Week 2 Blog: Interchangeable parts

Interchangeable parts: Position flexibility.

It might be one of Coach Mike Tomlin's favorite attributes that a player has.

Minkah Fitzpatrick has that. Cameron Sutton has that. Tre Norwood has that. And that right there can create nightmares for any offensive coordinator.

"We just have so many parts like Minkah and Cam that can play each position," said cornerback Joe Haden. "They can play the nickel. They can play the safety. Minkah played corner in college. Just having that many interchangeable parts, not let the quarterback get comfortable where people are standing.

"Cam Sutton was the guy who could move around for us. But with Minkah, Tre, those guys are legitimate safeties, nickels, corners. They don't really have a title. Being able to keep them interchangeable, that's the most interchangeable parts I have had since I have been here.

"I am not going to tell you where everybody is, but we are moving around."

Haden couldn't stress enough how valuable that flexibility is for the defense, allowing them to never fully give an offense a look at what they are bringing.

"It's big for us just because of the film study," said Haden. "You see people in different spots, you expect them to be there. You start rotating different guys, sending different guys, you just don't get a good read on our defensive scheme. Just people guessing and preparing for the unknown."

With the movement could come something that could be a detriment for a defense, and that is a lack of communication. But in the case of the Steelers defense, it's not an issue. The team even got a jump on preparing for that for Sunday's game, pumping in crowd noise during practice a day earlier than they normally do to have the defense on the ready for the home field fans.

"We can always get better. You can never have enough communication," said Haden. "Coach (Mike Tomlin) put a sound emphasis on it because we are playing in our home arena and it's going to be very noisy out there. Just making sure we over communicate, talk too much to each other."

Selfless approach: It takes talent to make what the Steelers are doing with their three-man rotation at outside linebacker work with T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram III.

And as we all know, those three don't lack in the talent category.

It takes something else as well, something all three players have pointed to this week.

It takes being selfless.

"We just come out and work," said Ingram. "That is all we are doing, working. We are just playing our part. I think all three of us are playing our part and we are selfless. We are just going out there, playing for the team. Whatever the team needs us to do, we do."

It so easy to say that. But it's not so easy to always do that. Stats are a big part of every player's game. There isn't a defensive player who doesn't want to rack up the sacks, or the quarterback hits, or pressures.

For these three, while they do want to put up numbers because it helps the team, it's more about the team, period. 

"I think it's big," said Ingram. "Everybody understands what their role is, and everybody understands how we're going to play. I feel like it's not just us three. It's everybody. Everybody up front, we all rotate, and we've got a great rotation. We all work good together and that's the best part about it."

The Steelers signed Ingram as an unrestricted free agent in late July after he spent his entire nine-year career with the Los Angeles Chargers, drafted by them in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He is a three-time Pro Bowl selection (2017-19) who has 49 career sacks.

He immediately clicked with the rest of the defense, including Watt and Highsmith, making the dynamic at outside linebacker something special that is working right off the bat.

"We work out here together every day, day in and day out," said Ingram. "We put the work in so on Sundays it's kind of easy because we have been working so hard during the week, during training camp. We all understand our role."

The role this week will be teaming up to get pressure on Raiders quarterback Derek Carr, who he is plenty familiar with playing in the AFC West his entire career.

"Derek been in this league for a while, and he's been doing good for a while," said Ingram. "We just have to come out and play assignment football against him and try to get pressure."

In an overtime win against the Ravens on Monday Night Football, Carr connected with tight end Darren Waller for 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown. For Ingram, again it's about doing your assignment to contain him.

"(He's) one of the best that's doing it right now," said Ingram. "And you've got to give respect where respect is due. We have to play assignment football and try to cancel them out."
He Said It: Ingram on what he expects the atmosphere to be like at Heinz Field on Sunday:

"Amazing. Just from being here the short period of time, the atmosphere has already been amazing. I know it's going to be phenomenal on Sunday."

Hands down: Cameron Heyward didn't hesitate with the answer to the question.

It was a simple one, wanting to know if he is a better player now at 32-years old than he was when he was drafted in 2011 as a 21-year-old.

"Yeah. Hands down," said Heyward.

And it's not just one thing that he credits that with.

"I think I just continue to grow because the more I know, the more my body can do," said Heyward. "I put in a lot of work in the offseason, continue to grow and continue to learn. The things I know now that I didn't know at 21, I wish I knew. That'd be like going back and playing in high school. You learn how to take care of your body better. You learn how to use your hands more. It's a culmination of things that you just continue to grow at."

The conversation went back to the recent talk, and joking, about Heyward's age, which continued on Tuesday when Coach Mike Tomlin said in his press conference that he uses it to motivate him.

Heyward said he doesn't need that to be motivated.

"There's other things that motivate me, but that's a little side that he's got going," said Heyward. "If he wants to continue to harp on my age, there's a lot of other things that motivate me."

And those would be?

"If I can be honest with you, there are a lot of other players that are really good at my position, but I don't see the reason why they're better than me," said Heyward. "That's just me being honest. I feel like I put in the work and I try to be the best D-lineman in the league."

Heyward said he tries to steer away from concerning himself as to whether or not he gets notoriety nationally for his play, instead just focusing within himself to be the best.

"I feel like I'm the best in the NFL," he said.

He said it: Cameron Heyward on returning to a packed house at Heinz Field on Sunday:
"I'm excited. I saw one thing that was like, Raider Nation we're about to have our black and silver on. I'm like, that's not going to happen here. When you come here, it's black and gold all day. I'm excited to see it. It's been a while. I know we've missed it dearly. It's such an advantage as a defense when the offense can't hear, and they've got to waste a time out or they've got to take a penalty. We thrive for that."

Wednesday, September 15

A tenacious trio: They are a unit not to be messed with. A group that can bring the heat, the intensity, the fire from any and every angle.

T.J. Watt. Alex Highsmith. Melvin Ingram III.

They are a tenacious trio of outside rushers for the Steelers, a unit that has come together quickly to become a nightmare for opposing defenses.

"The three-man rotation we have with Alex and Melvin is something that is going to be really special," said Watt after the Steelers win over the Bills. "We're a very unselfish group and that's why I'm looking forward to playing with both of them."

Coach Mike Tomlin even said in his press conference on Tuesday that there could be the potential from time to time to use all three at once, 'if the situation allows for it.'

That is something that made Highsmith's eyes light up.

"That would be special," said Highsmith. "I think no matter where we are, if a package does come like that, I know it's going to be special. If we do end up implementing that, it's going to be awesome."

Highsmith and Watt started last week against the Bills, but the key isn't always who starts because the rotation is what makes it all work so well.

"I think what makes it effective is we are all fresh and we're coming in providing quality rushes," said Highsmith. "Just like T.J. said the other day, I really think this trio is going to be special. The fact that all three of us can come in and produce like we do is going to be special. It's awesome to be able to work with Melvin and T.J. I've learned so much from both of them already. I just want to continue to learn from them. Those are veteran, established guys and the more I can learn from them, the better. I'm just excited for what the year has in store for us."

Highsmith is no stranger to working in a strong rotation. In his rookie season last year he worked with Watt and Bud Dupree, and then stepped in and started after Dupree's season ending injury.

"Last year, coming into my rookie year, it was awesome to have guys like Bud and T.J., guys who are established here and be able to learn from. Bringing in a guy like Melvin, a Pro Bowler, a guy who knows what he's doing. It's awesome to be able to learn from him as well. Like I said, I'm just excited to work with both of those guys."

Highsmith knows the expectations are higher for him this year, making that second-year jump Tomlin always preaches about. He is ready for it.

"I feel like I'll be able to step up to the challenge, because I feel like I've matured a lot this year, mentally and physically," said Highsmith. "I gained some weight. I feel like I got faster and stronger this offseason.

"I've just got to continue to get the one percent better every day. That's something I preach to myself. I try to tell other people as well, just get better and better every day. I know the more snaps I get, just like last year, the slower the game will get for me. So, I'm just excited to continue progressing throughout this year."

An area of focus for him has been his 'get off,' the speed of his reaction on the movement of the ball.

"It's so important," said Highsmith. "That's the (most fun) drill we do all day. Coach T is always over there, sparking up that competition between us. I'm glad that we do that because it's really where it starts. If you don't have good get off, you're not going to be able to really get to where you want and be able to challenge offensive linemen.

"I think that's something that, at least for me, was one of my focuses this offseason, working on my get off and getting faster at that. I think so far this season, throughout the preseason, last week, I've shown improvement on that, and I just look forward to continuing to do that."

Highsmith said the key is that first movement of the ball.

"It really comes to studying snap count and stuff like that," said Highsmith. "That's what really helped me."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 2 matchup against the Las Vegas Raiders

Sore, but good: Ben Roethlisberger came out of Sunday's game against the Bills, feeling just like he thought he would.

"Sore," quipped Roethlisberger. 

And rightfully so, as it's been eight months since he played a full game, seeing just limited time in the preseason.

"Like I anticipated, you don't get hit for a while, you'll have more bumps and bruises than usual," said Roethlisberger.

The good thing, though, was the elbow was the least of his worries.

"It feels great," said Roethlisberger. "It's probably the only part of my body that felt good when I came out of the game. That's encouraging and positive."

Overall Roethlisberger came out of the win over the Bills feeling good about things, despite a slow start for the offense that they were able to adjust and turn it around.

"It looked like everyone had some jitters, myself included," said Roethlisberger. "Missing throws that don't you like to miss, that could have been different. The first third down, the one to Diontae (Johnson), the quick one early. The flat to Najee (Harris). Just some little things that maybe there was some excitement and energy.

"I thought, as the game progressed, we all kind of settled down a little bit and we were able to make some things happen."

Take a look at the best portraits from the Steelers' Week 1 game against the Buffalo Bills

Monday, September 13

Making a splash: Splash plays.

They are something every coach preaches, whether it be on offense, defense, or special teams.

And they are something special teams coordinator Danny Smith knows deep down can be the heart and soul of his unit.

They aren't easy to come by, that is a fact.

But when they do come, they matter.

And on Sunday in Buffalo, special teams delivered a huge splash play.

In the fourth quarter, while holding on to their first lead of the game at 13-10, Cameron Heyward sacked Bills quarterback Josh Allen for a six-yard loss at the Bills 23-yard line, forcing a punt on fourth-and-12.

Safety Miles Killebrew stepped up huge, blocking Matt Haack's punt and linebacker Ulysees Gilbert III picked it up and returned it nine yards for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 20-10 lead.

"It was a big play for us," said Killebrew. "It was a moment in the game where it was a big momentum shift. It was good team effort. I know a lot of guys don't know how things happen on special teams. It's very rarely one guy's victory when something big happens, and this is one of those moments where it was a culmination of a lot of guys doing their job. I just happened to be at the point of attack. I was very thankful that I was able to make it happen. And then my boy Ulysees scoops it up and scores.

"It happened very fast, but it goes back to what we were practicing all week. Danny Smith wrote up a few good plays that we were able to execute, and especially against a good outfit like Buffalo. So, everything just kind of happened the way that we had hoped it would."

Gilbert said he was beyond thankful when he saw the ball free and was able to pick it up and go from there.

"It was a play we had been running all week in practice and just a lot of effort and great execution," said Gilbert. "Then when the ball was right there, I just saw that out of the corner of my eye. I just picked it up and ran to the end zone.

"It's how we prepare. This is just who we are. We work hard and try to be the best we can at what (Danny Smith) has in front of us, what he teaches us. We go out and practice and execute that and just pray that when we come to the game, we execute the right way to make a play like that. I feel like it's day in and day out, every week that we feel like we have an opportunity to make some splash on special teams."

Plays like that are drawn up every week yes, but they don't always happen. That's just the way things go. But you have to believe. That is the key.

"That's the thing with punt and punt block, it happens so quickly that you know you can study something on film till you're blue in the face, but they may correct it when it's your time to play," said Killebrew. "It's something Danny says all the time, you never know when your number is going to be called. There's going to be a time when your number is called, and mine happened to be called in this game. It's up to me, it's up to every single one of our guys, to execute when your numbers called.

"The only way you're going to get a big play on special teams is if you think you're going to get it, and you have to think that way every single time."

The play was the redemption special teams was looking for after the Bills started the game with a 75-yard return on the opening kickoff, with Gilbert coming from behind for the tackle that potentially saved a touchdown. They regrouped at halftime, talking as a unit about wanting to go out and make a play, and they did just that.

"This is a team where we take things like that personal," said Killebrew. "We want to execute our phase. With that being said, like I alluded to earlier, Buffalo's a good team and their special teams is very good. We knew that we had to answer with a splash, we had to just do our jobs, and that was something that we really wanted to hone on. We all talked and we're like, we need to do our jobs. A lot of times when everyone's doing their job that leads to a splash play like what we saw there towards the end of the game."

Take a look at the best photos from the Week 1 game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium