Friday, September 25
A Watt family reunion: It's not often you have two players doing a zoom call together, but this week is all about things that don't happen often in the NFL, so why not.
On Sunday, T.J. and Derek Watt will face their brother, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. It will be only the second time in 93 years that three brothers have played in the same game, the last time when the Edmunds brothers, Terrell and Trey, faced their brother, Tremaine, when the Steelers played the Bills.
So, when both players sat down to take questions from the media on Friday morning, you had to see it coming. A question from the toughest media member out there – older brother J.J., aka Justin James from the 'Better Brother Gazette.'
And what did the hard-hitting reporter have on his mind?
He wanted to know about the fantastic gym the Watt brothers worked out at this offseason during quarantine, which just so happened to be at J.J.'s house, and what the membership fees were like.
"We cut the grass. That was about it," said T.J. "The thing about the club owner is he really liked cutting the grass himself, lining the field for his members. The grass was always pristine, the gym was always clean. We did our best to clean up after ourselves. We are very grateful he let us use his facilities."
Derek chimed in as well.
"It was kind of a don't make a mess, clean up after yourselves and you get all the perks you want," said Derek. "The fridge was always stocked."
The Watt brothers have as tight of a relationship as you could imagine among siblings. They grew up in Wisconsin, playing in the backyard where their competitive juices took shape.
"I think our parents did an excellent job always making sure we were outside of the house," said T.J. "We had a cul-de-sac out front. We would roller blade hockey. We had a decent size backyard and so did our neighbors. We would connect the three backyards with neighbors on each side and play football, baseball. Whatever we were doing we were trying to get as many kids in the community to come over to our house and play sports. That always went into the evening. We would come in and play mini sticks or mini baseball in the house.
"Always having that competitive edge. For me it was super important in my development to play with J.J. and Derek and get beat up on when I was younger, to be resilient and continue to grow from my experiences playing with those guys."
They went to the same high school, went to the University of Wisconsin, and now play in the NFL, the offseason bringing T.J. and Derek together as teammates. They have a group chat that covers everything and nothing all at the same time, something that you would expect.
"We talk about what is going on in everybody's daily life, trying to stay connected," said T.J. "Derek is always sending pictures of Logan. J.J. is always talking about how hot it is in Houston. I always have nothing to talk about. We are laid back, not talking much football, and catching up throughout the week.'
On Sunday, they will do something they never have done through all their years of football – they will all play in the same game and they are definitely looking forward to it. Yes, afterwards there will be some bragging rights, but all being healthy to play on Sunday is the biggest thing for the three of them. While Derek and J.J. have played against each other in the past, and T.J. and Derek, T.J. never faced J.J. because he was injured the last time the Steelers and Texans met.
"You will get the chippy conversations throughout the weeks to follow," said T.J. "More than anything, as we have grown in the NFL and had these opportunities to play each other and it hasn't worked out, we are so fortunate everyone is healthy. Knock on wood we leave the game healthy. That is the more important thing. We are all so confident in our capabilities individually and collectively as brothers, I think more than anything we want to leave healthy.
"Whoever wins the game or gets the most of Derek and J.J.'s battle, I am sure there will be some pictures and talk and smack back and forth."
The Watt brothers were your typical boys. They were rough like boys are, hitting hockey pucks in the house and scuffing walls, breaking lamps and the like. When asked what the most expensive thing they broke, the answer wasn't what you would expect.
"I broke your face one time," said T.J. as he looked at Derek. "That was expensive."
With J.J. being the oldest brother, he always reached the milestones first, including being drafted into the NFL, winning Defensive Player of the Year and other honors. It gave Derek and T.J. something to always strive for, but never put pressure on them.
"I wouldn't say it was difficult on us at all," said Derek. "He has been that role model for us since we were young, set that standard and bar really high. It was special. We were there when he got drafted. We got to be in the building at some of those award ceremonies. We're proud of him. It definitely motivated us. Just proud of him."
T.J., who the brothers joke has the inside track on being the favorite uncle of Derek and Gabriella Watt's young son Logan because they are now teammates, added that J.J. and Derek have always have always given him a path to follow.
"The coolest thing about J.J. is his openness to us, truly being an open book in any aspect of life," said T.J. "That is what makes him such a great older brother, Derek as well. When I would feel pressure, I would talk to Derek about it. I think J.J. has done such a great job of not forgetting where he has come from and wanting to help us as much as he possibly can to not only be the best football players we can be, but to be the best young men we can be."
Getting their timing down: Diontae Johnson didn't have much time to work with Ben Roethlisberger last year, after the all-everything quarterback was injured just two games into Johnson's rookie season.
But through two games, Johnson is the Steelers leading receiver with 14 catches for 149 yards. But both he and Roethlisberger know the connection can be even better.
"Me not having a full year with Ben, you have to build that trust with the quarterback, make sure you are in the right place," said Johnson. "We had a talk about that. I have to make key plays and make sure I am in the right spot."
Roethlisberger said he and Johnson were going to work on that connection in practice on Thursday, and Johnson confirmed they did just that, and on Friday as well.
"We were trying to get that timing down," said Johnson. "I was making sure I was getting out of my breaks on time. Same thing today. Getting the timing down, making sure I am in the right spot, making sure I am getting open for him and making him look good.
"It's rallying around each other, and just believing in one another, wanting to play for each other. Everybody wants to play for Ben. We are trying to help him win and we want to win a championship. We are all chasing this one goal."
He said it:
James Conner on Derek Watt:
"Derek is a great player. Very smart. He can adjust on the run. He is my first set of eyes on our plays. He is a good decision maker, fast reaction time. Having him out there is definitely helpful."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 3 matchup against the Houston Texans
Wins matter: Tight end Eric Ebron made a point of celebrating the Steelers' 2-0 record after his zoom session with the media following last Sunday's 26-21 victory over Denver.
Ebron genuinely appreciated being undefeated, even at such an early juncture of a season.
"Like I've said earlier and I'm going stick to it, as long as we're winning, I don't care," Ebron emphasized before practice today. "I feel like I don't have to have eight catches, 100 yards and a touchdown every game. As much as the competitor, the person you are would love to, if we win, man, as long as we're winning … wins help glorify anything, man.
"That whole game was ugly, and we still won. Winning cures it all, man. At the end of the day, as long as we're winning, that's ultimately why I really came (to the Steelers)."
Ebron caught three passes on five targets for 43 yards against the Broncos.
He has four receptions on seven targets for 61 yards in two games with the Steelers, but such relatively pedestrian stats don't accurately portray the role he's playing with his new team in Ebron's estimation.
"We're winning and I cause a lot of confusion," he said. "I might not even get targeted but the fact that my presence is on the field causes a lot of confusion and other people are open and ultimately that's all that matters. Because at the end of the day, it's not about me.
"As long as my teammates are winning, as long as my teammates are getting yards, as long as my teammates are scoring touchdowns, I don't give a damn personally about what I do."
That's a singular focus Ebron has honed after spending his first six NFL seasons with the Lions and the Colts.
"I didn't win a lot when I came into the league so I value winning a lot more than a lot of people might," he said. "You have to understand that getting wins in this league is hard. Sometimes, you win by a last-second field goal. Sometimes, you win by 10 points, that's a blowout. In the NFL, 10 points is a blowout.
"You've got to understand that winning in this league is hard, and by any means, if you can come by it, above all else, always get the win."
-- by Mike Prisuta
Wins matter take 2: Inside linebacker Devin Bush acknowledged being beaten for a 20-yard touchdown and a 22-yard reception along the sideline by Broncos tight end Noah Fant last Sunday but didn't emerge feeling picked on or vulnerable in pass coverage.
"Fant caught what, two good passes?" Bush observed. "One where he scored and one where he got his foot in bounds. One of those was just a busted coverage. The other one was just a great catch.
"I have no issues with my pass-coverage abilities. I don't think they were singling me out. They had some good catches. We're all professionals, it happens from time to time. It was a good battle. As long as you come out with a win, I can get getting better from that."
Defensive coordinator Keith Butler said this week the Steelers had a defender who should have blitzed but didn't on the touchdown pass to Fant.
Bush was also in a trailing position on a pass to Fant that went for a two-point conversion.
The emphasis this Sunday will be on keeping Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson from running.
"We're just focusing on containing him, keeping his feet inside the pocket and making sure we're on our keys when Deshaun has the ball in his hands," Bush said. "We want t minimize all those big plays he can make with his feet."
- by Mike Prisuta
Thursday, September 24
Claypool a hit in Canada: Chase Claypool had a following in Canada before joining the Steelers, but that went to a new level since he has emerged as a standout rookie for the black and gold.
Claypool, who is from Abbotsford, British Columbia, has seen his popularity grow not just among Steelers Nation, but North of the border in his native Canada.
Claypool, whose 84-yard touchdown reception against the Broncos last week was the longest scrimmage touchdown by a Canadian born player, even did a conference call with the major sports and news outlets in Canada on Thursday, taking about everything from his use in the offense, how it feels to earn praise from teammates and coaches, and his new nickname, given to him in a vote by fans.
'Mapletron' was the winner.
The nickname is a nod to Calvin Johnson, aka 'Megatron.' At the NFL Scouting Combine, Claypool ran a 4.42 and 4.45 in the 40-yard dash, the first receiver to run a sub 4.45 at over 230 pounds since Johnson did it.
And because the maple leaf is the symbol for Canada, the name was popular with fans.
"The Mapletron thing came up after the combine when I ran the time," said Claypool. "There was a pool on Twitter for a nickname. It was a fan favorite name. Pretty clever. When I ran it through my teammates, they thought it was kind of funny."
Claypool said he hasn't heard anything from 'Megatron' about it yet and doesn't expect to any time soon.
"I am just a rookie. I have to make a name before that happens," said Claypool. "That is a fan given nickname. I am going to be more neutral on that and see what nickname comes my way. We'll stick with Mapletron for now."
He said it:
Minkah Fitzpatrick on the Steelers blitzing so much and if it makes their job tougher in the secondary:
"We welcome it. We get paid to cover the receivers, tight ends, running backs. That's our job. It's a little tougher, but we trust our defensive line. We have the best front seven across the league. We trust them to get our backs, they trust us. I think we execute that very well."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 3 matchup against the Houston Texans
Wednesday, September 23
It's all about winning: Ben Roethlisberger connected with nine different players on Sunday in the Steelers win over the Denver Broncos, the second-straight week he has had that many targets.
In a game where you often have skilled players asking for more targets, more balls coming their way, the Steelers are getting it done in an unselfish manner, putting wins ahead of personal stats.
"You look at the win-loss column. Truthfully," said Roethlisberger on Wednesday morning. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter who is getting the ball. It doesn't matter how many times they are running or throwing it. It doesn't matter who is getting their stats, it's just a matter of if the team is getting that one stat that is most important, and that is a win."
Following practice JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has been on the receiving end of 13 receptions and two touchdowns, completely agreed with his quarterback.
"For us it's not about keeping people happy, it's about winning games," said Smith-Schuster. "You win games, it goes a long way. If you win the Super Bowl, everyone gets paid at the end of the day.
"We are all for each other, all brothers. Like Ben says, stay calm, stay patient and when it comes your way, make a play. That is what we do. Everyone is making a play. Everyone is touching the ball. We just want to win games and be happy."
A big reason for the Steelers starting off 2-0 has been that unselfish approach on both sides of the ball, with Roethlisberger being a key factor in that, despite the fact that he is tougher on himself than anyone.
"If he doesn't feel like he made a great enough throw, he is tough on himself," said Smith-Schuster. "That is his mentality. He wants everything to be great, perfect. Him working with the quarterbacks coach on how he can get better. This is what, Year 15 (actually 17) for Ben and you are talking about a Hall of Fame quarterback who still needs to improve on his game. It's really cool he is saying that.
"He is not selfish."
Team effort: It's been a team effort on defense through two games, but defensive tackle and defensive captain Cam Heyward emphasized today it's not yet time for a group congratulatory hug.
"It's only been two weeks," he noted. "I'm not gonna get ahead of myself and think we've accomplished anything.
"We have to be a defense on the rise."
There remains a great deal of work yet to be done toward that end, but the work the Steelers' defense has turned in against the New York Football Giants and Denver has been distinguishable by its splash, by its productivity and by its versatility.
Eight players have statistically contributed to the Steelers' 10 sacks, led by outside linebacker and defensive captain T.J. Watt's two-and-a-half and nickel cornerback Mike Hilton's two.
And 10 players have registered at least one of the Steelers' 22 tackles for a loss (inside linebacker Vince Williams tops that chart with six).
"It's a positive stat, both of them are," Heyward continued. "It shows it's not just one guy doing the work. We like to do this as a collective unit. When one guy gets the sack or the pressure it's usually because we have a lot of other guys doing their jobs.
"That's in the passing game. That's in the running game. We like to communicate a lot, I think doing that allows us to play fast, have confidence in each other."
Continued success in those categories against Houston this Sunday at Heinz Field will depend on the Steelers' ability to deal with a quarterback in DeShaun Watson and a Texans' offense that on paper and on tape ratchets up the challenge.
"We're facing a group that's a little bit different than the first two groups we faced, particularly from a quarterbacking standpoint," head coach Mike Tomlin observed this week.
"Not only in terms of what he's capable of, but his experience and what they expect from him is dramatically different than our first two games."
But Job One still hasn't changed.
"Rush lanes," Heyward maintained. "Deshaun will make you pay if you give him more time. He has some really good receivers in (Will) Fuller and Randall Cobb. We have to make sure we take care of our business, take care of our rush lanes.
"But to get to that you have to stop the run. I've always been a firm believer, if you can make a team one-dimensional, then you can really light your hair on fire when it gets to the pass."
The Steelers registered seven sacks in last Sunday's 26-21 victory over Denver. Four came on blitzes and three were generated from a four-man pressure.
Although they've been a blitz-heavy team in the early going, such balance is critical in Heyward's estimation moving forward.
"You can't get into a situation where you're just blitzing all the time," he said. "We have to make sure we mix it up whether it's four-man or three-man rushing groups, that's just the flavor of the cake this week.
"We have to make sure we continue to do our jobs. When we blitz we have to hit home. When we don't blitz we have to get pressure with four or three."
-- By Mike Prisuta
Monday, September 21
Trusting each other: Opposing offensive coordinators have their hands full this season game planning against the Steelers defense, because if you spend too much time focusing on one player, another one is going to step up and make you pay.
That is just the case for someone like Tyson Alualu, who with Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt beside him, and T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree on the outside, can slip in and make an offense pay, like he did against the Broncos on Sunday.
Alualu had five tackles, a sack for a loss of 10 yards, two quarterback hurries and a pass defense in the Steelers, 26-21 win, at Heinz Field.
And the fun part is, the defense can only get better as they continue to play together.
"I think that is always the goal," said Alualu. "Every week we look to do better and get better. I think I am fitting in well. Just having the guys we have on our defense makes it a lot better for me. Whether it's T.J. or Bud coming off the edge, or Cam or Tuitt pushing up the middle, I think teams have to game plan around those guys and it makes it that much easier for me to go out and do my job. That is my focus and what I try to get done."
Alualu, who joined the Steelers in 2017 as an unrestricted free agent, took over for Javon Hargrave's nose tackle spot this year after he left via free agency. But it's a role Alualu has plenty of experience at. He has started 100 of the 159 career games he has played in, including five in 2019.
"I was always confident in my abilities," said Alualu. "I always wanted to be a part of something special. I am grateful for the opportunity. I thank God for where he placed me, where I am now, and I try to make the most of the opportunity."
One of the things Alualu loves most about where God placed him, is the relationships he has developed with his teammates. There is a trust they all have, something that is built from off-the-field friendships to on-field play.
"Whether we're at the facility or away, we do spend a lot of time together," said Alualu. "When you build that camaraderie or that brotherhood more, it definitely translates to the field. When I go out there and they trust me to be on sub-packages or base front, you care that much more.
"When I am out there, I don't want to let them down. When you get to that level, you can do something special. That translates to our whole defense and I think people are getting a feel for that."
It's not just among the starters either, because with the way the Steelers defense rotates players in and out, everyone has to have that trust, that same relationship.
"We have been talking since training camp that it's the best depth on defensive line, including outside linebackers," said Alualu. "Bringing in the right guys and the people we kept around, everybody can play. It's good to have that problem. I am excited about the development and growth of guys like Ola (Adeniyi), Alex (Highsmith), and (Isaiah) Buggs. They are filling in well. It tells they are doing a good job with coaching bringing in guys and developing them and making the most of them."
Take a look at Karl's best photos from the Week 2 matchup against the Broncos. The Steelers defeated the Broncos 26-21