Week 4 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, October 1

Getting back on track: Sunday will be a homecoming of sorts for linebacker T.J. Watt, playing at Lambeau Field for the first time since he has come into the NFL, although he did play there when he was at the University of Wisconsin.

Watt is from Pewaukee, Wisconsin, about a two-hour drive to Lambeau Field.

"It will be a special moment, just like it was in college," said Watt. "I had a couple of buddies send me pictures. One of my best friends, Anthony, growing up he had (seats in) row two or three right by the Packers tunnel and we used to try and catch the players gloves and stuff like that after the game. I'm going to have a lot of a lot of family and friends in town for the game and it's going be a really special moment.

"But I'm just really looking forward to getting back on the field, back on track and hopefully performing for the team."

Watt missed part of the Raiders game and the Bengals game with a groin injury but has practiced this week and is feeling good. 

"I feel really good," said Watt. "I was able to full practice yesterday, full practice today, so I feel really good about where my body's at and where I'm at for Sunday. (I was) just being really smart with my body. Groin injuries and a lot of soft tissue are very tricky. Just being cautious about how I feel going into a game and listening to my body."

The Steelers will need Watt to contend with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a 17-year veteran who can beat a team in multiple ways.

"He is able to do everything," said Watt. "When you've played in the league for this long, your above the neck intelligence is so, so great that he's able to make a lot of quick reads when he has to. He's not taking a ton of hits. He's a really good drifter in the pocket. He knows where the pressure is coming from, so he is able to drift away from it. And he still has the legs to get out of the pocket as well."

No big deal: Running back Najee Harris made history with 14 receptions against the Bengals but doesn't understand what all the accompanying fuss has been about.

"The passes I caught, it was no designed route where I get it," Harris maintained following practice today. "It was just mostly check-downs. I know I caught a lot of passes but I think everybody's blowing it out of proportion."

The 14 catches (for 102 yards) set a franchise record for receptions by a running back, tied for the third-most in Steelers' history by any player and tied for the seventh-most in NFL history by a running back. Harris also tied Saquon Barkley (New York Giants, Sept. 16, 2018) and Roy Helu (Washington, Nov. 6, 2011) for the most catches by a rookie running back in a game in NFL history.

"I'm glad I could be somebody valuable to check-down to and just try to make a play," Harris said.

Coach Mike Tomlin's edict that the Steelers "absorb the negativity" in the wake of consecutive losses is also something Harris isn't overly concerned about.

"In this sport, it brings a lot of negativity, in any sport, really, and just in life," Harris said. "I've absorbed all of it. Good or bad is a saying I like to tell myself, I'm a good enough man to accept the good but a bad enough man to accept the bad.

"I know there's a lot of negative stuff out there but it's part of the sport, it comes with it. Just like when we do good you're gonna see a lot of good stuff from reporters, or anybody else. Good or bad, it doesn't matter. All that really matters is getting better every day."

Harris has a similar perspective when it comes to the Steelers' struggles in the running game.

"People are just blowing some stuff out of proportion," he said. "We're not just gonna 'pop' like that. It's never been that easy, especially in the NFL. But yeah, we're always one block away, one read away, one whatever away.

"If we just keep sticking through it, though, because no matter what you say in the NFL, you can dress up runs however they want but it's all the same stuff, so we're not doing a lot to change it up. We just gotta execute it and we're working on that."

Thursday, September 30

Building a relationship: Relationships take time to develop, but one thing is certain, the one with inside linebackers Devin Bush and Joe Schobert is definitely on the right track.

The two are making the transition to playing inside together, with communication on point so far. 

"It's going good," said Bush following practice on Thursday. "I think we're doing a good job with it. We have no difficulties with it. I would say it's on a good track.

"I think we're just two good players. We know how to play the position. We've been playing the position for a while, so nothing really new for us."

Bush seems to be coming off his ACL injury from 2020 without any major issues, the only injury impacting him was a groin that forced him to miss the Week 2 game against the Raiders, something he doesn't think set him back.

"I think it was just something I had to deal with," said Bush. "Something I had to fight through and learn my body more."

Bush said he still feels like it's too early to evaluate where his game is coming off the injury last season but knows there is room for improvement not just from himself, but the defense overall.

"Just getting off the field on third down," said Bush. "Three and outs. Creating turnovers.

"I think I can make a lot more plays. Like I said, I think it's still early. Only week four. We have a long season ahead of us."

Time to bounce back: After Sunday's loss to the Bengals, Cameron Heyward said it as simple as you can.

"Hopefully it's the worst one of the year," Heyward said of the 24-10 loss to Cincinnati.

Heyward said he has seen good signs in practice so far this week, with guys responding to the loss, but the true test doesn't come until Sunday against the Packers in Green Bay.

"I've seen guys come ready to work and the only way to change that is on Sunday," said Heyward. "We can put in the work throughout the week, but that's what we get judged on. Hopefully our work builds up this week."

The defense will face a big test on Sunday, trying to stop Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a veteran who has seen it all. And there is only one way to do it.

"Team effort," said Heyward. "You know he's a Hall of Fame quarterback and he's at a high level, but it's going to take not just the defense, but it going to take the offense going out and getting seven points. Special teams putting them in long yardage and creating splash off of that. And then we got to make the plays, we're supposed to on defense. Sacks. Turnovers. They don't have a lot of turnovers. But when you do get them, you've got to make sure you seize those opportunities."

The defense is hoping to get a few more parts back on Sunday after outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith practiced on Wednesday, both limited, after missing the Bengals game with groin injuries. But it's not just about getting the two of them back. It's about everyone doing their part.

"We have other guys that are able to step up as well," said Heyward. "I won't take anything away from T.J. or Alex. But when we're out there, we still feel like we have a chance. A lot of times they were just throwing quick or just running the ball, and that that happens. You look at that last sequence of plays in the first half where it goes from 7-7 to 14-7. That creates a culture in the second half where we got a lead, let's just run it and not put our quarterback at harm's risk. Hopefully we can stop the to run a little bit better, get the lead early, and try to capitalize on it."

If there is one thing that has been stressed from all avenues this week, though, it's don't panic.

"It's time to bounce back," said Heyward. "I think we've been in both of these games and it's come down to execution errors and mistakes on our end. Let's see what we can learn from it. Let's see if we can get just get a 'W' this week."

Wednesday, September 29

Prepared for it all: For Dan Moore Jr., getting thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie tackle could have been something that conjured up a lot of nerves or been overwhelming for the fourth-round draft pick.

If you think that, though, you don't know Moore.

The guy is cool, calm and collected, able to handle the assignment of protecting Ben Roethlisberger's blind side without feeling for a minute like he was being thrown into the fire.

"I was told a while ago to be ready, once I was drafted," said Moore. "So, I don't think I was thrown into the fire at all. I mean I tried to prepare for this all throughout camp and minicamp."

Moore said with the help of his coaches and teammates, starting right off the bat hasn't been an issue. He admits he is starting sooner than he anticipated in his career, but it's not a huge surprise considering the injuries on the line and the offseason departures.

"I always knew it was an option," said Moore. "When it all unfolds and it comes to reality, I guess possibly (it was a surprise to start so soon)."

From Week 1, Moore said he already feels growth in his game. Sure, he knows the offensive line is still growing together, but he can see that growth.

"Just getting better every week," said Moore. "The way I study film. The way I break down my opponents, mentally, just stand square and pass pro. Just technical things."

One of the biggest struggles the offense has had early in the season is getting the running game going. Through three games they have amassed only 159 yards on the ground, with Najee Harris carrying the ball 40 times for 123 yards.

"It's frustrating," admitted Moore. "Just because we put a lot on ourselves, and we know we have to get the running game going. We haven't performed and we got to do better. We know that."

One of the key factors is for the line to continue to gain cohesion, grow as a unit. They are working on that both on and off the field.

"Ben always talks about coming together," said Moore. "And I think that's what we need to do as an offensive line, as an offense. Just come together and play for one another.

"It's just bonding and gelling. Trying to hang out outside of this, get to know each other. That way when we're on the field, a lot of things just come by nature."

Help may be on the way: After surrendering a 61-yard touchdown reception to the Raiders' Henry Ruggs III and a 34-yard scoring strike to the Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase, the emphasis for the Steelers' secondary this week is shoring up coverage against the deep ball.

"Giving up go-balls is just something we have to make sure we take off our tape," cornerback Joe Haden acknowledged.

The potential return of outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith would help a great deal in that regard.

Both missed Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Bengals with groin injuries.

"Rush and coverage work together," Haden said. "Having those dudes out there helps us tremendously with having us just only rush four, and knowing our four is going get pressure on the quarterback.

"Having T.J., having Highsmith, having those guys out there being able to get after the quarterback, making him feel uncomfortable, putting that clock back in his head will help us out a lot. But at the same time it's no excuse for us to let them catch the ball over our heads."

Haden said he's "optimistic" Watt and Highsmith will play in Green Bay, but added he's waiting until Sunday.

"You know those dudes are gonna just be fighting their tails off until they get out there," Haden said. "If they can be there, they'll be out there."

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be waiting for the Steelers in Green Bay either way.

"He's my favorite quarterback ever in the NFL," Haden said. "I love Ben (Roethlisberger) to death but I'm just being honest.

"Ben is definitely up there, but 'A-Rod,' I like 'A-Rod' more than Tom (Brady). I like him more than Patrick Mahomes. I just like 'A-Rod.'"

Banner back at practice: Offensive tackle Zach Banner was eligible to return to practice this week, after being placed on the Reserve/Injured list at the start of the season, and was back on the field practicing on Wednesday.

Banner, who is coming off an ACL injury that ended the 2020 season for him in Week 1, remains on the Reserve/Injured list.

The Steelers have a 21-day window to decide whether to activate him or not. If he isn't activated to the 53-man roster he must remain on the Reserve/Injured list for the remainder of the season.

Take a look at the best portraits from the Steelers' Week 3 game against the Cincinnati Bengals

Monday, September 27

Getting his shot: When the 2021 season started, Derrek Tuszka, a second-year linebacker from North Dakota State who was signed to the practice squad, didn't know if he would be activated and see any playing time, especially early in the season with the depth the team has outside.

But he practiced, prepared, and studied every week as if he would, and it paid off.

With injuries at outside linebacker to T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith, Tuszka was elevated to the Active/Inactive roster from the practice squad for the Bengals game, and then went back to the practice squad on Monday without having to clear waivers.

He played 27 snaps on Sunday, something he felt prepared for because of the way he has approached things on a daily basis.

"I was to going be prepared to play, no matter what week it is," said Tuszka. "The first two weeks I was ready to play as well, so getting the opportunity was great. I feel like I had a decent game. Always room for improvement, but a good game to build off and keep going forward."

Despite signing with the team at the beginning of September, he said he has immersed himself in the playbook enough to feel comfortable with it, keeping him from having any issues when called upon.

"I know the whole playbook," said Tuszka. "I feel really confident. Obviously, I'm still learning the whole scheme overall, learning other positions which makes my position easier. But the day I got here, I got in my playbook and I've been studying since. I'm always preparing every week as if I'm playing. Doesn't matter if I'm on practice squad or activated, as you can see, this last weekend I was fortunate enough to be activated. I had prepped all week with the intention that they needed me, and I'd be ready."

Tuszka was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the 245th player overall. He spent time on their practice squad and active roster last season, before being released prior to the start of the 2021 season. He wasn't sure what was going to happen, but when the Steelers called, he jumped at the opportunity.

"I was waiting to hear back from Denver, if they're going to sign me to the practice squad or not," said Tuszka. "Pittsburgh called so it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up and took it as quick as they offered. I was excited once I found out they were interested, wanted me to come to their practice squad and give me an opportunity to compete for a spot. I feel like I've been preparing, and my number was called this weekend. Hopefully it just continues to build the Steelers trust in me and continues to give me opportunities like that."

Tuszka saw most of his action in the second half on Sunday, rotating with Jamir Jones, while Melvin Ingram played the entire game.

"I got quite a few snaps in that second half," said Tuszka. "My conditioning level I feel is really good. It's continuing to improve. That is one of the nice things about taking both some reps on defense during the week and then some of the scout reps for the offense. It's really helped me build my conditioning level up and I felt solid the third and fourth quarter."

Najee helping out: Running back Najee Harris had 14 receptions for 102 yards against the Bengals, the most in franchise history by a running back. But it wasn't all by design.

Receiver Chase Claypool said the Bengals defense was taking away what they wanted to do deep, having Ben Roethlisberger go to Harris on the checkdowns.

"I think defenses are is actively taking away the deep ball, throwing safeties over top so I think that's why we're doing it underneath throws," said Claypool. "It's another weapon to spread out the defense a little bit if we're able to get him open. And he can obviously make plays with his feet and that's great."