Friday, October 15
Waiting all day for Sunday Night: It's been almost two years since the Steelers played a primetime game at Heinz Field in front of a packed house, the last one being Oct. 28, 2019 against the Miami Dolphins, a 27-14 win.
But that atmosphere is something that is fresh in linebacker T.J. Watt's mind, and he can't wait for Sunday night, when the Steelers host the Seattle Seahawks.
"I'm super excited for Heinz Field," said Watt. "It was pretty rockin' and rollin' last time we play there in a nighttime atmosphere. The place will be absolutely nuts. The fans help so much, especially for us pass rushers and as a defense. The louder they are, the better that we are."
While the atmosphere is something Watt loves, the change in schedule is something that can be a little bit more of a challenge. Players are creatures of habit, waking up the same time on game day, eating the same meal, arriving at the stadium the same time. You get it. So, a night game can throw things off a bit, but he isn't complaining.
"That always kind of an obstacle to climb over," said Watt. "You have the one o'clock game and you get in such a routine of waking up, eating breakfast and then going right over to the stadium. Then obviously 3:30 games it's just slightly different. We can sleep in more, but you don't want to sleep in too much for Sunday night games. You can squeeze a nap in there, but it's always challenging to know if you can eat lunch, what you want to eat for dinner and all that stuff to make sure that you don't have a stomach ache or anything like that on a Sunday night game."
Watt, who joked that he isn't superstitious, did say that despite everyone saying that, those routines are part of athletes superstitions.
"Everybody likes to say that they're not superstitious, or they don't like to say they're superstitious all that stuff," said Watt. "But I see guys eating the same meal every game day and all that stuff too, so I think it definitely can mess up some guys. I'm now my fifth year so I kind of know what my body likes to do, what it needs to do for a Sunday night game."
He said it: Watt on using the three outside linebackers (himself, Alex Highsmith and Melvin Ingram III) at the same time on the field:
"It's effective for us as a defense and the more that we practice and the more that we develop it, the more dangerous it can be. Just trying to find a way to get more pressure on the quarterback and hopefully get more pass rushers on the field."
He said it, take 2: Watt on the challenge facing Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith:
"It's a great challenge. He's been in the system for quite some time, and this isn't a situation where they're just going to hand the ball off and not trust him. I feel like they have a lot of trust with him just off the last game they played, even though it's the back half of the game. He was slinging the ball. He looks comfortable in the pocket, and he's dangerous with his legs. It'll be a great challenge for us."
Getting back at it: Running back Anthony McFarland is still on the Reserve/Injured list but has been practicing for a little over a week now and is starting to feel himself again.
McFarland has been on IR since the start of the season, after having a strong training camp.
"I just came back to practice last week. Getting into the feel of things," said McFarland. "I feel like my body feels good. I did a good job of rehabbing. Just trying to take it one step at a time."
McFarland said he felt same pain during training camp, discovering his injury.
"I had a torn MCL. I don't know how it occurred," said McFarland. "Just one day out practicing I felt it. Got an MRI. That is what it was. It wasn't from a play. it's something I had from college, an old tear and a new tear."
McFarland said one of the biggest disappointments was having it happen so close to the start of the regular season, just when he was gearing up be a part of the offense.
"It's tough. It's tough just because it happened right before the season started," said McFarland. "I really felt like I tried to do a lot in the offseason, not even just before camp, coming into camp to try to make sure I become a better player than I was my rookie year. It kind of sucked for that to happen before the season."
The one thing McFarland has going for him now is that he is feeling confident in the knee, not afraid to make moves on it.
"Everything feels good," said McFarland. "I have been practicing since last week, just running. Everything feels normal. It might be like something a little rust to knock off, but other than that I'm fine."
The Steelers have a 21-day window from Oct. 6 to activate him, and when he returns, he is willing to do whatever is asked of him.
"Wherever they need me," said McFarland. "Najee (Harris) is a good back. He can do it all. But a lot of the guys in the backfield can do it all. Wherever they want to put me, wherever I can contribute just to help the team win."
Making his mark: Zach Gentry's statistics are modest but nonetheless indicative of how the third-year tight end has been expanding his role with the offense.
Gentry caught one pass for 13 yards in Sunday's 27-19 victory over the Broncos and has three receptions for 21 yards through five games.
He had one reception for 4 yards in his first two seasons with the Steelers.
Gentry has also been on the field more often. He played 22 offensive snaps against Denver (34 percent) and has participated in 23 percent of the offense snaps this season.
He played 49 offensive snaps (five percent) as a rookie in 2019 and 20 last season (two percent).
If he plays on Sunday night against Seattle as anticipated, the six games Gentry will have appeared in this season will match his combined total for 2019 (four) and 2020 (two).
"I'm just kind of taking it as it comes," Gentry said after practice today. "I'm preparing every day during the week and kinda trying to make the most of my opportunities, but it's been a lot of fun.
"It's definitely a lot more fun when I'm getting a lot of run and being able to go out and kinda showcase some things I can do."
Another number that reflects the increased contribution Gentry has been making this season is the 122 rushing yards rookie running back Najee Harris amassed against Denver.
"I was definitely a part of it," Gentry said. "Everybody on the interior O-line and tight ends were part of it.
"I thought I did a pretty good job blocking last game and we did as a unit, as well."
With wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster lost for the season to shoulder surgery, even more opportunities may be about to present themselves for the tight ends as well as the wide receivers.
"We're ready to step up if they need us to step up," Gentry said. "I think we have three guys every week that can go in and kind of make some plays whether it's the run game or pass receiving.
"We'll see what it does for our offense. I'm not sure exactly how that's going to shake out. We also have some receivers that are going to step up and do some good things. I wouldn't be opposed to getting some more balls in the tight end room, that's for sure."
-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta
Seeing progress: The Steelers had their best game of the season on the ground last week against the Broncos, when running back Najee Harris had his first career 100-yard game, rushing for 122 yards on 23 carries.
And while most people might have thought it was the game where the offensive line came together, Harris said he has seen a huge difference in the play over the last several games.
"Green Bay Packers game was a big difference. I even saw the difference against the Raiders," said Harris. "The transition and how hard they were working back then. The stats might not show up, but I saw them improving, even in practice, doing extra film work. I'm like one of these games it's really going to come together. And the Packers was one where they did. Then they got even better. We're just trying to get better and better every week. Really not worried about what other people think, or what we did last game. Just trying to figure out how we can improve and how to get better the next game and keep building blocks from there."
Harris said the best way to keep moving forward, to keep building on their play, is to just keep working together.
"A lot of repetition," said Harris. "A lot of us just staying down. And what I mean by staying down is don't read too much in the media of how good it was or don't think what you did was good enough. We've got a lot more games. And one game isn't going to go to make the running game change overnight. For us to keep going out there to practice and keep learning. It's always about keep working."
One of the things that has Harris feeling good is how the offense is coming together, and he said there was even learning coming from the losses.
"The first five weeks is a lot of ups and downs, but what I'm really excited about is we're really molding together, finding out what type of team we are and we're seeing some of stuff that we've got to work on," said Harris. "We don't want to lose games, but I always tell myself that there's some things losing can teach you that winning never can. I look at a loss as a win sometimes because it's a learning point for the team and a learning point of what we need to work on.
"We really found out a lot about each other these past couple of weeks. I feel like you know we're kind of on track to start changing stuff around. For me it's all learning points, just steps. Steps we got to get over to start to win. I'm excited to be a part of the team and to learn with these guys too. We're all just really starting to mold together, so it's been fun."
Thursday, October 14
Settled in: One of the topics almost every player has been asked about this week as the team prepares to take on the Seattle Seahawks and backup quarterback Geno Smith, is will there be a different approach by the defense facing him vs. MVP candidate Russell Wilson who is out after having surgery on his finger.
Linebacker Joe Schobert said one man made it clear that wouldn't happen – Coach Mike Tomlin.
"I think Mike T doesn't really allow that to happen," said Schobert. "When we are in our meetings in the morning, that's not how things are presented to us, that's not how the information is presented to us. (Smith) has been with the offensive coordinator for a couple years in two different cities, so I know they're going to be comfortable running their normal offense. So, we're preparing like normal."
For Schobert, that normal preparation is getting easier each week. After coming to the Steelers via a trade two months ago, Schobert is starting to settle in with the defense, having one of his best season's coverage-wise.
"There's always things to get better at," said Schobert. "There's definitely plays in every game that I wish I could have back coverage wise, but I mean I just go out there and try to do my job and I think it's more of a testament to the whole defense, being able to communicate so I can come in and feel comfortable. I was learning the scheme for two to three weeks before the season even started and just being able to be on the same page with the guys on the team is really what's allowed me to just feel comfortable out there.
"I still feel like I'm settling in in terms of understanding the whole defensive holistically, but I know my role and my responsibility on every play. As I get more reps, and get more experience, you start to understand all the moving pieces on defense and who's working with who on every given play. You start to get better and understand things more."
Another thing that develops each week is his rapport with fellow inside linebacker Devin Bush.
"Devin's a great young football player," said Schobert. "He's coming off his knee injury from last year, but he's been in the scheme longer than me, so it's been good for me to ask questions about things ever since I've been here. Just learning how to play next to him, learning what type of player he is on the field and in those moments. It's been a productive and positive thing for me to experience."
Waiting all day for Sunday night: Safety Terrell Edmunds will be no different than anyone in Steelers nation on Sunday.
He will be sitting around, watching football, and waiting for Sunday Night Football.
The Steelers play in their first primetime game of the 2021 season on Sunday at Heinz Field against the Seattle Seahawks, and Edmunds said when the lights go on, the energy level goes up.
"It amps up everything," said Edmunds. "Everyone is already excited this week because everyone doesn't play on primetime, especially Sunday night. All your peers are watching. If you ask us what we do after games each week, everyone will say the same thing, so we've got to go out there and put on a show."
And the answer to what they do each week postgame, is turn on the television and watch the night game, while they are either hanging out with their family or having a postgame meal.
It's waiting for the game, though, that is the hard part. Players have a routine, so when it's a night game, that routine definitely needs to be adapted.
"The day is different because a lot of times you just wake up and have got to go out (and play)," said Edmunds. "Now you've got to be patient, make sure your energy levels not too high, not too low. You've got to watch what you eat before the game. You've got to make sure that you're off your feet because at the end of the day, that nighttime game, everyone's watching.
"You've got to be prepared. You've got to be ready. You've got to go out there and help your team.
"I (spend the day) watching football, just hanging out with my family, getting something good to eat and just chill. I'm trying to clear my mind because I know that nighttime is going be stressful and I've got to be able to stay locked in all day."
No letdown: The Seattle Seahawks aren't accustomed to going into a game without Russell Wilson at quarterback, but that will be the case when the Steelers face them at Heinz Field on Sunday Night Football.
Wilson suffered a finger injury against the Rams in Week 5 that required surgery, leaving him sidelined and Geno Smith as the starter. Smith stepped in when Wilson went down, completing 10 of 17 passes for 131 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
But he hasn't seen a lot of action recently, playing in just one game for Seattle in 2020 and a combined 10 from 2015-18, after seeing extensive action his first two seasons in the league (2013-14).
For the Steelers defense, the key is to not have a letdown with Wilson out, knowing that teams often rally behind a backup quarterback and step up their game in other areas.
"Geno hasn't played, and it's a little bit different from Russell, so you got to be on your P's and Q's," said defensive tackle Cameron Heyward. "For Russell we've had a good body of work. We've been watching Geno. He can spin it. He's been in this league for a while. We're going have our work cut out for us."
Heyward said you almost have to go back and watch Smith's tape from when he played for the New York Jets (2013-16) to get a good feel for him, when he started 29 games his first two seasons.
"A little bit of Jets, but for the most part when a back up quarterback goes in, they have a running game," said Heyward. "It's going to come down to that. I think we've got to do a good job of stopping that up front. If we do that, then we can really pin our ears back."
One thing Heyward knows it there won't be any letdown from the Seahawks on Sunday night, plain and simple.
"When you watch the film (from the Seahawks last game) the thing that really jumps out to you is there wasn't a big letdown," said Heyward. "He was able to rally the troops. That one pass he had at the end in the corner, I thought was pretty good.
"They're not going to change up much. He's able to extend the pocket a little bit more than your normal backups, but he has experience starting so this isn't the first rodeo."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 6 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks
Wednesday, October 13
Taking advantage of the opportunity: Safety Karl Joseph admits this season has been a challenge. The Raiders No. 1 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft has spent the season on the Steelers practice squad, seeing his first action against the Broncos when he was elevated to the Active/Inactive roster for the game.
"It's definitely a challenge," said Joseph. "Being at the highest level, a first-rounder, to being here where I've got to work. But I'm embracing it. It's a challenge, forcing me to get better, not only physically but mentally. I've got to stay locked in and stay ready and keep working. My role right now is to help my teammates get better on field and get myself ready as well for my opportunity when my name is called."
Joseph saw some action on defense and special teams against the Broncos, while not extensive it was an opportunity to do what he loves.
"It felt great to actually suit up, go out there with those guys," said Joseph. "It's a learning process for me. I'm just going to keep getting better. It's a long season, we got a long season ahead of us. I'm just going to keep doing my part, everything I can to keep getting better and keep helping my teammates get better. And then just be ready when I get my opportunity."
Joseph, who played college ball at West Virginia University, said one of the main reasons he signed with the Steelers was his respect for Coach Mike Tomlin, who he met during his draft process when Tomlin came to his pro day.
"It was just a great opportunity," said Joseph. "This is a team I met with in free agency. I always had great respect for Coach Tomlin and what he's about. The culture here. I went to school not too far from here, so I know what it's like to be a Steeler, the whole fan base and how they play defense here. That was always something that was intriguing to me. When I got the opportunity, it's something that I couldn't pass up, to come here with a great group of guys with a culture that's built on winning. That's something I want to be a part of."
Practice squad update: The Steelers signed cornerback Linden Stephens to the practice squad today. Stephens originally signed with the New Orleans Saints as an undrafted free agent following the 2018 NFL Draft.
He has spent time with multiple teams, including the Los Angeles Rams, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Miami Dolphins, Washington Football Team and Baltimore Ravens.
He played college football at the University of Cincinnati where he played in 50 games, had six interceptions, 26 pass defenses, a forced fumble and 140 tackles.
Take a look at the best portraits from the Steelers' Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos
Tuesday, October 12
Making moves: The Steelers made several practice squad moves on Tuesday, including signing receiver Anthony Miller and defensive tackle Isaiah Mack and releasing nose tackle Eli Ankou.
Miller was recently released by the Houston Texans, not long after he had four receptions for 20 yards and a touchdown against the Carolina Panthers in Week 3. Miller was drafted in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears and traded to the Texans this past July.
Mack signed with the Tennessee Titans following the 2019 NFL Draft as an undrafted rookie free agent. He spent time with the Titans, New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. Mack played college football at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga where he was named SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-SoCon in 2018, while recording 78 tackles, including 11 tackles for a loss, and 8.5 sacks.
Monday, October 11
A full route tree: The Steelers opened up Sunday's game against the Broncos with a bang, with Ben Roethlisberger hitting Diontae Johnson on a 50-yard scoring strike on their first possession.
It's the second week in a row that Johnson was the target early, scoring on a 45-yard touchdown reception on the opening drive a week earlier against Green Bay.
"I've always been able to run every route on the route tree," said Johnson of being a deep threat. "It's just the certain plays they call for me I might be running a little intermediate route. At the end of the day, I am just doing what I am told to do. If I get a deep ball, I am giving it 100 percent. If Ben comes to me, I am going to make a play for him, make him look good. I can't really complain. I am grateful I am making plays like I am this year. I am going to just keep doing that and getting in the end zone and try to contribute to the offense and help the team win hopefully."
The Steelers are going to need everyone in the receiver's room to have that same approach as the injury bug has hit them hard as of late. Johnson is back after dealing with a knee injury, James Washington missed the Broncos game with a groin injury, and JuJu Smith-Schuster suffered a shoulder injury against the Broncos, one that knocked him out of the game.
"Injuries are going to happen," said Johnson. "It's next man up. So, whoever's behind JuJu's got to step up, if that's Ray-Ray (McCloud) he's got to step up. That's how it's always been. If one person goes down, somebody's got to step in. Everybody's capable of playing, contributing to the offense. We aren't worried about that. We're going to still go out there and do our thing on Sundays."
While he knows his teammates have to step up, seeing Smith-Schuster in pain after his injury wasn't easy.
"It's tough seeing him in that type of pain," said Johnson. "It's tough seeing somebody get hurt. You just have to rally around him and be there for him off the field. He's going to be cheering us on from the sidelines. I know that's what he is going to do. We are going to be there for him."
Take a look at the best photos from the Week 5 game against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field
Sack dance: Henry Mondeaux couldn't help but smile.
Not just because he was talking about his first NFL sack, but also because he was trying to describe the celebration that ensued afterwards.
Mondeaux sacked Broncos' quarterback Teddy Bridgewater for an eight-yard loss near the end of the third quarter in Sunday's 27-19 win over Denver, and following it, let's just say he had some fun.
"They gave us an empty set, so it was pass and I was in a one-on-one situation," said Mondeaux describing the play. "The guard overshot a little bit, and I used a spin move and broke through the line quick. I was happy about that. I was happy about my identification before the play, knowing that it was going to be what it was. We'd seen it on film, that their guards were overselling a little bit, so I knew I had the opportunity to go inside."
And then, he talked about the celebration.
"It's been kind of a funny joke that me and some of the others, T.J. (Watt) and Alex Highsmith and guys have worked on for a while," said Mondeaux. "It's supposed to be a matador, but I don't know how good it looked out there because I was so excited as I did it. But it was really cool to be able to celebrate with T.J. and my other teammates."
Mondeaux is doing more than just celebrating sacks with his teammates. He and the other young defensive linemen, including Isaiah Buggs are Isaiahh Loudermilk, are stepping up with the absence of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, who are both on the Reserve/Injured list. They aren't trying to fill the shoes of the seasoned veterans, instead just do their part to make sure the unit continues to flow.
"I think a lot of the credit goes to the offense," said Mondeaux. "I think it's easier to play well and play together when you have a lead and the offense is doing well, running the ball. It has been a tough year with injuries with the defensive line. I think that our young guys, and I being one of the young guys, have gotten better and realize that Tyson's shoes are really hard to fill and we're going to have to do it with multiple people. I think that we've done a good job collectively stepping into smaller roles to try and alleviate the hole that him and Tuitt have left. It's a continual process and we're working on our camaraderie and all that. I think that all the guys have done a good job thus far stepping up and we've got to continue to do so."
While they haven't been on the field, having Tuitt and Alualu at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex has definitely benefitted the younger players.
"Those guys have been around a lot," said Mondeaux. "They've been helping out a lot of the young guys in meetings. Tyson's been great going over film with us. Tuitt's in the meetings answering questions and that's big for us. I think on some teams when guys get injured, they probably don't want to come around, but those guys have been in the meetings and helping us because they know how important it is that our young guys step up."