Friday, September 18
No place like home: The Steelers will open their home season on Sunday against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field, but it won't be the normal atmosphere the players are accustomed to.
The game will be played without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, something T.J. Watt knows will be far from normal, but will happy to be home.
"I think in our mock games we did at Heinz Field it had a home game feel to it, being able to drive in, being in your home locker room, wearing the black jerseys," said Watt. "All the third down sounds we are used to…they still played the Towel Twirl up on the Jumbotron. Things like that that remind you it's a home game. Even though the atmosphere isn't going to be everything we are used to, it will still be nice to be at Heinz Field."
One thing Watt is hoping won't be missing on Sunday is 'Renegade' being played on the scoreboard. That is always a highlight not just for fans, but definitely the players.
"I hope at some point they play it," said Watt. "I always love watching the video and what new wrinkle they add to the video and the explosive, game-changing plays the defense and offense has. I know it will be a lot different without fans, but it will bring back a lot of memories of what the atmosphere should be like and it will juice up the defense for sure."
Not that the defense needs much to 'juice' them up. They bring an energy that is through the roof every week, and a lot of that can be credited to the combo at outside linebacker of Watt and Bud Dupree.
"We work so well together," said Watt. "We continue to grow, continue to push each other. That is the great thing about the relationship between Bud and I. We are always trying to find ways to get better, whether it's individually or collectively. Whether he learns something in the offseason and comes back and tells me about it and vice versa. Or if I find something on film that might help him on his side, I am always willing to share. We are an open book for each other.
"We want to be the best possible duo we can be, not only for ourselves, but more importantly for the team. We know if we are making splash plays, we are helping the team win games."
He said it:
James Conner on playing with Ben Roethlisberger again: "It felt like it used to, having our leader out there. He showed that same poise, that same confidence, that same baller mentality as a competitor that he has. It was awesome to be back out there with him. things go smooth when he is out there."
Thursday, September 17
Feeling confident: There was no denying that Sam and Pamela Highsmith were proud parents on Monday night, sharing on social media their support for their son, rookie linebacker Alex Highsmith, while wearing his jersey at home for his first NFL game.
Highsmith saw the tweets after the game and said it meant the world to him to receive that kind of support from the people he cares so much about.
"I was looking at all of his tweets," said Highsmith, referring to his father's account. "It was so awesome to be able to go out there and play for my family. They are one of the reasons I play this game. It was awesome to see my parents celebrate, my parents wear my jersey back home. It was just something I truly love. I was pretty emotional after the game when I saw them wearing my jersey, rooting me on, my dad posted some videos and stuff like that.
"I am so thankful for their support in my life. It was an awesome feeling for sure."
What else was an awesome feeling for Highsmith, was playing in his first NFL game. Highsmith stepped in and gave T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree a breather at outside linebacker, recording his first NFL tackle, and also saw action on special teams.
"It was fun. It was an awesome experience going out there my first time," said Highsmith. "I knew the game speed was definitely going to be fast, but I felt like I did what I know how to do. I prepared well going into the game. Having no preseason games is definitely a little bit of adversity to get through. But I am a guy who rises through times of adversity. I did what I had to do at practice. I worked hard and did extra work to be able to prepare myself for that game. I just wanted to go in there and play hard and do my job, do whatever I can for the team when I got in. That was the mindset that I had.
"My first game on Monday night, under the lights, primetime. It was an awesome experience. I felt like I showed flashes of what I can do when I got in the game. I wanted to play with great effort, get after the quarterback when I was in there, do whatever I could just to make plays. It's been awesome being able to learn from those guys, watch how they work."
Without a preseason, Highsmith definitely leaned on Dupree and Watt, from their advice to just watching how they work on a daily basis.
"It's been awesome to learn from Bud and T.J.," said Highsmith. "I think they showed it, they are the best outside backer duo in the league. Just going out there whenever they need a break, me and Ola (Adeniyi) can go in there and provide quality reps. That's what we did Monday night.
"I am just learning from them, watching what they do. Being a high productive guy, high energy guy. I just want to provide quality reps and make plays for the team because that is what matters most."
Highsmith's workload wasn't just limited to defense, but also special teams. And again, not having a preseason to get a feel for what it was like could have been a detriment, but his level of preparation paid off.
"Going into the game I felt confident in what I was doing," said Highsmith. "(Special teams coordinator) Danny Smith has done a great job of preparing us to be able to go out there and execute. I just did whatever I could to prepare for that aspect of the game. He always says, it's a one play drive, a one play series. You don't get any re-dos on special teams. I was locking in on those and will continue to every week, meeting with him after practice, doing extra stuff to make sure I am totally prepared not just for defense but special teams. That is something I take pride in, special teams."
Happy Anniversary: It was one year ago today that the Steelers did something they normally don't do. They traded away their No. 1 draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
But, when you have an opportunity to trade for a player the quality of Minkah Fitzpatrick in return, you do the unexpected.
Fitzpatrick said he didn't know what to expect when he arrived in Pittsburgh a year ago, just knew he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
"I just take things day-to-day," said Fitzpatrick. "I try not to think about yesterday, and I try not to think about tomorrow. I didn't know what to think about when I got here, I just knew I was going to maximize every single day as an opportunity I had. The goal was to have success and everything else like that."
Wednesday, September 16
No second guessing: JuJu Smith-Schuster came out of the gates strong against the Giants on Monday Night Football, grabbing all six passes thrown his way by Ben Roethlisberger for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
"For myself, having the first two years I had good seasons, being able to play with Ben," said Smith-Schuster, who was held out of practice on Wednesday with a knee injury. "Coming into this season I had a chip on my shoulder saying that I have to come out here and prove myself. It was great to have everybody out there, everybody be able to play ball again."
In addition to his contribution in the passing game, Smith-Schuster also had a key play recovering a fumble by Benny Snell that could have been a game-changer with the Steelers holding on to a 16-10 lead at the time. Smith-Schuster came up with the recovery at the bottom of a pile of Giants defenders battling him for it.
"That's JuJu," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He came in ready to play and he performed well. We've seen that from him most of the time he has been here. I don't know that any of us were surprised by what he delivered."
Tomlin showed the team video of Smith-Schuster making the fumble recovery during a team meeting on Wednesday, and Roethlisberger had nothing but praise for Smith-Schuster when asked if he thinks the young receiver's motivation for playing hard is a new contract he will be looking for after the season.
"I think everyone's motivated," said Roethlisberger. "Everyone wants to win every football game. We want to win a Lombardi. That's our No. 1 goal. I can't speak for JuJu what his motivation is, but I know as a team guy, he's motivated to help his team win football games. I think you saw that on Monday. You saw a guy that was blocking, that made the tough catches, that dove into a pile.
"How many guys that are 'looking for a contract' and trying to get paid would dive into a pile and risk their body and injury to recover a fumble that he didn't fumble? To me, that just shows what kind of a team guy he is."
Smith-Schuster, who appreciated Roethlisberger's words, said he never gave going after the ball a second thought.
"When I see something like that, I don't second guess or think about not jumping in there and getting the ball," said Smith-Schuster. "It's more I want to win any possible way. I want my team to win. I want to win a World Championship."
Stopping the run: The Steelers' defense entered the 2020 season wanting to defend the run more consistently and was able to accomplish that goal, for starters.
It came down to what they were doing and how well they were doing it on Monday night against the New York Giants and running back Saquon Barkley.
"A little bit of both," defensive tackle and defensive co-captain Cam Heyward explained today. "We did some different defenses and brought more people into the box for Saquon, but I think our DBs played a heck of a game."
Barkley was limited to six yards rushing on 15 carries, a 0.4 average.
More than half of his attempts (eight) ended in a tackle for a loss.
Heyward credited the defensive backs for handling the one-on-one coverage assignments that allowed the Steelers to load up the box against Barkley, and also for coming down and doing their part against the run.
"There are things you see on the field that don't even count into the stats," Heyward maintained. "Whether it's (cornerback) Joe Haden being in the box and making sure he fills his gap or (free safety) Minkah (Fitzpatrick) coming down and stopping a 5-yard gain, we needed all those.
"I thought we did a good job of not letting the running back get started."
It was indeed a team effort.
Six players showed up on the play-by-play account of the Steelers' 26-16 victory at MetLife Stadium as having contributed at least half of a tackle for a loss to the cause - inside linebacker Vince Williams, strong safety Terrell Edmunds, outside linebacker Ola Adeniyi, outside linebacker Bud Dupree, nose tackle Tyson Alualu and outside linebacker T.J. Watt. Williams, Dupree and Alualu were in on two such stops.
On the relatively rare occasions when Barkley made it past the line of scrimmage, Edmunds, Alualu, outside linebacker Alex Highsmith, Fitzpatrick, Heyward, defensive end Isaiah Buggs and Dupree took part in taking Barkley to the ground.
Barkley had one carry in the game's final 14:19, which played out after Chris Boswell's 36-yard field goal had given the Steelers a 19-10 lead.
It was a job well done, but another job awaits.
"That week's behind us," Heyward emphasized. "We have new challenges, a different beast to conquer. If we're not careful we're not going take care of our business.
"Week in and week out we've got to come ready to play, stop this run."
Complicating that task against the Broncos will be the presence of former Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak on head coach Vic Fangio's staff in Denver.
"'Munch' is the ultimate spy right now," Heyward assessed. "He's broken down our defense more than any other offensive coordinator or O-line coach has.
"He's going to put his offense in a good position, whether it's combo-blocking, trying to get the pressure off so he does a lot of play-actions and boots (bootlegs) to combat that.
"We've got to make sure we stay in our gaps. I think 'Munch's' offenses have always been very good when they can get D-linemen and outside linebackers out of their gaps, and they can just get to the second level. We got to make sure we have a disciplined defense that runs and hits."
No matter the specifics of this week's particular plan.
-- By Mike Prisuta
The Steelers prepare for the Week 2 matchup against the Denver Broncos