty sweet," Norwood said. "He probably might not like it, but that's something I'll remember."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 18 matchup against the Baltimore Ravens
Thursday, January 6
Wait-and-see-approach: Keith Butler is in the NFL's COVID-19 protocols but Coach Mike Tomlin isn't writing off his defensive coordinator's potential participation in Sunday's regular-season finale at Baltimore.
"I'm not gonna make that assumption," Tomlin said today. "We're taking it day by day. We've just developed that mentality regarding COVID, much like concussions. We let the experts tell us and we remain hopeful and optimistic.
"We'll deal with those decisions at the 11th hour."
Should Butler wind up unavailable, Tomlin said he could "certainly" handle the roles of head coach and defensive coordinator.
Tomlin was the Minnesota Vikings' defensive coordinator in 2006, the season before he was hired by the Steelers.
And he enjoyed the job, particularly "the strategic end of it," he said. "Chess pieces, putting guys in position to make plays was fun and attractive."
But Tomlin doesn't miss it.
"I kinda like my pay check, he said.
Wide receiver Diontae Johnson and center Kendrick Green were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list today.
Butler and cornerback Joe Haden ended up there on Wednesday.
That was also the day offensive tackle Zach Banner, inside linebacker Devin Bush, nickel cornerback Arthur Maulet, running back Anthony McFarland Jr., inside linebacker Joe Schobert and defensive end Chris Wormley were reinstated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list.
"We're glad to have them back but we're not taking that approach," Tomlin said. "We're all in the COVID environment, it's day to day. Really, we focus on the guys who are available to us and their readiness. We don't worry ourselves with the environment that we're in from a global perspective.
"It's just part of this journey for us and the 31 others."
The Steelers will take on the Ravens on Sunday leading the NFL with 52 sacks.
Tomlin said they'll be out to add to that total, but not because they endeavor to remain ahead of the Rams (47), the Bears and Dolphins (46 each) and the Buccaneers (45).
"I don't know that we look at it in that way, from a sack numbers standpoint," he said. "Sure, we want to get to the quarterback. Sure, we expect to be elite in that area. But it's more about wrecking games and what (outside linebacker) T.J. (Watt) said earlier in the week. We want to affect the natural flow of the offense in a negative way, particularly at the quarterback position.
"Sacks is a statistical way that it's reflected."
Wednesday, January 5
A young leader: In a season where a lot of Steelers rookies saw extended playing time, nobody stood out like running back Najee Harris.
And that is exactly why Harris was voted the winner of the Joe Greene Great Performance Award, presented by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America to the team's top rookie.
"I guess it makes it more special," said Harris of winning the award in a season where rookies made significant contributions. "It's a different year for the organization. There's a lot of young guys on the team. We are a really young team."
Harris has established himself not just for the numbers he has put up, setting a Steelers single-season rushing record with 1,172 yards, but also for the way he goes about his business.
Dedicated. Hard working. Committed. Focused. Team first. Unselfish.
Those are all things that describe the team's No. 1 pick out of Alabama.
Sure, he came into his rookie season with expectations of numbers and statistics he wanted to attain, but he also came in with an approach to give everything he had and put the numbers on the back burner.
"I think every rookie has expectations coming in," said Harris. "The way the year played out and the way I just viewed everything of how young our team was, I guess some of those goals shifted towards how can we improve as a team, try to get all the rookies going. My goal kind of shifted more to how to help the team improve in each game."
Harris has taken on a leadership role somewhat, not to the extent some of the veterans on the team have, but he is stepping to the plate and showing that leadership by his actions. He is one of the most committed players to studying his craft, taking care of his body to the point where instead of slowing down at the end of his rookie season, he is just getting stronger.
That dedication to taking care of his body has come from reading motivational quotes by Japanese philosopher, swordsman and writer Miyamoto Musashi and reading his book, Book of Five Rings.
"Taking care of your body plays a big part, especially preparing for a heavy workload," said Harris. "Even if I didn't have it, I prepared as if I was going to have a heavy workload. Just really taking care of the body is important.
"I'm reading a book called, Book of The Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. He's great warrior. He talks about how taking care of the body is really important for a warrior. I think that is true just in life. That was one way that helped out a lot."
It's his approach, his attitude, his demeanor that could one day land him as one of the veteran leaders on the team, a team captain that if it happened, he would lead in his own unique manner.
"Everybody in some ways should feel like they're a captain," said Harris. "It you want to improve everybody and just get better as a team, and as a person, you should always tell somebody if they're doing something wrong. If they're doing something right, you should pat them on the back.
"I'm not really the person to go up to the front and cheer everybody on. I'm not that type of captain. I think there's all types of different captains. That was a question that they asked me actually coming in (during pre-draft interviews), if I see myself as a captain. I say yeah, I can see myself the captain but I'm not the captain that stands in front and cheers everybody on and yells. I'm kind of the captain that leads by like the way you perform on the field. Or I'm a captain you can come talk to me if you feel like your opinions or anything isn't being heard."
Locked in on the Ravens: Cameron Heyward knows what on the line on Sunday in Baltimore. The Steelers are in a must-win situation against the Ravens, needing a victory of their own, along with Jacksonville beating Indianapolis and the Chargers-Raiders game not ending in a tie.
"We need things to go our way in that Baltimore stadium, that's all we're worried about," said Heyward. "We got to make sure we give ourselves the best chance we can."
The Steelers aren't the only ones fighting for a playoff spot in the game. The Ravens are also still in the hunt, so Heyward knows it's going to be a battle, just like it's always been when the two AFC North rivals meet.
It's a game that can get feisty and emotional, but it's one built on mutual respect.
"There's a level of respect there," said Heyward. "You got the Hall of Famers. The game (NFL football) has changed because of this game. Whether it's the Hines Ward blocks the hard hitting, the Ryan Clark hits. Then you look at the splash plays, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, the Antonio Brown catch on the head and them breaking Ben's (Roethlisberger) nose. My first game we played them there and (Haloti) Nada clotheslined Rashard Mendenhall, and I was like, dang this is way different.
"But there's countless guys that stand out and you will remember it by the games you play versus Baltimore."
Last week the Steelers defense came up with splash plays, including nine sacks of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. This week the defense is going to be called upon again, and Heyward said they need to deliver. And they don't know yet which quarterback they are going to have to deliver against, whether Lamar Jackson returns to action or if it's Tyler Huntley.
"Usually when they run the ball with the quarterback it becomes 11-on-11," said Heyward. "It takes a lot of guys getting to the ball. Coach (Dick) LeBeau is always big on everybody just doing their 1/11 and it takes that on Sunday. We just got to make sure we have a solid game plan. It doesn't take a lot of exotic stuff. It comes down to just being simple and executing at a high level."
Subtle adjustment: The Steelers rushed for a season-high 190 yards in Monday night's 26-14 victory over the Browns, but it wasn't because new offensive line coach Chris Morgan drastically altered the preparation process.
"We kind of just stuck to our normal routine, normal individual-type stuff, normal practice routine," center J.C. Hassenauer maintained. "Nothing too crazy that we did differently.
"One thing we did do, we incorporated a lot more outside guys into the meetings. We had some tight end meetings. We had the running backs in there, as well. I think that kind of helped everyone get a bigger grasp and a better understanding of the full run game that week.
"Here on out, we're gonna continue doing that, as well."
Hassenauer started in place of Kendrick Green (calf), but wasn't taking credit for making the difference up front.
"I thought I played alright," Hassenauer said. "There's a lot of things I could have done better. I thought as a group we played very well. Obviously when you rush for 188 yards it says a lot, not just with the offensive line but you saw receivers blocking downfield. On that one stiff-arm that (running back) Najee (Harris) had (a 30-yard gain in the third quarter), everyone's probably seen it by now, a lot of people don't see (wide receiver) Chase (Claypool). Chase had an amazing block that kind of set up that run.
"As far as these explosive plays, a lot of people put it on the O-line but a lot of it's the receivers. A lot of that's the tight end room. It takes 11 to run the ball. I think we put that on display Monday night."
It helps to have a back as explosive as Harris, who accounted for a season-high 188 of the 190 rushing yards the Steelers piled up against Cleveland.
"I can't talk enough about Najee," Hassenauer said. "A couple days ago I said he was the ultimate competitor and I stand by that. He's just a dog, he grinds, does all the hard work. Nothing's ever given to him, he's worked for everything. He's a great football player, a great teammate and he gets what he deserves."
-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta