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Week 7 Blog: A recap of the news

Thursday, October 20

Working his way back: For the past three weeks, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been a spectator. This week, though, he is back on the field.

Witherspoon practiced for the second-straight day, going full on Thursday, and when asked if he expects to play on Sunday, he is hopeful.

"Absolutely," said Witherspoon. "Working towards it."

"Really just trying to see what position I will be in to play on Sunday. That is what we are doing during the week. Just slowly progressing and seeing how my body responds."

Having every available body in the secondary healthy will be a key when the Steelers take on the Dolphins on Sunday Night Football and their speedy offense, which includes receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Keeping up to speed will be a key for the defense.

"Just playing coverage that allows us to play fast and respect who they are as an offense," said Witherspoon. "Then just doing our job on the back end, staying on top, knowing their personality on offense, knowing the type of caliber guys they have and playing accordingly."

Witherspoon wouldn't be surprised for a minute if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa utilizes that speed to go deep and try and take the top off.

"I think that is the expectation every week in the NFL," said Witherspoon. "That is one of the home run balls in this game and I think it's our job to come in week in and week out with an understanding of that and even more so an emphasis when we are playing the Dolphins."

Back at it: Safety Damontae Kazee returned to practice on Thursday for the first time this season.

Kazee remains on the Reserve/Injured List, placed there at the start of the season after he was injured against the Detriot Lions in the preseason. The Steelers have a 21-day window to place him on the 53-man roster or he remains on the Reserve/Injured List for the remainder of the season.

Kazee was signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in May. He is in his sixth season, playing his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons (2017-20) and last season with the Dallas Cowboys after they signed him as an unrestricted free agent.

In his five seasons, Kazee has 241 tackles, 166 of them solo stops, and three tackles for a loss. He has 12 career interceptions, 17 passes defenses and seven forced fumbles.

Another week, another test: The tests keep coming for the Steelers defense, this week it's in the form of the Miami Dolphins who are 3-3 but getting starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa back into the mix.

"He is unique. He is a great player, a great quarterback," said defensive back Tre Norwood. "Our main thing is for us to make sure we are doing what we need to do on the defensive side of the ball. Playing fundamental football. Playing together. Playing hard, smart, fast. Just doing our job. That is the main thing. Everybody doing their job, playing that team ball. The plays will come. We have to make sure we are making them."

Tagovailoa hasn't played since a Sept. 29 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals that had him in the concussion protocol, and the Dolphins have lost their last two games. While he is the engine that makes their train go, he isn't the only weapon the defense will have to keep an eye out for.

"They have a solid team," said safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. "He has a lot of great weapons around him. Two great running backs. Great receivers. They went out and acquired a lot of speed. He gets the ball to them in different ways. Whether it's handing it off or throwing it, he gets it to his playmakers."

One of those playmakers is receiver Jaylen Waddle. He has 30 receptions for 533 yards on the season, for a 17.77-yard average. And he has speed, along with receiver Tyreek Hill, and that is something that can kill a defense.

"He is another speedster," said Fitzpatrick of Waddle. "He is a guy who can take the top off the defense fast. When he catches the ball, if it is in the short area, he has the quickness and toughness to make people miss."

A new challenge: The offensive line is coming off what center Mason Cole would categorize as a 'decent' day in protection, but he knows there can't be a letdown this week against the Miami Dolphins.

"I think we protected decently. Maybe not our best game," said Cole. "That was a really good front, and the biggest thing is we got the win. I think this next group is really good. The front seven is really good. The d-line is really good. They pressure a lot.

"Another challenge for us. A new challenge. A lot of it will be on us."

With rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett currently in the concussion protocol after Sunday's game against Tampa, the other challenge will be keeping him upright and healthy. The line won't approach this game any different than any other game because of Pickett's situation, because keeping their quarterback safe is always the top priority.

"We're always on the highest alert for protection," said Cole. "We never want any of those guys to get hit. With him going down last game and possibly coming back this game, I think it's a more of an alert. But our senses and techniques will always be at the highest level to make sure that doesn't ever happen."

Tune in: For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Wednesday, October 19

Headed home: Sunday will be a 'homecoming' of sorts for safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, playing in Miami for the first time since the Dolphins traded him to the Steelers in the early part of the 2019 season.

While the Miami area is a place Fitzpatrick calls home during the offseason, playing there will be a completely different thing and bring back some emotion.

"My first NFL team," said Fitzpatrick. "It's going to be my first time going back there and playing at Hard Rock. It will be nostalgic for sure."

Fitzpatrick, who said the injured knee that forced him to miss the Tampa Bay game is fine, has twice been selected Associated Press First-Team All-Pro (2019, 2020) and was voted to the Pro Bowl twice since being traded to the Steelers. He said he is a different player than he was when he was with the Dolphins, and it shows.

"A lot different player," said Fitzpatrick. "A lot more mature in my game. I am better athletically. Just a combination of that allows me to be the player I am today."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 7 matchup against the Miami Dolphins

He said it: Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward knows the Dolphins will be coming at them on Sunday night, especially with the speed they have on offense.

"Speed, speed and speed. Their team is all over the place and can fly," said Heyward. "We have to make sure we get around. We've got to get to the ball. It's not going to just be one guy getting to the ball. It's going to be tough. They do a great job of providing a lot of window dressing. They have the jet sweeps. They have the plays down the field. You have to make sure with that back end, with the running backs, you get multiple guys."

Extra protection: The Steelers wore Guardian Cap helmet covers during Wednesday's practice, something that was done during the offseason and training camp and Coach Mike Tomlin has implemented for some in-season practices as well.

The soft-shell pads are worn over the helmet as an extra layer of protection. They were mandatory at certain positions from the start of training camp through the second preseason game, but the Steelers are wearing them now for player safety.

"I was very clear at the outset of this journey in that regard," said Tomlin. "When the medical experts' opinions regarding its effectiveness changed, then so did my attitude. They talk definitively now about the reduction of concussion risks for those that wear them, and when both parties are wearing them, it doubles the reduction risk. So, when we get definitive information by medical experts I follow their lead."

Follow the leader: Coach Mike Tomlin has praised the efforts of players who stepped up on Sunday against the Buccaneers, including some of the young cornerbacks from the practice squad.

One of those players was Quincy Wilson, who was elevated to the Active/Inactive Roster for the game, seeing his first game action since the 2020 season.

"It was good to finally play again," said Wilson. "It's been a while. To be able to come together and fight for one thing and pulling that off was amazing and a feeling I want to continue to have."

Wilson, who played 11 defensive snaps and five on special teams against the Bucs, said he really noticed the attention to detail from the young group, knowing so many veterans would be missing on the defensive side of the ball with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon all ruled out.

"We were happy we were able to finally come together and just do our job," said Wilson. "The past couple of weeks we have had some mistakes here and there, but in the secondary those mistakes are touchdowns. We played a somewhat clean game and just did our jobs. That is the outcome when we all stay on our keys and do what the coaches ask of us.

"We really focused on the details this week. Harped on the same things…do our jobs. It's things we have all been doing, but we really focused on the details. Small things create big things, and the big thing happened on Sunday."

Wilson said it was the belief that Tomlin had in the team and his young players last week, when many were counting them out, that drove all of them even harder than normal.

"We have a leader that really believes in his guys and when you have someone that really believes in you, you never know what can happen," said Wilson. "When someone believes in you, you are willing to go above and beyond."

Different challenges: Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been cleared from the concussion protocol and is expected to play on Sunday night against the Steelers at Hard Rock Stadium.

Tagovailoa hasn't played since a Sept. 29 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, and the Dolphins have lost the two games he didn't play in as well.

"The plan is for him to approach the game as the starter," said Dolphins Coach Mike McDaniel. "He'll be able to get those reps in on Wednesday. I felt really good about how he was able to get back on the field. What's unique about his whole process was that his last really full week of practice was the week of the Buffalo Bills game, because when you have a Thursday night game, you're walking-through. So, you're talking about your last full-speed practice. So last week was a big week to get through the protocol, see all the specialists, get all the information and then get him back moving around. He responded really well and was his exuberant self. We'll be excited to see him practice on Wednesday, and I know the team will be as well."

This will be the first time the Steelers have faced the third-year quarterback and he brings challenges with him.

"Tua's very good at turning his back to the defense and coming up throwing," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He's a lefty. He's mobile. Those variables provide some challenges that are a little bit different from a preparation standpoint and make him a difficult guy to replicate and prep. So, we got some challenges there."

Moves this week: The Steelers signed running back Jason Huntley and receiver Josh Malone to the practice squad on Tuesday.

Huntley was on the practice squad earlier this season after spending the last two seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. Huntley has 18 carries for 70 yards, and one reception for no yards. In 2021 he had 13 carries for 51 yards. Huntley was originally drafted by the Detroit Lions in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL Draft out of New Mexico State.

Malone was last with Tennessee Titans, after signing with them in the 2022 offseason. Malone was a fourth-round selection of the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has played in 26 games, with seven starts, and has 11 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown. He spent two seasons with the Bengals (2017-18) and also spent time with the New York Jets (2019-2020), and on the practice squads of the Denver Broncos (2021) and Green Bay Packers (2021).

The team also released safety Scott Nelson from the practice squad.

Tune in: For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Take a closer look at scenes from the Steelers' Week 6 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Monday, October 17

Stepping up: The Steelers starting defensive backfield on Sunday consisted of Terrell Edmunds, Arthur Maulet, James Pierre, Josh Jackson and Tre Norwood.

And what that group, along with others like Quincy Wilson and Elijah Riley, did was step up to the plate for an injury-riddled secondary and kept all-everything quarterback Tom Brady from being able to go deep, while throwing different looks at him all afternoon.

"Guys just held each other accountable," said Maulet. "Nobody was in their feelings. We knew we were banged up. We knew other guys had to come in and make plays and play Steelers defense. That is what we did. He didn't take a ton of shots (deep). I think we did a good job keeping the lid over top of the defense. Just rallying down and making tackles and gang tackling.

"We took this week serious, not being nervous, having the confidence to go out there and make plays. Have the confidence to believe in one another, to communicate and just play football. That's what I told the guys. Everybody wants their opportunity. Now you have your opportunity, just make the best of it. It was good watching it and being a part of it."

The defense was missing safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and cornerbacks Cam Sutton, Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon, all out injured. But they rallied with who they had out there and didn't disappoint.

"It starts in practice," said Norwood. "From the top of the week making sure we had the communication down with everybody out there on the field. Make sure we were taking it from the meeting room to the field, getting extra meeting time in, watching extra film. Making sure we play as a unit, play team football, team defense. Making sure everybody is doing their job every snap, from the first snap to the last snap. That was our main focus."

For Jackson, it was quite the week, being signed from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Saturday and then getting the start. But he was ready for it after having all week to prepare.

"I was just trying to do my job every down," said Jackson. "I felt good about it.
It felt good. It was a great opportunity to go out there and show where I am, show what I can do for this team. I felt really good, and I was happy to go out there and play.

"It started with practice. We were communicating throughout the week. I think we all have a good connection with each other. Good chemistry. That made it easy to play on the field."

That communication was definitely helped by Edmund's presence. Coach Mike Tomlin referred to him as a 'hub of communication' for the secondary and the others felt it.

"It's huge," said Norwood. "He is a vet. A guy that has played a lot of snaps. A lot of football. Having a guy like that on the back end as well as our other vets, especially in a time like that when it's thin on the backend, it eases the whole group as a whole to know we have that vet out there communicating, making sure everybody is on the same page.

"He is always calm. Never rattled."

Victory formation: If there is one thing an offense loves, it's ending a game in the victory formation.

And that was the case on Sunday after the Steelers got the ball with 4:38 to play against the Bucs and were able to move the ball and just run out the clock at the end.

"As an offense to get the ball back with 4:30 minutes and be able to get some third down conversions, that was a good feeling, especially after the last few games," said center Mason Cole. "It was good to be able to do that."

The Steelers converted on two key third downs, including a 26-yard pass from Mitch Trubisky to Chase Claypool on third-and-11 with 2:15 to play. The next two plays Trubisky took it himself, one a nine-yard run and the other a three-yard gain on a quarterback sneak.

"It feels great," said guard Kevin Dotson. "The way that we ended it on the QB sneak, we went over that in practice and we got the exact result we wanted."

And the ultimate result was the win, something they know it's time to stack more of.

"I don't think there is any relief right now," said Dotson. "It's a victory Monday, but it's not a victory Monday. We aren't off or anything. We understand we're not out of it yet. We have to keep building up that respect from other teams."

Tune in: For fans who don't want to miss any of the action, NFL+ is here, which means you can now watch the Steelers live and on the go! Watch live local and primetime regular season games on your phone or tablet. Start your free trial today here.

Take a look at the best photos from the Week 6 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Acrisure Stadium