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Week 8 Blog: A recap of the news

Friday, October 29

Keeping it simple: Coach Mike Tomlin spoke to the media after practice on Friday, and right off the bat made it known that he wasn't going to be answering any questions about division of labor heading into Sunday's game against the Browns.

"Hey guys, I know you guys probably have questions about practice participation or division of labor heading into the weekend, but I'm just being honest with you. I'm not going to add any color to anything other than what's required," said Tomlin. "Our practice participation and then I'll declare actives and inactives 90 minutes before kickoff. Anything other than that kind of puts us at a competitive disadvantage. And I don't want to get into the details of that. And hopefully you're understanding of that."

Tomlin was asked about Melvin Ingram III, whose snaps have declined as of late, and if they have had any conversations about that.

"I've had some conversations with Melvin, but I'll leave those between he and I," said Tomlin. "And the reason he didn't work today is because of his groin."

Tomlin also said when asked if Zach Banner is ready to go full speed, "He is," and if Anthony McFarland is an option this week, "He's an option, certainly. Yes."

Outlasting the opposition: Outside linebacker T.J. Watt filled up the stat sheet in the Steelers' 23-20 overtime victory on Oct. 17 against Seattle, but it took a while.

Watt emerged with seven tackles (six solo), two sacks, three tackles for a loss, two quarterback hits, three passes defensed and a forced fumble. But he had to wait until the extra session to collect both of his quarterback drops, the second of which resulted in the forced fumble and recovery by inside linebacker Devin Bush that set the stage for kicker Chris Boswell's game-winning, 37-yard field goal.

It was a tribute to patience and persistence, qualities Watt may have to rely upon again on Sunday in Cleveland.

The Browns love to run the football, and as a result opportunities to sack the quarterback can be relatively few and far between.

"It's just trying to find ways to make impacts in other ways of the game than just the passing game," Watt said of his approach in such situations after practice today. "This week is a great example of that. We know they're a run-first football team. We know how much they like to stick to the run even if it's not effective early in games, and it's been working for them.

"You need to hunker down and focus on the run and stop the run in order to get those opportunities in the passing game."

The Browns' devotion to the ground game was apparent in Cleveland's 17-14 victory over Denver on Oct. 21.

Running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt weren't available. Neither was starting right offensive tackle Jack Conklin. But the Browns still rushed for 182 yards and averaged 5.5 yards per attempt, including 146 yards and a touchdown on 22 caries (6.6 per carry) by running back D'Ernest Johnson.

"It's a testament to the scheme and the guys that are running the scheme and how well they all know it up front," Watt said. "Just the rotation that they're able to have at running back, and then even adding back a Nick Chubb, a guy who can break a lot of tackles, make a lot of things happen with things aren't always blocked perfectly."

Chubb (calf) was a limited participant in practice for the Browns on Wednesday and Thursday.

"They have a great scheme and they have guys who have bought in," Watt added. "It looks like they've practiced their run fits often as an offense and it shows on the film."

Watt played 86 percent of the 56 defense snaps against Seattle.

Fellow outside linebacker Alex Highsmith played 100 percent.

"It's always just a feel thing kind of as the season goes on," Watt said of the week-to-week work load the two are able to absorb. "We both have a really good feel for how the games go.

"Some games you need more rotation, some games you don't. It's all about how we feel and trying to stay healthy and making sure that we're keeping in mind how long the season is.

"But right now I feel like we have a good hold of how we're rotating."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns

Thursday, October 28

The message is the same: Devin Bush sounded like the rest of the Steelers' defenders on Thursday when he said the same thing we have been hearing all week.

The defense needs to stop the Browns running game, and explosive back Nick Chubb.

While Chubb hasn't played the last two games because of a calf injury, the defense is well aware of the damage he can do and what sets him apart from other running backs.

"His contact," said Bush. "Him being able to absorb contact, run through contact and keep his feet moving. He is a tough back to get down and that is the challenge he presents."

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler stressed that you can't just bring him down with an arm tackle, because the Browns backs can shake those off. It has to be a full out tackle to the ground, something that is hard to work on in a non-contact practice, but something the linebackers are focused on.

"It's getting body to body during practice on a runner," said Bush. "Making sure mentally you know you have to wrap your guy up and take him to the ground."

Bush knows it's a big week for the defense, and the entire team, with an AFC North game and he said he is feeling fine coming back from his season-ending knee injury last year and is having no issues. 

"I think I am over that part," said Bush. "I think it's more just staying healthy now. I don't have any apprehensions that will hold me back from playing. I don't think too much about my injury as of right now. I feel good. My body feels good. My knee feels good. I am just going out there playing."

Bush's numbers haven't been where he might like them to be, but Butler is pleased with the way he is playing.

"I think all of us would say, including him, that we'd all like to be better," said Butler. "Shoot, what are we in defense in the league, 13th or something like that? I don't like that but it's a continuing journey for all of us.

"When you've been hurt and you're coming back from an injury sometimes it's a little bit harder than you think. It just doesn't automatically happen in the National Football League. The competition is too intense just to come out and miss a long time and all of a sudden start playing and expect to be the same way that you were before you got hurt, it's not going to be that way. You've got to keep working at it and he is. I think he'll get better. He'll play better."

Patience is a virtue: Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick intercepted five passes in 14 games after being traded to the Steelers in 2019 and four in 16 games last season, but he's still looking for interception No. 1 in 2021.

That won't influence how he goes about attacking the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland, Fitzpatrick maintained after practice today.

"There's plays that I missed," he acknowledged. "The last couple games, plays just didn't come, that happens. It doesn't really eat at me, I know that they're gonna come. I just gotta make the plays that do come.

"I should have three (interceptions) right now. That eats at me more than the ones that might not come or may come in the future. I just gotta catch what comes to me, make the plays that come my way, just keep doing my job."

Head coach Mike Tomlin has chatted with Fitzpatrick about maintaining such a perspective.

"I was just talking to 'Coach T' earlier today," Fitzpatrick reported. "I just gotta keep being in my position, keep doing what I do out there on the field and flying to the ball and plays are gonna come my way.

"I don't worry, anyway, but he's a coach and he knows his players. He said it to me because he's coached guys like me before. He doesn't want me to do anything extra or over the top, which I won't, but he was just putting an emphasis on "just do your job, they'll come.'"

There's no other way to play as a free safety, an absolute at his position Fitzpatrick was reminded about on what became a 61-yard touchdown pass in the Steelers' 26-17 on Sept. 19 against the Raiders.

"As a free safety patience is extremely important," Fitzpatrick emphasized. "You could look at one thing and you step up, one little step and now there's somebody over the top of you. It happened to me this year. I was looking at the wrong thing, I stepped up and the ball went over my head. It was literally because I took one wrong step. It wasn't because I flew up and tried to make a tackle, something like that.

"Besides knowing what to look at, having patience is definitely really important. You look at all the good free safeties across the league, they're all guys that are patient. They don't just bite on everything that's thrown in front of them. They don't bite on every single quarterback pump. Patience is definitely very important."

That quality could become especially necessary against the Browns' play-action/misdirection game.

"It forces you to have good eyes, forces you to play with a little bit more patience," Fitzpatrick continued. "It's also tough to do that when you have a team that likes to run the ball. They do play-action off of it because they want you to step up and bite on it so they can put the ball over your head."

As for the quarterback who will be trying to get Fitzpatrick to bite on Sunday, "Baker (Mayfield) is their quarterback, their starter for a reason," Fitzpatrick said. "He's a guy that has a lot of experience in the league. He's a guy that plays with a lot of passion, a lot of energy.

"Don't get me wrong, Case Keenum is a great payer, too. Whoever we get is going to be a good quarterback."

Stopping the run: The Steelers will hop on buses on Saturday and head across the turnpike to Cleveland, a trip defensive tackle Cameron Heyward has become accustomed to and one he enjoys.

"It's close. It's a two-hour bus drive there," said Heyward. "I've been there before I started playing here, when Ohio State played Toledo there. It's a fun arena to play in, a fun stadium, and I look forward to playing there. Ohio games are always fun for me.

"I like it. It's like they're right down the street. It's like a high school game. You look forward to those high school regional games and everybody knows everybody. Everybody's pretty familiar with everybody.

"We're going to have our work cut out for us. Everybody's watching the division."

The AFC North is a tightly fought division this year, with the 4-3 Browns in third, and the 3-3 Steelers sitting just behind them, while the Bengals and Ravens lead the way.

"It's a gauntlet," said Heyward. "It's the best division in football right now. Every team is vying for a spot and we'll see where it ends up."

For the Steelers to stay in the hunt, one of the main things they are going to have to focus on Sunday in Cleveland is stopping the run. Nick Chubb has missed the last two games with a calf injury and was limited in practice on Wednesday. He said he is hoping to play this week, but the rest of the week's practice will determine that.

With or without Chubb, the Browns have an effective running game thanks to the solid offensive line. In Chubb's absence on Sunday, D'Ernest Johnson rushed for 146 yards in a 17-14 win over the Broncos.

"It just comes down to guys staying on gaps, getting off blocks," said Heyward. "They've got strong runners, so we've got to make tackles. If we can do that and get them behind the chains, we have a better chance.

"Their offensive line is very sound. Chubb is one of the best backs in the league. You put those two together, it's a match made in heaven. They finish and they've been together for a good part of the decade. We're going to have our work cut out for us, but I look forward to it."

In Week 6 against Seattle, the defense held the Seahawks to just 18 yards rushing in the first half. But in the second half, the Seahawks moved the ball on the ground, finishing the day with 144 yards rushing. Heyward knows they have to improve on that on Sunday, or it will be a long day.

"We never want to put out a showing like that," said Heyward. "To have such a good first half and then let down in the second half like that was pretty disappointing. The great thing about it is we have another week to prove that we're better than that."

Wednesday, October 27

Feeling energized: Coach Mike Tomlin's answer to a question at the end of his press conference on Tuesday regarding college coaching rumors has made headlines all across the sports world.

But the comments also hit close to home, right in the Steelers locker room, where players were energized by his emphatic dismissal of the rumors.

Cornerback Joe Haden tweeted on Tuesday night that he would run through a wall for Tomlin, and on Wednesday talked about whether or not his comments had him pumped up.

"Was I (pumped)?" said Haden. "Like I always tell everyone, the team meetings, everything, he just knows how to carry himself, be a man, address issues, shut stuff down. That's just another reason I was watching that interview just smiling from ear to ear. I am like, look at Coach handling business.

"When your coach carries himself like. He is just a leader of men. He does everything the right way. I just love Coach Tomlin and everything he stands for and that's just another reason right there.

"As soon as I saw that I was looking, I smiled at my wife. Just his passion. Everything Coach T does, he's a great example."

Haden said he could feel an energy among his teammates today as well, and while he knows some of the younger guys don't have a sense of everything they might have playing for the Steelers because it's all they know, he thinks this gave them a little more of a feel for how special it is.

"I don't know if all of them do. I don't think they understand completely when you get drafted by Pittsburgh what you're in," said Haden. "When I got here, I was already somewhere else so just seeing it, if you don't know nothing different you think this is just the way it is. But it's not.

"Even James Pierre today he was like, 'I'm a Steeler.' He just said it out of nowhere. I'm standing on the sideline like, 'Hell yeah you are.' It was just killing me. He was like I am out here with Joe, just excited. I know that some dudes feel that and that just makes me happy. I just love stuff like that."

Knowing Tomlin, though, Haden understands there is something bigger for them to focus on this week than their coach's comments.

The Cleveland Browns.

The two teams will meet on Sunday in a key AFC North matchup at FirstEnergy Stadium, and it's a Cleveland team that's loaded with talent and got the best of the Steelers last year when they defeated them in the AFC Divisional Round.

"They are very talented, all of the players there," said Haden, who played for the Browns from 2010-16 during some lean years. "It's a little bit more structured now. They have a really good head coach that has been there consistently. They have a quarterback, Baker Mayfield, and he's been there for a couple of years now. It's not too much turnaround. I think when I was there, that was the main thing. Different quarterbacks, different coaches, different staff. They have been rockin' with the same staff now for a little bit longer. I think (Coach Kevin) Stefanski has become comfortable with Baker. That offensive line they're able to build. They have had a really good defense since I was there. I think everything's just finally coming to fruition for them."

Ready for more: Wide receiver Chase Claypool took a turn at the podium after practice today and confirmed what had seemed apparent to observers at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

There was an increase in energy and emotion as the Steelers prepared for Sunday's meeting with Cleveland.

"It might be because of the bye week that we have more energy and more fun," Claypool said. "Or, it's because we're playing the Browns.

"Either way, we're having more fun out there."

More splash plays from the offense in general and from Claypool in particular would help keep the good times rolling against the Browns and beyond. Wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard had identified the need for those during last week's bye.

"It's been talked about and addressed," Hilliard said. "We'll continue to work and more of those plays will come. He's too talented individually and he's counted on by everybody in this building, including himself, to make those plays and he will."

Claypool picked up where Hilliard left off and talked about where more splash can be found.

"In the scheme, in our offensive play calls, in my play-making, the combination of those three," he said. "Sometimes, the defense doesn't let us do a splash play.

"As long as we get the right look we'll go make plays."

Claypool is looking forward to making his share, in part, by continuing to work out of the slot as well as outside.

"I think we can get a lot of mismatches if we move me around, and I think they've been doing that, so I think it's good," he said. "It makes the defense work a little harder.

"It doesn't make it so easy for them pin down where I'm going to be every play."

Cornerback Joe Haden had been among the first to trumpet Claypool's potential during training camp last year and remains in the second-year, former second-round draft pick's corner.

"I expect him to continue to get better and better," Haden said. "I think we're gonna be able to hopefully connect on some more of those deep-ball shots.

"I think we're doing a good job now just getting that run game started. Once we get the run game going and I think we're gonna have single-high coverages, we're gonna be able to take more shots deep with Chase.

"I think Chase is gonna be fine."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Monday, October 25

Helping hand: Eric Ebron's stats aren't what the energetic tight end is accustomed to. Through the first three games he had just one reception for 19 yards, that coming against the Buffalo Bills in the season opener.

Through six games, he has just seven receptions for 47 yards, and no receiving touchdowns, although he does have one rushing touchdown.

And while he could be complaining about the numbers, he isn't. He has been quiet, taking a team-first approach, knowing that if called upon he can do the job and not asking quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to do anything differently.

"Ben's a veteran and you just hope that what you put on tape people see," said Ebron. "I've been putting a lot of good stuff on tape, but hopefully they recognize it. There's no need for me to say anything. You know my reputation is I've always said something, so for me this time I'm not going to say anything. I'm going to just continue to let my tape and my coaches work for me."

While he isn't getting the ball, the one thing he is doing that many don't see is being an incredible mentor to rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth. Ebron has unselfishly given Freiermuth every tip he can to help him and loves what he sees from the rookie.

"Pat, to be a rookie, I think he's phenomenal," said Ebron. "I didn't have the mental mindset Pat does. He just turned 23 today, so Happy Birthday to my guy. I love that little dude.

"Pat asks me more questions than anybody. It's like my third child. He's a student of the game, and you rarely use that term with a lot of people. He's very young, you understand that. But he's a student of the game. He picks my mind. I offer him a lot of detail. I've played against a lot of these teams. I played against a lot of our opponents and try to help him separate his physical from his mental. This league is more about mental than it is physical and as we can see Pat is physically gifted, so we just try to continue to keep him headstrong. This is a long season. We just had a bye week. We've got 11 straight games, so my job is to try to keep him as mentally strong as I can for 11 games."

Stopping the run: Defensive lineman Chris Wormley knows what the defense must do on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field if they want to come out on top.

And the main things is stop the run.

In Week 6 against Seattle, the defense held the Seahawks to just 18 yards rushing in the first half. But in the second half, the Seahawks moved the ball on the ground, finishing the day with 144 yards rushing.

"I think watching the film, that was definitely the most glaring thing is, especially those first two drives coming out the second half," said Wormley. "We held them to 18 yards that first half and then another 100 plus the second half, so I think being more attentive to details is going to be our biggest thing. We did that a little bit last week with our practice, focusing on that. That's going to be our biggest challenge this week is to stop the run."

The good news is, Wormley knows that second half is something they can address and correct, working together as a unit to prevent it from happening again. 

"The biggest thing is communication and be on those details," said Wormley. "It's more so of us being in the right space. If we're in the right gaps, I think a lot of those rushing yards that we gave up against Seattle wouldn't be there. That's what we're looking to do against Cleveland this week."

Browns running back Nick Chubb has missed the last two games with a calf injury but could return to the field this week. In his absence on Sunday, D'Ernest Johnson rushed for 146 yards in a 17-14 win over the Broncos. With those weapons, and their power upfront, the Steelers know they are in for a battle.

"They're big, they're physical, they can move off the ball when you're not ready for it," said Wormley. "As a defensive lineman, that's going to be our biggest challenge this week is stopping the run. With guys like (tackle Jack) Conklin, (guard Joel) Botonio, those guys have been in the league a long time and they play great ball. We're going to have to stop the run if we want to win the game."

Lasting memory: It's a game that is still in their memories, and understandably so.

Because when you lose in the postseason, no matter how much you try to put it behind you, it's not easy.

And on Sunday, the Steelers will have a rematch against the Cleveland Browns, the team that knocked them out of the postseason with a 48-37 win in the AFC Wild Card Round last year at Heinz Field.

The Browns got off to a fast start, scoring 28 points in the first quarter, and led the entire way.

"Just how fast they started," said Wormley. "They got up on us 28-0 in the first quarter and you're kind of sitting there… what just happened. We have three quarters left to this game. And if it wasn't for that first quarter, I think things would have been different. The biggest thing was just that shock value of it. We're down four scores in the first quarter. We're not trying to do that this week for sure."

While players can let a loss go from week-to-week, Wormley admits that the playoff loss can hit a little bit harder.

"That's going to stick with us for the next eight months until we put on the pads for camp," said Wormley. "I've been thinking about it a lot. I know a lot of the other guys been thinking about it. We're trying to right that ship this week Sunday."

Tight end Eric Ebron knows that everyone better be motivated come Sunday, whether the Browns beat them in the postseason or not, because it's a huge AFC North matchup. But the memories that linger from that loss definitely make it hit harder.

"They whooped our (butt) at home and they sent us home, so if you can't get motivated for that, you shouldn't be playing football," said Ebron. "If you can't wake up that morning and be pumped up for that game, you probably shouldn't be playing football. You better come with it."