UNITY TWP., Pa. — The Steelers returned to the practice fields at St. Vincent College on Tuesday under dreary skies and an subdued mood as the team worked out for the first time since the death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake.
The offensive players that worst the most closely with Drake have obviously been hit hardest by his loss.
As the backs and receivers gathered for their individual drills, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger knelt down and gathered the group around him in a prayer circle for a moment of reflection.
Throughout the day, the trademarked smiles of players like JuJu Smith-Schuster were noticeably missing as the team went through their pads-free workout.
The rain, and eventually lightning and thunder, shortened practice after just an hour and 20 minutes and there were few complaints as the Steelers quietly jogged off the practice field.
The receivers dutifully performed their workouts, with two new supervisors to help replace Drake. Coaching assistant Blaine Stewart, who is in his second season with the team and was a wide receiver at Division II Charleston (W.Va.) spent his entire day with the receivers.
Also supervising on-field drills for the first time was Ray Sherman, the former Steelers offensive coordinator and longtime NFL wide receivers coach that has been a guest coach at training for the Steelers.
Sherman was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator under Bill Cowher in 1998. His last full-time NFL position was as receives coach with the St. Louis Rams from 2012-15. He also worked with the Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Oilers.
Head coach Mike Tomlin said earlier in the day that the team has identified a plan going forward to replace Drake, but did not wish to make it public at this time.
Here’s more from the sights and sounds of the soggy practice:
As advertised, cornerback Joe Haden, offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro and tight end Christian Scotland-Williamson did not practice. Linebacker Vince Williams (hamstring) also did not participate in any team drills.
With the minimal-contact practice, several players were able to return to full participation, mostly notably, starting free safety Sean Davis, cornerback Artie Burns and wide receiver Diontae Johnson.
B.J. Finney played center in place of Pouncey. Matt Feiler shifted from tackle to guard and Chukwuma Okorafor filled in at right tackle. Burns started in place of Haden.
The defense was a decisive victor, allowing only two touchdowns while scoring one.
Roethlisberger’s first pass attempt was a fade to Donte Moncrief that was broken up by Burns, who had excellent position on the play. His second pass was headed for Eli Rogers over the middle, but T.J. Watt leapt up to make an interception and returned it for six the other way.
The offense got on the board when Vance McDonald scored on a nifty tight end jet sweep and then Roethlisberger found McDonald inside the right pylon over Kameron Kelly.
But the second team offense, run by Mason Rudolph, got shut out after he made three attempts at tight ends and none of them found the mark. Brian Allen had good coverage on Zach Gentry on the first pass, Rudolph missed Kevin Rader high on the second one, and Gentry couldn’t come down with the third one in double coverage between Kelly and Marcus Allen.
Highlights of Alex Highsmith at Steelers Practice 12/4/20
The Steelers take to the practice field for the first time in over a week to now prepare for their upcoming game against the Washington Football Team on Monday evening. This clip shows Alex Highsmith, who will see additional time with Bud Dupree out for the season, going through drills.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt Continues Torrid 2020 Season with AFC Defensive Player of the Month Award for November
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt has been named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November, the NFL announced on Friday morning.
Watt was also AFC Player of the Month in September of this year and continues to be a top candidate for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
In November, Watt recorded 18 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 17 quarterbacks and defended three passes. Throughout the entire season, he leads the NFL with 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, on pace to exceed all of his totals from his Pro Bowl season in 2019.
“He studies the game,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said on Friday. “He’s always up there looking at film, grabbing film when he can, getting in some of the coaches offices and looking at film on his on his opponents.”
The Steelers will need to lean on Watt even more after the loss of his cohort at outside linebacker, Bud Dupree, for the rest of the season, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy for other teams to key on No. 90 in black and gold.
“This guy studies the game and it’s a constant thing for him to do, because the game changes quite a bit,” Butler said. “It’s going to change from one week to the other. The more you do the same thing in this league, people are going to find you out. And so, he’s trying to, again, do stuff different and keep on top of his opponent. That’s probably the best thing that he does.
“I think he uses his mind as well as anybody.”
With Bud Dupree Out, Mike Tomlin ‘Comfortable and Confident’ with Rookie Alex Highsmith at OLB
One of the most enduring of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s famous saying has been “next man up.”
That mantra will be put to the test in a big way for the Steelers defense, as Tomlin confirmed on Thursday that outside linebacker Bud Dupree will miss the rest of the season with a “significant” knee injury suffered Wednesday evening against the Baltimore Ravens.
The next man up will be rookie outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. In 11 professional games since the Steelers drafted him out of UNC Charlotte in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, Highsmith has recorded 20 tackles, three tackles for loss and one sack. Thus far, Highsmith has worked as a rotational backup to Dupree and T.J. Watt, and also as the fifth linebacker in a 2-5 package the Steelers have been using. Now, Tomlin is expecting him to step up into a starting role, and he’s confident he’ll be able to.
“I’m just as comfortable and confident as I was in Robert Spillane when we called upon him, or Kevin Dotson, when we called upon him on the other side of the ball,” Tomlin said on Thursday. “That’s life in this business. Those guys work behind the scenes every day, very diligently preparing themselves for these opportunities, not only in terms of knowing what to do, but just preparing themselves in terms of conditioning for when we ring their bell.
“And we are ringing Alex Highsmith’s bell now, so it will be exciting to watch him respond to it. But it’ll also be exciting to watch his growth, because growth is associated with experience, and no doubt in the upcoming weeks, he’s going to be gaining a lot of that.”
Part of Tomlin’s confidence stems from the fact that while Highsmith is a rookie, he’s an older, more experienced player than most NFL rookies.
“In the interview process, I was really impressed with his maturity,” Tomlin said. “But you know, that’s not surprising given that he was a fifth-year senior. Oftentimes, we’re not drafting a lot of fifth-year seniors these days, so he had a maturity level that was beyond where he is in this process. But he’s probably older than most rookies.”
At 23, Highsmith is older that fellow rookies Chase Claypool and Anthony McFarland Jr. and is even older than second-year players Justin Layne and Benny Snell and third-year players Ola Adeniyi and Chukwuma Okorafor.
So while the Steelers will be leaning on an inexperienced linebacker, they won’t necessarily be leaning on an immature one.