Week 9 Blog: News and Notes

Tuesday, October 31

Ready for his turn: On Monday, Coach Mike Tomlin said rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. has done enough to hold onto a starting spot after he stepped in as the starter against the Jacksonville Jaguars with Levi Wallace injured. 

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin repeated the message on Tuesday.

And after practice, Porter was all smiles. 

"I am excited," Porter told me after practice. "It hasn't really hit me yet. I know when it does, I will be even more excited about it."

Porter has been seeing more playing time as the season has worn on, from a few snaps to now a starter. 

"It's a blessing," said Porter. "I just always think about the night of the draft, how I was feeling, where I was mentally. Just the message that everyone important was giving to me. Just stay the course, just work with your head down. 

"It finally paid off. A lot of ups and downs, but it finally paid off."

Porter is referencing being at the NFL Draft with the hopes of going in the first round, but not being selected. As everyone knows, it worked out for all when he was taken by the Steelers with the first pick in the second round, the 32nd overall selection. 

Porter waited at the draft for his turn, and he waited it out for his chance to step in and start, something that isn't new for him. 

"This is something I dealt with at Penn State my freshman year, having to take a step back after being the guy, being the main guy," said Porter. "It was nothing new to me. I knew what I had to do, what I needed to work on, and just took accountability for what I needed to do."

Knowing he is going to be the starter this week versus stepping in because of an injury last week does change things for him, but one thing it doesn't change is his confidence. 

"I've got the highest confidence right now in myself in what I can do on the field," said Porter. "Now that they gave me nuggets and eased me into the role, it was the best situation for me even though it stunk at the time because at the end you just want more. 

"But I feel like they played it right and now I am ready."

Stepping up: One player who stepped up last week when Minkah Fitzpatrick left the game with a hamstring injury was safety Miles Killebrew.

And rest assured, he is ready to step up again. 

Killebrew knows what the defense is losing without Fitzpatrick on the field, especially from a communication standpoint, but is willing to put his hand in the pile to help out. 

"He is a huge communicator," said Killebrew. "Guys are going to have to step up, including myself, if their number is called and communicate. It's going to be something we have to talk it through and handle it one play at a time. 

"I think that is something that we have to take across the board, a spectrum of positions. He is so good at (communicating). He is the general in the back end. It is going to have to be a lot of guys adding a little bit more to their load and pulling the sled together."

Killebrew normally sees the bulk of his work on special teams, but he is always prepared if called upon.  

"I would call it a readiness," said Killebrew. "We have to be ready to play whatever our positions are. That's what I am. I am a safety, and that is what we have to be ready to do. 

"Special teams is a whole other game, but at the end of the day it's still running and tackling. Football's not that complicated. We have to make sure we are playing the positional game and make sure we're talking and seeing things together the same way."

No rest for the weary: With a short week on tap, there isn't a lot of time for players to recover and bounce back from Sunday's game. 

But they don't have much of a choice. 

The Steelers take on the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium, with just three days of rest in between games.

"I have never had a quick turnaround like this," said rookie linebacker Nick Herbig. "It's going to be the first real true test, see how my body responds. I am going to try everything in my power to get 100 percent before Thursday."

Herbig said he is following the advice of veterans, like his older brother offensive lineman Nate Herbig, on how to approach the week. 

"Rest. Rest is very important. Rest is key," said Herbig. "Hydration. Taking care of your body. That is how you have to prepare every week, rest, take care of your body. I think that has to be over-emphasized this week. 

"You have to make sure you make every second count for sure."

Hoping it's his turn: Running back Anthony McFarland Jr. is hoping to get back on the field this week when the Steelers host the Tennessee Titans at Acrisure Stadium on Thursday night.

McFarland, who remains on the Reserve/Injured List, was designated to return to practice on Oct. 16 and the team has a 21-day window to activate him. He has been out since Week 1, dealing with an injured knee.

Coach Mike Tomlin said on Tuesday he will be 'in consideration for this week,' but there is nothing definitive.

McFarland is hoping it happens.

"I feel good. I feel healthy," said McFarland. "These last two weeks, getting back on my feet. I am practicing hard and waiting for my time."

McFarland admits he is anxious to get back out there, feeling like he hasn't played forever.

"I am very anxious," said McFarland. "I haven't played since Week 1. I feel fresh. Ready to be out there with the team."

Watching the games and practice the first four weeks of his injury was tough, but practicing without being activated the last two weeks has also been a test for him.

"It is tough," said McFarland. "Especially when practice is a grind week to week. You want to grind and prepare for game day.

"When you are hurt, or dealing with situations or circumstances you can't control, it's tough. It's the game we play. You just have to be a man and learn how to deal with it."

Making moves: The Steelers made multiple practice squad moves so far this week.

On Tuesday, the team signed safety Jalen Elliott to the practice squad and released linebacker David Perales. Elliott was previously with the Steelers during training camp this summer. 

Elliott originally signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted rookie free agent following the 2020 NFL Draft out of Notre Dame.

He spent his rookie season on the Lions practice squad and was elevated to the active roster for two games, and later signed to the 53-man roster. He played in a total of eight games, starting one.

Elliott signed with the New England Patriots during training camp in 2022. He played in the preseason but was released prior to the start of the regular season. Elliott also spent time with the Las Vegas Raiders.

Elliott played in 51 games for the Fighting Irish, recording 173 tackles, 96 of them solo stops, six interceptions and a forced fumble.

On Monday, the team signed linebacker Mykal Walker to the practice squad and released linebacker Caleb Johnson.

Walker was originally drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He spent three seasons (2020-22) with the Falcons, playing in 49 games, with 20 starts.

Walker recorded 187 tackles over his three years in Atlanta, 89 of them solo stops. He added 11 passes defensed, three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, two forced fumbles, one sack and one fumble recovery.

Walker spent time with the Chicago Bears this offseason and in training camp and was most recently on the Las Vegas Raiders practice squad.

He played college football at Fresno State where he appeared in 26 games. He recorded 183 tackles, 94 solo stops, 23 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, eight quarterback hits, one interception and two blocked kicks. He was selected first-team All-Mountain West in 2018 and 2019.

Bringing you the action: 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 mobile, plus NFL RedZone, NFL Network, live audio and more - all in one place. Start your free trial today here.

Take a look at the best portraits from the Steelers' Week 8 game against the Jacksonville Jaguars

Monday, October 30

Embracing the next man up: The Steelers will be without their main man in the secondary as All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick has already been ruled out for Thursday night's game against the Tennessee Titans at Acrisure Stadium.

Fitzpatrick suffered a hamstring injury in Sunday's loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, not returning to the field after he left the game in the first half.

"Minkah could be characterized as out. He's got a hamstring injury," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly press conference. "I don't have additional information in terms of time of that injury, but it's safe to say that he's not going to be available to us on the short week.

"Obviously the loss of Minkah is a significant one. It's a multi-man job, not a one-man job thankfully. We have some veterans back there, guys like (Miles) Killebrew and (Damontae) Kazee and Keanu Neal who are veteran NFL players, and that lessens the impact hopefully, but obviously it's not a one-man job when you're talking about replacing Minkah, whether you're talking about his play making ability or his hub of communication ability."

It is that hub of communication factor that will be a focus for those asked to step up in his absence, and Neal is well aware of the impact of losing Fitzpatrick's ability to communicate to the back end of the defense.

"I think at times it was tough, because he is a big part of that communication aspect," said Neal of losing Fitzpatrick in-game. "Losing a guy like Minkah is always tough. He is a dynamic player, a big part of this defense. Losing him was definitely hard, but it's the next man up mentality.

"We came in, had a few wrinkles here and there we had to iron out, but we got things going."

There isn't a lot of time on a short week to make the adjustments of not having Fitzpatrick available, but you can be sure the adjustments will still be made.

"It's good (to have some time)," said Neal. "We have time to go over film together. Get a feel for what we're going to do, game plan wise. That is always good. The preparation for the game this week is huge, not having Minkah in the game. We'll get it going.

"The game plan is the game plan. Whatever they put out there it's up to us to go out, execute and get things situated."

While Tomlin mentioned Neal, Kazee and Killebrew, another player who could see an increased role is safety Elijah Riley. His playing time has primarily been on special teams, but that could change this week.

"The biggest thing is we want to be prepared each week, the next guy up mentality," said Riley. "Everybody in the room cares for one another. We want to see each other succeed. Nothing changes. Continue our business as usual. We have a job to do on Thursday night.

"Everybody in the room is preparing as if they are going to play and from there we want to be as diligent as possible.

"Minkah is an All-Pro guy. He is a massive contributor to this defense, beyond just his playing ability. We each have to be able to step up. We are all pros. We want to win games as a collective. We are not expecting anybody to be Superman. We want everybody to be able to do the job and when the opportunity comes make the most of it."

Riley said while his individual approach might not be altered this week, he could see more defensive snaps as opposed to working mainly on special teams in practice.

"We approach it with a little more readiness," said Riley. "Being teamers, usually throughout the week we aren't as fluid in the defensive movement in practice. This week we have to prepare as such.

"My individual preparation doesn't change. I prepare every week like I am supposed to be on the field. I am going to continue to do so, maybe with a little more intensity."

Getting after it: As the Steelers prepare for the Tennessee Titans on Thursday night at Acrisure Stadium, they have the challenge of preparing for a quarterback who hasn't put a lot on tape yet.

But what he has put on tape, is pretty impressive.

Titans rookie quarterback Will Levis made his first NFL start on Sunday, throwing for four touchdowns in a win over the Atlanta Falcons. Titans Coach Mike Vrabel said he expects Levis to start on Thursday night, with Ryan Tannehill still recovering from an ankle sprain.

"He had a good first game," said linebacker Alex Highsmith. "We have to be able to get after him. He was sitting back there, delivering good throws, accurate throws. We have to be able to get him off his spot and be able to pressure him a lot this game.

"I think whenever we are pressuring, we are going to have to do a good job of winning our one-on-ones, doing a good job of getting after him, showing different looks. I am excited to see the game plan for this game. We definitely have to get after him."

He isn't the only weapon the Steelers need to stop.

Running back Derrick Henry is coming off a 100-yard game against the Falcons and stopping him is a must.

"He is one of the best backs in the league," said Highsmith. "It starts there. They have a good offense, it starts with him, with stopping the run. We know if we can get after him and stop the run, we will be able to get after their passing attack.

"Will Levis had a good game yesterday in his first game. We have to fist and foremost stop him."

One thing that will hurt the defense in stopping both is not having Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has been ruled out with a hamstring injury.

"It's unfortunate," said Highsmith. "He is a leader on our defense. He is the best in the league with what he does. It's an opportunity for other guys to step up. I know we have capable guys that are going to be able to fill in for him. I am just excited to see how those guys step up."

Honing in on focus: Wide receiver Diontae Johnson acknowledged mounting frustration on offense as one of the issues that needs to be dealt with individually and collectively in the aftermath of Sunday's loss to Jacksonville.

"Sometimes a lot of stuff is going through my head, like, why are we not moving the ball? What's going on? What's the issue?" Johnson acknowledged. "At the end of the day we just gotta keep playing, keep believing in one another. We gotta make a play, somebody spark the game off, that's how we get going."

Center Mason Cole confirmed today Johnson is not alone in what he's dealing with on occasion. Cole also detailed the mindset necessary to fight through such concerns.

"I think it comes down to focus, attention to detail and playing one play at a time," he said. "I think there's times where me, us as a line, as an offense, we get hung up on things we didn't do well, things that happened in the past. We have to play one snap at a time, have a mental focus for every play, the next play is the most important play, and go from there.

"I think that helps execution, when you're focused on your job and your job only. That's what we have to do. Everyone just has to do their job."

Cole allowed attaining such a clarity of focus can be easier said than done.
But it's not an option, he insisted, it's a job requirement.

"The mental part of this game is so much more challenging than people outside of this game would understand," Cole continued. "It's easy to dwell on mistakes in the past and things you've done wrong, things the offense has done wrong, things we haven't done well.

"To have that mentality of playing play by play, the next play is the most important, it can be challenging at times. But as professionals we have to be good at that. We have to be able to let things go and play at the highest level of execution."

-- Blog entry by Mike Prisuta

Bringing you the action: 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 mobile, plus NFL RedZone, NFL Network, live audio and more - all in one place. Start your free trial today here.