Week 9 Blog: All the news and notes

Smash the run: With nose tackle Tyson Alualu already ruled out for Sunday's game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Steelers are going to have to depend on several young defensive linemen to get the job done in his absence.

Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux and Carlos Davis will likely all be called upon Sunday to step up, and veteran Stephon Tuitt has confidence they can get the job done.

"It's always next man up preached here," said Tuitt. "Coach (Mike) Tomlin really emphasizes that. I have nothing but the utmost confidence that these guys are going to get in and do their job. It's going to be a bit of nervousness for a couple of these guys. Just getting them to remember to calm down, pay attention to your keys, and make sure they keep focused and their head in the game.

"They are studying film and doing the things they have to do. We're going to make sure they have focus, pay attention to their keys and make sure they don't make this any more than what they were drafted here to do, and that is play football."

It doesn't hurt that Tuitt is playing some of his best football right now, coming off a performance against the Baltimore Ravens where he had two sacks for a combined loss of 15 yards, nine tackles, including eight solo stops, three tackles for a loss, and three quarterback hurries while winning the AFC Defensive Player of the Week.

"Any time you can get a great player back inside in Tuitt, and everyone knows how special he was, especially early on last year before his injury," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "To have him back in line, being able to be a penetrator, make a lot of plays, a lot of splash plays for us, it adds a whole other dynamic to this defensive front and it's going to make us a better team."

While the defensive line is dealing with injuries, they have another obstacle. They still don't know who they will face at quarterback on Sunday as the Cowboys have yet to decide between Garrett Gilbert and Cooper Rush. One thing the defense does know, though, is the man to stop is running back Ezekiel Elliott.

"It's always a little bit different when you have an unknown situation, especially at such a crucial position, at the quarterback," said Watt. "We know the offense goes through No. 21 (Elliott). That is going to be first and foremost what we have to do. Not only because that is what we have to do every week, but because he is a special back and we feel like the offense is going to go through him, especially with a young quarterback. It's always going to be smash the run first."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 9 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys

He said it:
Alex Highsmith on his interception against the Ravens:
"It was kind of surreal. I was like, did that just happen. I worked a lot this offseason doing drops. In college I played defensive end and I didn't get opportunities at interceptions. In college I did drop one of those right in my hands and I do regret that. I kind of feel like I made it up with this one. This was my first one since middle school. I feel like it's something I can build upon and go out and get another one."

Mutual respect: The Steelers are getting ready for running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys on Sunday in Dallas, but inside linebacker Robert Spillane's hit on Titans running back Derrick Henry on Oct. 25 in Nashville continues to resonate.

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler marveled on Thursday about the way Spillane charged at Henry and "jacked him up" at the goal line.

Spillane was asked about it again today and said he "100 percent" embraces such situations.

"When they say I'm too undersized to play linebacker, I want to show that I'm big enough," Spillane explained. "When they say I'm not fast enough to cover somebody, I want to show I can cover people. When they say I'm not aware enough, I want to show that I can be an aware player.

"It's just those things that motivate me inside and always have. When I hear people say I can't do something, that's something I strive to show them that I can do."

Spillane's 6-foot-1, 229-pound frame apparently includes a significant chip on his shoulder. But the former undrafted rookie from Western Michigan is also comfortable enough in his own skin and confident enough in his abilities to embrace the Steelers' acquisition of veteran inside linebacker Avery Williamson from the Jets.

"The limited amount of information I had about Avery Williamson was from a former teammate, (Tennessee linebacker) Wesley Woodyard," Spillane said. "I've only heard good things about (Williamson) and I was excited to get to work with him, to get to work with another professional who's proved he's a career linebacker in this league. It's exciting for everyone.

"We knew we were going to have to bring in somebody. It's good to have a high-end player added to our defense."

Spillane envisions helping Williamson assimilate to the Steelers and learning from Williamson's experience as a starter of 81 career regular-season NFL games.

"It's going to be a little bit of both," Spillane said. "I'm going to be able to help him with the defense. And any time you get to work with a new person at your position you're going to find ways that they look at the game that might be different, that might be eye-opening to you.

"It's just a mutual-respect thing. I think we're both looking forward to working with each other."

Thursday, November 5

Stop the run: Defensive coordinator Keith Butler made it simple on Thursday afternoon.

Stop Ezekiel Elliott and that basically stops the Cowboys offense, especially with a younger, less experienced quarterback in either Cooper Rush or Garrett Gilbert.

Minkah Fitzpatrick knows stopping Elliott is huge, and with the younger quarterback if you take away the run game and can limit the passing game.

"It's a team that relies on their run," said Fitzpatrick. "He is probably one of the best running backs in the game. He does a real good job of getting downhill, moving forward, setting up third and shorts, third and mediums. When you stop the run and put them in a tough situation, when you have a younger quarterback in there and put him in them in those third and longs, it's a little bit tougher on him. You can throw more stuff at him. You can move people around. He doesn't have to make a throw to the flat or throw right over the ball. He has to read a defense, look at different things and make a smart decision with the football which isn't an easy thing for a young guy to do."

What is easy for a young guy like Fitzpatrick to do though, is go full out in practice on a daily basis. But heading into Week 8 of the season, and losing their true bye week, this is definitely a time that some veteran players need a little bit of a breather and Coach Mike Tomlin made sure they got one this week with a 'hats practice' on Wednesday, just one of the many boxes Tomlin always checks in looking out for his players.

"It means a lot to have a coach who looks out for his players," said Fitzpatrick. "There aren't a lot of coaches across the league that are doing that. I am a younger guy, so I am feeling alright right now. There are some guys that are a little beat up, nicked up, that need those things. Literally one day of rest can do a lot for you so we appreciate it.

"I am fortunate and grateful to have a coach like Coach T. He is our head coach, so he deserves all of the credit in the world for us starting off 7-0. He is a guy that pays attention to all of the details, he is going to voice his opinion on all of the things he sees. He is transparent, which is something I love about him. He is going to keep it real, keep it honest with you. If anyone deserves a big portion of the credit, it's Coach T for sure."

He said it:
Minkah Fitzpatrick on the Steelers players buying dinner for ballot counters in Allegheny County:
"We are just trying to look out for the people who are looking out for us. They have a very hard task. They are working crazy hours. We just wanted to look out for them, take care of them and make sure they were looked after."

Getting motivated: Two weeks ago, Isaiah Buggs found himself inactive for the Steelers game against the Tennessee Titans.

It wasn't where he wanted to be, and it lit a fire under him.

"That motivated me a lot," said Buggs, the second-year defensive lineman. "Serving my time last year, most of the season being inactive, that's just telling me I need to step up. I need to be a better player, I need to practice harder, I need to play harder when my opportunity comes. All of that stuff falls on me. I take responsibility for that. I just need to be better day in and day out in every aspect of this game."

When injuries hit the defensive line against the Baltimore Ravens last week, it was Buggs who was called upon to step in for Tyson Alualu. And that he did, but it didn't come easy right off the bat.

When asked about his 'impressive performance,' Coach Mike Tomlin was positive, in a tough way.

"He needed to, but when he first came in there, he wasn't," said Tomlin. "I am just being honest, you know? We didn't have anywhere else to go. It wasn't like we were going to put someone else in there. He had to knuckle down and get active, and he did."

Buggs himself admitted on Thursday morning that he wasn't strong from the get-go, but adjusted in the second half.

"I got out to a slow start," said Buggs. "At this level when your number gets called, you are supposed to make an impact right away. Mike Tomlin stressed that we have to be ready at all times. I got off to a slow start and I can't let that happen. I played well, but I didn't play well enough, to my ability that I can help this team. There are ways I still have to get better and grow. As the game goes on. I have to be continuously dominant. In the second half I made those adjustments and continued to be dominant."

With Alualu missing practice on Wednesday still with the knee injury he suffered against the Ravens, it's likely Buggs will once again be called upon this week.

"I am ready, and I am prepared," said Buggs. "Learning from Tyson, (Stephon) Tuitt and Cam (Heyward), those guys I have been around for two years. Just watching those guys, learning how they play and do things around here, I am sure I am ready for the opportunity."

Like Tomlin said, he is going to have to be, especially facing Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. 

"He is running with great body lean," said Buggs. "He is probably one of the best backs we are going to face all year as far as body lean and finishing plays. He has good eyes. We have to be gap sound. He has good eyes. If we have a place, he will find it. He will kill us in that aspect. We just have to play Pittsburgh Steelers defense. That is the only way we are going to get out of the stadium with a win."

He said it:
Matt Feiler on how the Steelers offense can improve:
"The first thing that comes to mind is what Coach (Mike) Tomlin talks about, the turnovers. We are kind of beating ourselves in that area of the game. We hold onto the ball, we stay on the field longer and help our defense out with breaks. I think that is the biggest thing for us so far."

Wednesday, November 4

Doing the dirty work: The Steelers went into halftime of last Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens down 17-7.

But they didn't go into halftime down on themselves.

To a man, players admitted they didn't play their best football in the first half, but they came out in the second half a team possessed, fighting back on both sides of the ball to secure a 28-24 win.

"What we learned the most, when we are down, when we were losing to Baltimore, you could tell with the speech and the captains we have, Ben (Roethlisberger) talked, T.J. (Watt) talked, the head coach (Coach Mike Tomlin) talked, you can tell we are not down," said receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. "We can fight in the second half. We're not finished. We are not a team that is going to roll over and lay down. That is what I took away."

And Smith-Schuster was one player who certainly didn't roll over. He led the team with seven receptions for 67 yards, battling for extra yards all day, something he loves.

"Third down gets you paid," said Smith-Schuster. "You make those crucial catches that are going to get you first downs, move the sticks. The dirty work. I love doing the dirty work, I love going inside, bang-bang catches, running across the middle and not being afraid to get hit. I do embrace those balls down the middle."

Making those plays again this week will be huge for the offense. After facing three teams that had combined for a total of two losses at the time they played, the Steelers take on the 2-6 Dallas Cowboys and can't afford a letdown.

"You have to stay humble," said Smith-Schuster. "Every team is really good. Two years ago, we were a really good team and we went to the Oakland Raiders and we fell short and lost the game to a team that was 1-6 or something. Although the Cowboys don't have their quarterback, you never know. They have the opportunity to beat an undefeated team. You have to stay humble and go into Arlington, Texas and get the job done."

Hat day: The Steelers are almost at the halfway point, have been through a rigorous stretch of their schedule, and had the 2020 schedule played out the way it was originally slated, should be coming off their bye week.

But in 2020 we all know expect the unexpected. The bye week came much earlier than anyone expected after members of the Titans tested positive, so the team has to play a 13-game stretch without a break.

Except for the break Coach Mike Tomlin gave them today.

"What he did for us today, I have never seen that be done," said receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. "We had a hats practice because of the amount of guys on the injury list or just recovering. We had multiple games back to back with a bye week that we should have had, happen earlier in the season."

It was a break the players needed, a less physical day coming at a time when while the injury list isn't huge, the bumps and bruises are plentiful.

"I was talking to my friend on the Niners and they are still wearing full pads on Thursdays," said rookie receiver Chase Claypool. "We haven't done that since camp. Having a coach that understands that and the wear and tear on your body is super helpful for getting you through the season and being able to play well in the playoffs."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 9 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys

Being patient: The Ravens weren't able to beat the Steelers last Sunday but still managed to knock them down a few pegs.

The Steelers visited Baltimore ranked No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and No. 2 in the league in rushing defense.

They emerged from their 28-24 victory ranked No. 5 in both categories after allowing 265 yards on the ground and 457 total net yards.

"The rushing yards were definitely a concern," defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said today on Zoom. "After looking at the tape, we didn't stay sound. We didn't stay in our gap-integrity. We've got to continue to improve that."

The Steelers had been allowing an average of 68.8 rushing yards per game. The Ravens rushed for 62 yards in the first quarter and had 179 yards on the ground by halftime.

Baltimore's 265-yard rushing output on the afternoon was more than half of what the Steelers had surrendered over their first six games (an NFL-best 413).

Heyward emphasized the importance of learning from such numbers.

"We've got to understand we got be patient with our defense," he maintained. "Sometimes, when things aren't going right or as well as we want them to go, we tend to get impatient and sacrifice our gap-integrity in our alignments for, 'I've got to make a play, I've got to do this, I've got to do that,' instead of saying, 'We got this, we can rely on everybody to be in their gaps because if I don't make the play somebody else is going to make the play.'

"Those are things we can correct. It's easier to correct in a win because we can say, 'Hey, even though you did that we had 10 other guys stepping up.' But we've got to understand from here on out it takes 11 guys, it takes a whole team to make a village. Everybody's just has to do their 1/11th and we'll be fine in doing that."

Patience and gap-integrity figure to be of particular significance this Sunday when the Steelers take on running back Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys.

"'Zeke' is that guy, the premier running back in our league, so we've got to make sure guys tackle well, we're in our gaps and then when one guy misses we have another three guys ready to attack," Heyward said.

Heyward played 75 snaps in Baltimore, including a couple standing up at inside linebacker.

"It was a different wrinkle," he said. "I told (inside linebacker) 'Vinny' (Vince Williams) and (cornerback) Joe (Haden), 'I'm quietly playing every position on the field.

"Next I've got to play corner and safety, and we've already done it."

-blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Monday, November 2

Let's make a deal: The Steelers started off Monday making a trade with the New York Jets for linebacker Avery Williamson, which will be official after he passes a physical. The Steelers will also receive the Jets seventh-round selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, and in return send the Jets their fifth-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Williamson started six games for the Jets in 2020, and has 59 tackles, which includes 36 solo stops, as well as three pass defenses and one interception. For his career he has started 81 games in his six seasons, which includes playing for the Jets and Tennessee Titans. He has a total of 546 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss and 14.5 sacks. He also has four interceptions, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 17 pass defenses.

Williamson was the Titans fifth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft out of Kentucky. While at Kentucky he recorded 296 tackles, 10 for a loss, four sacks and two interceptions.

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