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Week 5 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, October 8

Slowly getting there: The talk all week around the Steelers has been seeing the improvement, the growth in the ground game.

And running back Najee Harris is among those acknowledging it happening.

"I say every week we get better," said Harris. "Last week was probably one of our better weeks that we had in the run game. We're all just learning, slowly getting there, but I feel confident in the line and what they do and Coach (Adrian) Klemm and how he's coaching them. We just got to show it now."

And there is no time like the present. The Steelers are facing a big challenge this week against the Broncos and all-everything linebacker Von Miller.

"He's very disruptive," said Harris. "I think everybody in the world knows about Von Miller and he can bring to the game, disrupting a lot of offensive plays. He's a good player. We obviously have got to do something to kind of stop him. We're trying to put together a plan to slow him down, but we're going to see when the game comes."

Harris said there is extra that you have to do in pass protection when facing someone the caliber of Miller, but he certainly wasn't going into detail as to what that would be.

"I can't really tell because we work on it a lot every day but, but it's more of just a higher emphasis of who's out there in the field," said Harris. "Really that is what it is."

Pass protection is something Harris has been asked to be a part of since he arrived with the Steelers, something playing at Alabama prepared him for.

"At Alabama, that was some that (Coach Nick) Saban always emphasized a lot because of how important it is in the NFL to have a running back that not only could do all that stuff, catching, running but also how important it is to pass block," said Harris. "That's kind of almost more important than all the other ones I just named. I feel good in pass blocking. I know that my technique might not be the best but in the NFL it's really hard to get in the best technique and you're playing against the Von Millers and the linebackers out there. I still have a lot of stuff to improve on, but I'm confident in the pass blocking."

He said it: Najee Harris on Jerome Bettis and reaching out to him:
"I watched him whenever he played when I was young. I liked Jerome. I spoke to Jerome a number of times. He's a cool dude. Just as a person I like him but watching this tape. Actually, I reached out to him so whenever he comes back here we can watch film together so he can give me some keys of what to do better."

Ready for anything: Broncos quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was knocked out of last Sunday's loss to the Ravens late in the second quarter (concussion) and replaced by backup Drew Lock.

It was uncertain as of this morning who would start this Sunday against the Steelers (Bridgewater was a limited participant in practice on Thursday in Denver).

Outside linebacker T.J. Watt said the Steelers need to be ready for either lining up under center, but more focused on what they're doing as a defense than who they're doing it against.

"You prepare for both, for sure," Watt said following practice today. "I also think we have to focus on ourselves a lot, too. That's not only because of where we're at defensively but also, if you get too much into who is playing quarterback and you don't worry about yourself then you kind of get into a whole different case of problems.

"Right now, we're preparing for both quarterbacks but more than anything just trying to make sure we're sound individually and collectively as a unit."

Watt said the preparation emphasis is on getting better, as opposed to snapping the current three-game losing streak that's dropped the Steelers to 1-3 in the wake of their season-opening victory at Buffalo.

"I think we just need to continue to push to play to our potential," Watt maintained. "That starts with practicing, and continue to have weeks where we feel like we're giving ourselves a chance to win games.

"I feel really confident about the week of practice we've put in so far and I like where we're looking for Sunday."

The goal is to "just continue to keep working to find spots where we can continue to improve, and grow on where we're doing well," Watt added.

A component of improving for the defense would be generating more turnovers.

The Steelers have one interception and two fumble recoveries through four games.

"Getting turnovers is never easy," Watt said. "We just need to find ways to create splash and it starts with getting more hands to the ball.

"Just do what you do to the best of your ability, not try to do too much, and the opportunities will come. It's just a matter of when they do come if we can seize the opportunity, make the most of it."

Not there yet: Given all of the changes up front, the Steelers anticipated individual and collective growing pains along the offensive line coming into the season.

The line has been making strides ever since then, but offensive line coach Adrian Klemm emphasized today that process must continue for as long as it takes.

"There's never telling how long it's going to take to get to where you need to be," Klemm said. "You could always get better. We're young but we have a few games under our belt, a lot of reps, and I think you saw a little bit of improvement (at Green Bay).

"We still have a ways to go. We didn't win the game. Although we executed a little better we could still be a little bit cleaner."

Rookie center Kendrick Green, who played mostly guard at Illinois, is an example of the progress that's being made, Klemm maintained.

"I think he's growing week by week," Klemm said. "Each week things are coming a little more naturally to him. For what we've seen the first few weeks in terms of (defensive) lines and the fronts that we've seen, the number of things that they've done and the talent that's been across from him I think he's done a pretty admirable job.

"He's a guy that wants to be as good as he can possibly be and he challenges himself as much as we're challenging him. He's going to continue to grow, I'm pleased with the progression but we need to continue to have the sense of urgency and development."

The line may be reinforced sooner rather than later if tackle Zach Banner can be activated off the Reserve/Injured list.

Banner, who missed all but the regular-season opener last season, began practicing again last week after suffering what he called a "setback" in his recovery from knee surgery in the preseason against Detroit.

"He's done everything they've asked and more," Klemm said. "He came out last week, he was able to do more than we anticipated. I think he's just doing a really fine job of doing the things off the field that he needs to do to keep moving in a positive direction. He's doing what's necessary to be where we think he should be.

"I'm excited about it. He has the opportunity to compete here soon and we'll get it going."

Thursday, October 7

A Banner day: Offensive tackle Zach Banner returned to practice last week, giving the Steelers a 21-day window to activate him from the Reserve/Injured list to the 53-man roster, or he would have to sit out the remainder of the season.

Banner, who is coming off an ACL injury that ended the 2020 season for him after Week 1, continues to make progress in practice, after having a setback in the preseason that dashed his hopes of being ready for Week 1.

"I said that we expected to be back by Week 1," said Banner. "I wasn't and it's not me. It's not coaches. It's my body. And it's the coaches telling me that afterwards that they want me to do it right. So just following my job through listening, following the rules, listening to the coaches, doing my job."

Doing his job lately has meant getting out on the practice field and proving to the coaches that he is ready to go.

"I just had a really good practice," said Banner. "It's not so much about having a good practice. We had okay practices, good practices during camp, but it's the next day. It's just how it is the next day after that, the next day after that. I have to be reliable. I think that's the biggest thing that you have to realize. Every single one of those 53 roster spots means something. It means somebody is going to do something to contribute to the team. I will not take up one of those spots until I can actually contribute to this team and I'm okay with that. I'm a team guy first."

Banner admits it's been frustrating waiting to get back on the field, because quite simply playing football is what he does.

"I'm used to being Mr. Reliable," said Banner. "I just am, and I feel like I'm letting the team down. It's that simple."

And he later added how he honestly feels.

"I want to play. I'm ready to play."

Don't panic: It's a message Steelers players have been stressing, and it's one they hope people are listening to.

Don't panic.

"It's still early. Everyone is panicked, crazy, acting like we lost every single game and everything like that," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "The first year I got here we had the same record, we were 1-3, 1-4. We were making plays and everything like that, but this is a progression. You've got to build. We haven't done what we wanted to do, but we've got to build on what we're doing and keep stacking good games on top of each other. There's no panic mode. I'm not frustrated about our record. I'm frustrated by the way that we're playing."

The Steelers have struggled so far producing turnovers, something that has been a staple for the defense. Fitzpatrick said they have been close but have to make the plays and not just be close.

"I've had multiple that I should have caught, other people the same thing," said Fitzpatrick. "Plays where we could have punched at the ball, we didn't punch at it. I think it boils down to us doing our job and being in the right position. Not trying to do anything extra, because that's when you get a big splash play. Doing our job and catching everything that comes to us."

Lead by example: Cameron Heyward doesn't need to say anything to his teammates. He doesn't need to give a rah-rah speech. He just needs to continue to keep leading by example, keep giving it everything he has every time he steps on the field, something that nobody could ever question.

"I don't need to talk to them, I've just got to get to work," said Heyward, who added his neck injury is something he has been dealing with for a while and he will be fine. "All of our mistakes can be fixed and fixed on the field. It's not just me saying, 'do this, do that.' You have to lead by example and make sure we take care of what we can on the field."

Heyward said he feels a sense of urgency with the team at 1-3, but that doesn't mean there is reason to panic. Heyward feels that same sense of urgency every time the Steelers lose a game.

"I'm urgent after every time we lose," said Heyward. "Nothing changes."

There is one thing he hopes does change, though, and that's the outcome this Sunday when the Steelers take on the Broncos.

"Versus good teams like Denver, they have a stout defense that causes a lot of turnovers and their offense really takes care of the ball so that's a recipe for success for them," said Heyward. "But we've got to make them uncomfortable. Give them some longer downs where they've got to take chances."

And if they take those chances, hopefully the turnovers that have been missing from the defense will come, the splash plays that can turn the tide. Right now the defense has created only three turnovers – two fumbles and one interception – something that isn't the norm for the unit.

"We haven't stopped the run good enough to put them in situations where they have to pass," said Heyward. "Some lucky bounces. Whether we haven't got it, or we've gotten our hands on it and we just haven't caught it. We've got to really force the issue.

"I just think we got to play better. We haven't finished enough plays and there's still a lot out there for us."

Heyward admits it can be tempting to try and make a play when things aren't happening like they want them to, but he also knows you have to be smart.

"It can be tempting, but in our defense, it counts on everybody's just doing their job," said Heyward. "Sometimes in the most stout defenses, the defenses gets out on a three and out. It's not necessarily a turnover, but it provides more chances for the offense and keeps the defense fresh."

Take a look at important dates in Steelers history during the month of October

Block that kick: Add special teams coordinator Danny Smith to those in the Steelers' contingent who are of the opinion free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick's blocked field goal and return for a touchdown last Sunday in Green Bay should not have been nullified by a penalty.

Cornerback Joe Haden was flagged for being offside on the play. 

"You know, I'm not allowed to comment on it," Smith said. "We were not offside, I can assure you of that. We played it the way we wanted to play it."

Among the other subjects broached by Smith were:

Whether conversations are held with officials prior to a key play in the kicking game to alert them something out of the ordinary is "on" or what to look for: "That's the great debate, do you have that conversation with an official? I didn't say we didn't. Sometimes you choose to and sometimes you don't, but that is a great question and that's a question I ask a lot."

Why Smith debates such interactions with officials: "I don't trust nobody, man. I'm out there on an island, man. I trust my players and myself and we go to work."

The Steelers' capability of producing splash plays on special teams: "This group is fun to coach, man, they're into it. We have good players doing good things, they're on their (stuff). They study. They work. They pay attention. They execute. They're good. They're in it, man. They want more. They're excited."

The likelihood of blocking more kicks: "If you study you can find stuff. We don't put a number on it. Every week is a new scenario and a new situation. Some weeks are more viable than others and we play it like that week to week. I think you go crazy and you're wrong when you put a number on those kinds of things. I don't have a number. I know we have a plan and our goal is this week and this game and this scenario and this situation and let's execute this plan."

The value of plan vs. performance: "The plans are good. Don't confuse execution with a good plan. We go into every game with a good plan, sometimes it doesn't look like that. Don't confuse a good plan with execution, and that's what I sell the players on. Sunday's a players day in this league and any coach that doesn't believe that is crazy.

"My job is to put them in situations. My job is to solve their problem before we get there. I'm gonna tell you what's gonna happen, I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna happen and most of the time I'm gonna be right. And when they execute, it shows."

The performance of rookie punter Pressley Harvin III through four games: "I love him. Am I happy with him? He's a better player than he's playing right now, but I love him. This is a talented, young man, and I stress 'young man.'"

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Wednesday, October 6

Not where they want to be: Kendrick Green made it clear. He didn't just say it once, he said it multiple times.

No matter how much the offensive line is gradually improving each week, gelling as a unit, there is one thing he was clear about.

"We're not where we want to be," said Green, the rookie center. "We showed little signs of improvement, but we're still not where we want to be. So, we're out here and we're going to keep pushing. We still took a step in the right direction we just have to keep going."

The running game started to click against the Packers, something the offensive line has been striving for, knowing that being ranked last in the league in the run game isn't where they want to be.

"We're not where we want to be," stressed Green. "We've taken a step in the right direction and we have to keep stacking days and building on that."

Despite quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming out of the Packers game with a hip injury, the line did step it up, with him only getting hit five times in the pocket.

"We still think five is too many," said Green. "Five is five too many. We're going to keep building the passing game as well. But we're still taking steps in the right direction, just trying to keep guys off of our guys. That's our job."

Green said the only way for the line to keep moving in that direction, is to just keep working together, including on a hot October day that seemed more like training camp weather than fall.

"We're out here in the sun, in the heat, sweating, working," said Green, who was one of the last players off the field. "We're out here grinding every day. Looking at lots of film.

"I feel like a big part of it is just us trusting each other. And that's what we're getting into now."

That trust takes time. Keep in mind this is a new line for the Steelers, a group that never worked together until this year.

"I feel like experience and time are the best teachers so that's what's going to help us improve the most," said Green. "I think it's the more reps we take, the better we'll get."

Blocking for a future Hall of Fame quarterback, with a team that has high expectations, is pressure though.

"If you can't deal with pressure, the NFL is probably not for you," said Green. "That's expected. That's in the job description, something we take pride in."

Keeping the faith: The Steelers have only scored six offensive touchdowns through four games, but wide receiver Diontae Johnson remains firmly in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's corner.

"He's been playing great in my opinion," Johnson maintained after practice today. "Yeah, he's going to have a couple bad throws and what not, here and there. It's football, the best of the best are going to do that regardless.

"Overall, I see past that because at the end of the day that's my quarterback. I'm always going to be behind his back no matter what and I'm still going to go out there and make plays for him to make him look good."

Johnson's belief in Roethlisberger has remained steadfast, in part because of "the way I see him practice and come out there and throw us the ball."

As for critics of Roethlisberger and the Steelers, "They're from the outside looking in so they don't know what we're doing each day and the hard work he puts in day in and day out," Johnson said. "We just have to shut out the noise and just focus on us and keep going.

"We're going to bounce back. It's football at the end of the day. You're going to take losses, it's how you respond. We're going to be fine."

Johnson leads the Steelers in targets (35), receiving yards (233) and receiving touchdowns (two) despite missing the Steelers' 24-10 loss to the Bengals on Sept. 26 with a knee injury.

He returned last Sunday and caught a 45-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger in the Steelers' 27-17 loss at Green Bay, the 400th regular-season touchdown pass of Roethlisberger's career.

"I realized that once I caught the ball," Johnson said. "He came up to me and asked for the ball.

"It was a big moment for him and for me, as well. Just to be able to go out there and catch his 400th touchdown pass is exciting."

There have also been occasions on which it's appeared Roethlisberger and Johnson haven't been on the same page.

The two are continuing to work on minimizing those and have an approach in mind while doing so.

"Just keep going over to the play until you get it down, until the timing is right, and then on to the next play, same for that play, as well," Johnson said.

"Just keep going and always keep believing that the play is going to work, no matter what."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Back to work: Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. returns to practice today, but he still remains on the Reserve/Injured List.

The Steelers now have a 21-day window to active him to the 53-man roster. If he is not activated during that period, he can not return to the active roster for the remainder of the season.

Tuesday, October 5

Looking for big plays: Cameron Heyward did his regular appearance on the WDVE Morning Show, sharing that the feeling in the locker room right now is one where the players know what they have to do to turn around their season, and it's something they are focused on.

"I think we're a work in progress. I think everybody understands that there's plays to be made. There's execution and details that have to be corrected," said Heyward. "If we look back at our games, some are self-inflicted and then some you've got to understand what's going on and understand how to do a little bit extra in those roles.

"Sometimes you need big plays, whether they come from offense, defense or special teams. We've been close to some big plays. But they haven't happened. And we've got to make those a recurring theme so we can get these W's."

The Steelers were oh so close to getting one of those big plays against the Packers on Sunday.

Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Green Bay's Mason Crosby with 20 seconds to play in the first half on Sunday. Fitzpatrick recovered it and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. The play would have put the Steelers up, 17-14 at the end of the half.

But Joe Haden was called for offsides, negating the play and giving Crosby a chance to hit a 26-yard field goal to extend the Packers lead to 17-10 at the half. Haden tweeted on Sunday night he wasn't offsides and stood by that on Monday.

"The ball was definitely snapped, I can tell you that," said Heyward. "But I think there needs to be the ability to review such as huge play like that because that's a 10-point swing going into the half. It's going to haunt me, and I know I shouldn't harp on it because it's a ref play. But you look back at that play and you would sure rather be up than down in that type of game."

Heyward knows the defense has to do two things this week against the Denver Broncos when it comes to big plays – don't allow the Broncos to have any and create some on their own. He said the defense sets benchmarks all of the time, starting back in the days of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, and they try to hold to them still.

"Ever since I got here, we've always set benchmarks," said Heyward. "(Allow) less than 17 points, (create) three turnovers, 3.2-yard a run or less, no plays over 20 yards and time of possession. These are all things we look at every week, so we got to really hit those on the nail this week."

Take a closer look at scenes from the Steelers' Week 4 game against the Green Bay Packers

Monday, October 4

Staying locked in: Joe Haden was asked the question and he answered it without hesitation.

Has the team lost confidence after losing to the Packers on Sunday?

"Not at all," said Haden.

Haden feels that the team is just a play or two away, a mistake or two away, from winning games that have them sitting at 1-3 right now.

"Especially with our defense," said Haden. "Speaking as a team, our special teams unit is special, our defense and our offense are going through a couple of struggles right now. We think it's nothing that can't be fixed. On the defensive side of the ball, we know how much talent we have. We feel like we can always play better, no matter what situations you get put in on the field. We've got to make sure we give up field goals instead of touchdowns. We've got to always look in the mirror and grade ourselves. I feel like we can be the best defense in the league. We've just got to be able to weather the storm and I don't think that I wavered at all. I've been in this league for a long time. There's so much parity in the NFL that it's one, two plays. It's not like we're ever getting blown out. We're always in the game. It's just a play here and there and we can have a completely different record. I think just keeping that mindset. We feel like we can win any game we play. I'm just locked in."

Haden was definitely locked in when Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt by Green Bay's Mason Crosby with 20 seconds to play in the first half on Sunday. Fitzpatrick recovered it and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown. The play would have put the Steelers up, 17-14 at the end of the half.

But Haden was called for offsides, negating the play and giving Crosby a chance to hit a 26-yard field goal to extend the Packers lead to 17-10 at the half. Haden tweeted on Sunday night he wasn't offsides and stood by that on Monday.

"We didn't really get any explanation," said Haden. "The explanation that we got was a lot of people said we weren't offsides. The ball moved and me and Minkah, we were timing that thing up. As soon as it was a flinch of the ball, we got off. I felt like it was a really good get off. And then we were able to block the ball.

"Once you get off like that, two people come that clean that referees sometimes just throw it. It happened to us against the Titans. We've probably had two or three blocks since I've been here. It's unfortunate though."

Making strides: Trai Turner sees the effort, he sees what everyone on the offensive line is putting into it every day, and despite a disappointing loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, he sees there are positives to pull from it.

"I just think it's a continuing effort to get better, not even just weekly, but daily," said Turner. "Just working to improve throughout the week so we can show it on Sundays. Not particularly everything that we wanted out of game, but there are always positives you can take and things we can build upon. We have a pretty young group, as many positive as we can pull from, I try to."

Turner said one of the biggest positives, is everyone is staying positive. There is no quit on this team, no pointing fingers. It all starts from within.

"It's all about starting with yourself, looking in the mirror," said Turner. "It's about perfecting what you do and doing what you do well. If all 11 of us on the field play collectively as 11, and give our best versions of ourselves, we'll be okay. We have to fix this, and it starts with me."

Take a look at Karl's best photos from the Week 4 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. The Packers beat the Steelers 27-17