Week 9 Blog: A recap of the news

Saturday, November 6

Ben will play: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been dealing with a handful of injuries including a hip, pectoral, and right shoulder, which was added on Friday.

Coach Mike Tomlin said that despite the injuries, Roethlisberger will play on Monday night against the Chicago Bears at Heinz Field.

"Ben's playing," said Tomlin following practice. "It's just things to manage. He's been doing this a long time. I've been doing it a long time with him. We generally do a good job of communicating and managing such things. You should anticipate him playing."

Weekly challenge: It's a new challenge every week for the Steelers defense, and this week it's Chicago Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields who will be someone they have to focus on.

Fields had 103 yards rushing on 10 carries in a loss to the Raiders last week, the most rushing yards by a Bears' quarterback since 1972.

"I think is just another great challenge," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "And that's the beautiful thing about the National Football League. There's just so many great players and a guy like this who's a top pick in the NFL Draft. A guy who's so mobile and can throw the ball, it's always a unique challenge for us and just looking forward to getting after him.

"They have a great running attack to help him out a little bit. And anytime a quarterback is able to move around the pocket and create escape lanes, it creates a certain type of challenge for the rush men, myself included."

The Steelers have faced some strong rushing attacks so far this season, including within the AFC North, from both the running back and quarterback spot.

"Like I said, it's a challenge week in and week out," said Watt. "There's going to be something unique about a team that you didn't see the week before. We've seen a lot of running offenses, obviously in Cleveland and with Baltimore as well. But like I said, this isn't a Baltimore style run offense. It's a totally different style run offense. They like to run the ball downhill and they like to move the quarterback around too, out of the pocket, get him comfortable. It'll be a challenge."

Building a bond: The relationship between a running back and an offensive line is one that is vital, with mutual trust and an understanding of expectations being a key component.

That is why rookie Najee Harris meets with the team's offensive line on a regular basis, talking about expectations and giving each other tips for the upcoming game.

"I started (doing it) maybe second, third game," said Harris. "That's when I really started doing it."

Harris said he doesn't mind spending the extra time meeting, and even Coach Mike Tomlin and running backs coach Eddie Faulkner aren't telling him to leave and get out of the building like they did earlier in the year when he stayed all hours.

"I stay here so late, I go in there by myself," said Harris. "It's just because I have nothing else to do. I don't have a life outside of this. So, I stay extra."

It's all part of the learning game of the NFL for Harris, who has had his eyes opened about a plethora of things, including the understanding that short runs can be just as beneficial as breaking a big one.

"We think he's a total package back," said offensive coordinator Matt Canada. "We've said that from day one. To pinpoint one, I think he's running the ball—I don't want to say better—but he's realizing how challenging it is. To get a four-yard run's a big deal at this level. I think his pass protection has improved. He was really big on the touchdown pass. Ben (Roethlisberger) got him over there and he chipped and got us the chance to get the ball off. His pass catching. I don't think anything's improved, but I think you're just seeing him become more comfortable, playing more fluidly. He's certainly continuing to get better, which has helped us."

Harris said Roethlisberger has talked to him about the short runs, something he understands more and more.
"Ben would always tell me you can't break every run," said Harris. "When I got here, he said you can't break every run in the NFL. Understanding how important it is to get just even two yards, or one yard in NFL is really hard. Especially with the type of guys they've got across the ball. Understanding that not every run's going to be a home run. A four-yard run is good because now second down is shorter, it makes it easier for the offensive coordinator and the rest of the team. Taking what they give you is really big in the NFL and I'm learning that."

Getting closer: On Friday, guard Trai Turner said the Steelers offensive line hasn't played the perfect game yet and it's something they are still searching for.

Today, tackle Dan Moore Jr. said it's something they are closing in on with each game they play.

"I think we are extremely close," said Moore Jr. "We talked about the continuity we are building as an offensive line. We are starting to find our identity. We're getting very close."

The line continues to build that continuity, something that is helping them with the identity they have been carving out since they arrived for OTAs in the spring.

"We want to be a physical offensive line that can pound you and run away with the game in the fourth quarter," said Moore Jr.

The Steelers prepare for the Week 9 matchup against the Chicago Bears

Friday, November 5

Meshing on the line: As training camp wore on, and then the Steelers got into the early parts of the 2021 season, there was a message those on the Steelers offensive line consistently delivered.

Give us time. And they meant it in multiple ways.

First, give them time to work together and gel as a unit before judging what the season will bring from them.

The other meaning was they wanted more time, more time to work at their craft, even if that meant spending extra time on the field during the week, correcting mistakes and making adjustments.

"It's timing. It's meshing," said guard Trai Turner. "Sometimes when we have some rough days, we've got to stay out longer (at practice) and do a little bit more to correct some things. Something I didn't understand when I first got to the league is something the older coaches would talk about, the timing, how we don't have much time and I never understood that. I was like we have a lot of time. The older you get you understand to be detailed. To have everybody on one page, five different guys thinking one thing at all times, whether it be 55-60, 70-75 plays. It's not something that's easy, and it's something that does take time. It's something that takes gelling and continuity, and we are still in that process.

"The perfect game is still out there. We still haven't played the perfect game. We're still searching for the perfect game. As long as we start those perfect games in December, January and February, I think we'd be good to go."

Turner is the elder statemen on the line in his eighth season, playing with two rookies in Kendrick Green and Dan Moore Jr., a second-year player in Kevin Dotson and fourth year player in Chukwuma Okorafor. But he likes what he sees from the young guys.

"Younger guys are going to make younger guy mistakes," said Turner. "I can't be mad at them for making the same mistakes I made as an offensive lineman. It's something you grow from, something that you continue to work on. You just keep your head down and keep working. I think it's pivotal and it serves a purpose for the team and for the city that we're in. I think it resonates that you do your job. It's expected to win blocks, it's expected to win games and expected to be the dominant line.

"I think it's five guys that know the status quo that you have when you walk in this building. It's all five of us coming together and doing one job."

Turner said the offensive line doesn't need to have others tell them to take it to the next level, or harp on them about what needs fixed, or give them pep talks. They all have it within themselves to do that, something that comes from down deep and is expected the minute you walk into the offensive line room.

"You come out here and you practice with a purpose," said Turner. "I don't think you have to have a coach, or you have to have anybody tell you what you need to be better at, how you need to fix it. I think it's on each individual man to come out here and get the job done. I said when I first got here, I wasn't brought in here to be taught how to play right guard. I was brought in to play right guard. I preach the same things. We do have coaches that put us in the correct positions and tell us the spots and fits where we need to be at. But it ups to you to go out there and make it happen. So that's what those extra 10-15 minutes on the field is about. It's one thing to go over in a meeting room, but it's a different thing we put the sneakers on, or the cleats on and actually feel punches, feel steps, feel sets and show rather than just articulate what to do. Showing people how to do things and going over the small things, the details and nuances just to critique it and create a clearer and better understanding."

Fitting right in: Taco Charlton came to the Steelers with the hope of not spending the season on the practice squad, where he was originally signed, but contributing to the team winning.

And he is getting what he hoped for.

Charlton was signed to the practice squad on Sept. 21 and then added to the active roster before the Browns game last week.

"They said if I show what I can do, there is a chance for me to play some good ball," said Charlton. "I bet on myself and came here with the intentions of trying to play good and show myself. I try to come in here every day in practice and show what I can do and hopefully I impress the coaches, I impress my teammates, and they have faith in what I can do."

Charlton was selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. In four seasons he has recorded 11 sacks, 20 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for a loss. He has played in a total of 44 games with three different teams, the Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and most recently, the Kansas City Chiefs.

Charlton was signed by the Chiefs in the 2020 offseason, spending one season in Kansas City before his release this year during the preseason. He recorded seven tackles, four of them solo stops and one for a loss, two sacks and a forced fumble last season, playing in just seven games and finishing the season on the Reserve/Injured list.

But he is fully back and comfortable with where he is in the Steelers defense.

"I feel like I'm pretty good at what I was given," said Charlton, who saw playing time against the Browns. "I was so close to a lot of plays, whether it was a sack, I'm a second away. The forced fumble right there. Being able to make some impact plays and help this team win is something I want to do, and I came here with the mindset of doing. Anything I can do, whether it's play more and make more plays, play different positions, whatever it is. I am trying to do everything possible to help the team win and make some plays.

"I've definitely gotten a lot more comfortable being here for a lot. The coaches have done a great job of bringing me along, up to speed the last couple of weeks. I've been enjoying it."

The Steelers prepare for the Week 9 matchup against the Chicago Bears

Thursday, November 4

Stopping the run: Heading into the Cleveland game, Cameron Heyward talked about the team's run defense after they allowed Seattle just 18 yards in the first half of their Week 6 matchup, and then 144 yards in the second half.

"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."

On Sunday against the Browns, the defense showed what they can do against one of the league's toughest backs, holding Nick Chubb to just 61 yards on the day.

Heyward said he sees the difference since the bye week, but you can't get comfortable.

"In some instances, we were pretty good," said Heyward. "Overall, we were pretty good. There were still times we fell a little bit short. We have to keep harping on it. I think you're happy you did well, but let's see if we can continue to do well. Let's see if we can continue to build on it, staying in our gaps. Understanding what happens if we fall short. Understanding it's an 11-man job."

One of the key factors for the defense was limiting the production on first and second down, not allowing the Browns to get comfortable and leaving them in the dreaded third-and-long that offenses don't like.

"It definitely helps out a lot," said Heyward. "First down was very critical in that game. When we won the first down, we made them play out of character on second and third. It was a good recipe for us."

It will have to be a recipe they put to work this week against the Chicago Bears. Rookie quarterback Justin Fields out of Ohio State, Heyward's alma mater, had 103 yards rushing on 10 carries in a loss to the Raiders, the most rushing yards by a Bears' quarterback since 1972.

Heyward was asked if he gets excited playing rookie quarterbacks, but there is something else that is tops on his list.

"I get more excited playing Ohio State quarterbacks," said Heyward. "I've watched them enough during college football. I get a chance to go up against them. But, mobile quarterbacks, they stretch the defense and he's a young mobile quarterback that's still growing, that can beat you with his arm and his leg. We're going have our work cut out for us.

"I think every week you see more and more he's getting comfortable. Last week, he was over 100 yards rushing. He had great scamper around on the side. He never gives up on a play and we've got to make sure we play our best game.

"It was crazy. I think they only had two designed runs for him. And then a lot of it was scrambles and him going from the left of the defense, to the right of the defense.

"He's a great athlete. Can throw the ball well. He's got some really good receivers and Allen Robinson and (Darnell) Mooney and they have Jesse James. We've got to make sure we're on our P's and Q's."

Rookie orientation: The Steelers aren't the only team that's been relying heavily upon rookies on offense this season.

Monday night's opponent has been doing the same of late.

The Bears started rookie Justin Fields (first round, Ohio State) at quarterback last Sunday against the 49ers.

And rookie Larry Borom (fifth round, Missouri) at right offensive tackle (Borom's second NFL game and first NFL start).

And rookie running back Khalil Herbert (sixth round, Virginia Tech) wound up being the primary ball carrier (23 carries, 72 rushing yards).

Steelers cornerback Cam Sutton has noticed, and he talked in detail after practice today about the best defensive approach against an inexperienced offense.

"Just make 'em play the game," Sutton advised. "A lot of times, obviously, offenses go into games with scripts and things like that, situational plays. They want to feel the game out.

"We just have to do a great job of just moving around, giving them different looks, not letting them just see our defense just standing still. And obviously just pressure, whether it's with four, whether it's with guys that we bring (on blitzes), whether it's coverage sacks. Whatever it is, all our guys just gotta be on our toes.

"Obviously, we'll get a flow for how they're trying to attack us kind of early in the game and we'll be able to settle in pretty early. And from there it's just playing football, playing the game that we love.

"For us it's just continue to move around, continue to be communicative on our end and just keep flying around. Give 'em those different looks, different disguises, different change-ups. That should be pretty good for us."

Sutton was happy to see officials working practice today at the Rooney UPMC Sports Complex.

"It's great," he said. "Obviously, that's something we work with kind of off and on. Officials out there, you're able to work your game, you get that real feel out there. They're making calls on both sides, special teams, as well. You're able to have that time to talk to them and kind of talk over certain calls or certain views or certain things that they've seen throughout the plays and that type of stuff.

"That helps us out a lot, just getting really prepared for the week, certain types of situations and things we see out there in a game."

Wednesday, November 3

Consistent message: If you have been keeping a close eye on the Steelers offensive line since the beginning of the season, you can easily see the change.

A unit that had question marks, had a group coming together for the first time, with five trying to become one, has done just that.

"We all take the same approach every day," said rookie center Kendrick Green. "Come out here, put our cleats on and get to it. That's our job. That's how we look at it. We come out here and get better each week."

But just because they are getting better, doesn't mean they are satisfied.

"We aren't where we want to be yet," said Green. "Just keep working."

There are improvement Green is saying, referring to what Trai Turner often says.

"I think the word Trai uses is continuity," said Green. "We're starting to get together a little bit like I said, we're still not where we want to be chemistry wise. We're getting there, getting better and better each and every week.

"We're not content. It's not like were easing off the gas pedal at all. We do kind of see the progress coming to life. We're going to keep pushing."

One thing that has benefitted the line is the relationship they are building off the field as well. They gather once a week at Zach Banner's house, a tradition Maurkice Pouncey and Ramon Foster used to have for the line. They also went to a Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game, all wearing jerseys with their own name and number on it, as a way to bond.

"I feel like we kind of really get to know each other a little bit more on a personal level," said Green.

And a few minutes later, he repeated his message.

"Like I said were still not where we want to be," said Green. "I do appreciate how far we have come. I do appreciate where we are."

Credit where credit is due: Defensive tackle and defensive captain Cam Heyward made a point of crediting the Steelers' young/inexperienced defensive linemen for the roles they played in helping to shut down the Browns' No. 1-ranked rushing attack on Sunday in Cleveland.

"They answered the call," Heyward maintained.

Today was rookie defensive lineman Isaiahh Loudermilk's turn to return the favor and credit Heyward.

"For me, I know for the rest of the younger guys, too, it's huge having Cam in there, kind of our mentor, leader," Loudermilk said. "He's definitely someone we can watch during practice, during games and kinda see how he attacks those situations. And also, his knowledge of the game is incredible. He'll help me out with just the littlest things, sometimes big things.

"Any time he tells me something I take it to heart because he's an incredible player. Having him in the room has definitely helped me a ton."

Loudermilk was asked if he considered Heyward a father figure or a big brother.

"You could throw 'crazy uncle' in there a little bit," Loudermilk added. "I would say he's just a leader. I'm just happy I can be on the same team as him and learn from him.

"He's serious when he needs to be, but you guys know Cam, he's a big goofball. When it's kinda time to relax a little bit you can definitely see him doing that."

Loudermilk played 25 percent of the defensive snaps against the Browns, second only to the 27 percent he handled on Sept.19 against the Raiders.

Third-year defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs played 41 percent, second only to the 47 percent his was involved in on Oct. 3 at Green Bay.

Second-year defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux played 27 percent, the third-busiest he's been on defense this season.

"A lot of stuff has kinda happened so a lot of us backups are stepping into bigger roles," Loudermilk said. "I know for me, Buggs, Henry, we're ready 24-7. We come out to practice expecting to get in the game and help as much as we can. Just being able to have a game like we did on Sunday where we kinda got those backup-role guys in a little bit more, we got a little more time, we were able to help a little bit more definitely feels good because we've all been putting in the work.

"As each week goes by we're all getting a little more comfortable. We're definitely growing as a unit week by week. I think there's a lot more room for us to grow, too. I'm expecting some bigger things to come soon."

Monday, November 1

Pumping them up: Linebacker Joe Schobert spent four seasons walking into the home locker room at FirstEnergy Stadium, but on Sunday he walked into the visitor's locker room and walked away with a win.

"I told a couple of guys on the team it was just weird bussing into the stadium," said Schobert. "I've driven into Cleveland so many times as a player over there. Just seeing all the familiar faces of attendants, people working the game, but walking right by the home locker room and going to the visitor locker room with this team. Going out on the field and being able to get a win. It was a great feeling to play well and limit their offense to not a lot of production. It was a job well done by the whole defense."

And Schobert certainly did his part. He led the defense with nine tackles, six of them solo stops, but his play of the day was a forced fumble against the normally sure-handed Jarvis Landry, which T.J. Watt recovered. The timing was perfect, as the Steelers had taken a 15-10 lead in the fourth quarter, and the Browns were driving down to the Steelers 21-yard line when he knocked the ball away from Landry after an 11-yard reception.

"Jarvis is a great competitor and a fierce athlete," said Schobert. "And he's obviously protective of the ball as all ball carriers are in the NFL. I do remember a few times in training camp when I was back there, he would catch the ball on little spot routes and juke me and I came from behind and punched the ball out a couple of times. So maybe it's just something I have on him.

"In games I can't remember him ever fumbling when I was there. So that's a pretty rare thing to get done."

It was the culmination of a defense that was fired up for the game, challenging themselves and taking on the challenge of Coach Mike Tomlin before the game, who stood by the linebackers during pregame warmups and told them the game would be decided by them.

"That definitely was the message during the week," said Schobert. "It's AFC North football. Two teams that like to run the ball and have a long, shared history of physical games and a physical rivalry.

"He always stands by the linebackers at that point during warmups and says something to try and get us going and obviously when it's your head coach, and it's Mike T over there yelling something at you, you take it a little bit to heart, and it helps pump you up and gets you fired up for the game. He's a great motivator."

There is something else Schobert loves besides the motivation Tomlin provides. It's how he steps up and is a man who stands by his principles.

In the second quarter, with the game tied 3-3, the Steelers lined up in field goal formation and Chris Boswell took the snap and rolled right to throw the ball. Boswell wasn't able to connect with Zach Gentry in the end zone, and took a hard hit by Jordan Elliott, knocking him out of the game and putting him in the concussion protocol.
Tomlin took full blame for it not working and thanked the players for backing him up.

"Coach Tomlin's always upfront about his mistakes and what he expects out of the players and he's not going to take excuses from us, and he doesn't take excuses from him," said Schobert. "That's why it's very easy to play for him because he leads by example, and he does what he says. The fake field goal obviously didn't go in our favor. But if we score, then it's the greatest call of the game yesterday. It's one of those things that you can look back on and hindsight is 20-20, but the fact that he owned up to it, that's the kind of guy he is."

With Boswell out, Schobert was asked on Monday if he ever has kicked and who his go-to guy would have been if the Steelers needed a short field goal.

"I messed around kicking field goals in high school, but I wasn't our starting kicker. I was a backup. I would not have a lot of faith in myself in an NFL environment to make a kick," said Schobert. "I know Derek Watt kicked in high school, but I only know that because I played and grew up a town over from him. He scored a lot of points off field goals and extra points and touchdowns in high school. I probably have to with Derek because I don't know anybody else on the team who has a history of kicking."

It's a snap: Tight end Zach Gentry had his most productive day of his Steelers career against the Browns, with three receptions for 39 yards, including a 24-yarder, while playing 45 snaps.

Gentry was called into action with fellow tight end Eric Ebron out with a hamstring injury, something he learned would be the case in the last few days leading up to the game.

"I didn't really know he was going to be out until a day before the game or so," said Gentry. "It was a decision to see if he was feeling all right. But I was just excited about the opportunity and everything. Obviously, we missed him out there. But I think it was it was a big opportunity for us, and we got a lot of snaps, Pat (Freiermuth) and I did, and we made the most of them."

That they did. Freiermuth had 58 snaps and had four receptions for 44 yards and a stunning touchdown catch where he somehow managed to keep his feet inbounds.

"Pat is playing fantastic," said Gentry. "I'm so happy for him. It really is amazing seeing what he's able to do as a rookie.

"We have a great relationship. They told me as soon as they drafted him, they thought we were going to be close. If you ask anybody, when we walk around the facility, we're always together and we're really good friends. I've just been so happy and so excited for him because truthfully, when he first got here, within the first couple of weeks, it was like this guy's going to be special. It's all coming to fruition for him. He works his tail off. I'm very excited for him.

"And he makes those plays like the one he caught in the back of the end zone all the time in practice, so it wasn't like an astonishing thing for us or anybody."

Gentry's hard work is also coming to fruition for him. After playing in only six games his first two seasons, he has played in every game in 2021 and has six receptions for 60 yards. While he said he was ready in the past, he definitely feels now his game is solid enough where it's easy for the coaches to have trust in him.

"I was always ready for an opportunity," said Gentry. "But I think at this stage of my career where physically, mentally I'm more so there. I'm prepared for this and being able to watch the tight ends in the room the last two years too helped me a whole lot to just get in that right mental state and physical state to know what it took to be able to play 40 plus snaps."

Gentry made the switch from quarterback to tight end when he went to the University of Michigan, a transition that took him some time to adapt to and made the adjustment to the NFL a little more work for him as well, especially from the blocking standpoint. But he has been praised for the work he put in this offseason and his playing time is showing it's all paid off.

"It was a long road," said Gentry. "It was in college too. The first year I moved I was getting hit a lot, but I was not on the winning side of those. Since I've gotten up here at the next level, it's been an even bigger learning curve. I think that I've adapted to it nicely and am taking the necessary steps week in and week out, getting lower, firing off the ball faster and better with my hand placement. I think I'm headed in the right direction."

Take a look at Karl's best photos from the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. The Steelers beat the Browns 15-10