The 2021 NFL regular season is underway and teams are starting to get into a routine with what occurs during a typical game week. Coming out of their bye week, the Steelers began their preparation for their first road AFC North matchup. As expected, head coach Mike Tomlin held his regularly scheduled press conference on Tuesday. With many players discussed, it’s time for another players mentioned by Coach Tomlin during his media time. Remember these are current players where a specific question was asked during the Q&A period.
Najee Harris & Kalen Ballage
Through the first six weeks of the 2021 NFL season, rookie running back Najee Harris has played 343 of the Steelers 397 offensive snaps. Coach Tomlin was asked about the Steelers running back depth and if he is concerned about Harris‘ workload. In his response, Coach Tomlin brought up Kalen Bellage.
“I haven’t had a lot of exposure to our running back depth. A lot of the reasons have to do with things that don’t necessarily involve them. There have been some weeks where we haven’t had a lot of fluidity in terms of our run. Like we’ve talked about throughout the course of this thing, that minimizes opportunity. That’s less opportunities not only for Najee, but for others. Last week, I thought we got some things from KB [Kalen Ballage] and we had enough fluidity in our run game where you were able to see some of the depth things and the division of labor at that position. Hopefully, as we continue to grow and trend in the right direction in terms of our run game, I’ll be able to better answer that question about the quality of our depth and the components of our depth that round out our group. We’ve just had some challenges at the early stages of the journey that really make that a difficult question to answer directly.”
Stephon Tuitt, Carlos Davis, Isaiahh Loudermilk, Isaiah Buggs, & Henry Mondeaux
With injuries on the defensive line, the Steelers have had to fill-in a large amount of snaps with other players. Coach Tomlin was asked if there was an update on Stephon Tuitt, and how he feels about players who have had to fill-in. In answering the question, Coach Tomlin mentioned a number of players on the defensive line.
“No, no update on him. His return is not imminent this week. I don’t anticipate it although it’s going well. He’s progressing but not close enough for participation. We’ve had some challenges in the defensive line, not only the two that you mentioned, but Carlos Davis has missed some time. But it has provided opportunities for growth. I’ve been pleased with the general growth and development of Loudermilk. We’re challenging Isaiah Buggs to step up and be a consistent varsity contributor. He’s a guy that’s been around here a number of years now and opportunity is knocking for him due to the misfortune with Tyson. That’s the component of this thing that makes football the ultimate team game. Some challenges associated with the guys that you’ve mentioned not being available, but it’s also an opportunity for others. We’re excited about continuing to watch the growth and development of some of those others and watching them answer the bell and rise up and meet the challenges.”
In a later question, Coach Tomlin was asked about what needs to improve in stopping the run and he mentioned some of his young defensive lineman again.
“Fundamentally,guys have got to be in gaps, guys have got to tackle well. It’s not anything mystical. We’ve got to do a better job than we’ve done at times, and a lot of that has to do with some young guys gaining growth and development and exposure that’s associated with play. It is reasonable to expect that to get better. It has in some instances. Loudermilk, Buggs, the guys we’ve been talking about, Henry Mondeaux, they’re getting better,but it can’t happen quickly enough, particularly when you go into a stadium like we’re going into this weekend.”
After a very impressive rookie season, some have been disappointed in the production of Chase Claypool in 2021. Coach Tomlin was asked about Claypool taking a second-year jump and in what areas he still needs to develop.
“He’s very much still writing that story. We’re only about a third of the way through the season. I’ve liked some of the things that he’s done. He’s doing really well in all areas. He’s getting better in all areas. But the games that lie ahead will ultimately determine the question that you asked in terms of the significance. Stepping up in stages like the one we’re about to go to on Sunday will be a significant component of it as well. Divisional road game play is big.”
With the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster, there are a number of receivers who could be playing in the slot position. Coach Tomlin was asked if he wanted to have a specific player in the slot or if he was looking more to exploit a matchup. In his response, Coach Tomlin brought up the aforementioned Chase Claypool as well as Diontae Johnson.
“It’s whatever the matchup brings us. Particularly when you’re losing a guy like JuJu, like I mentioned, it’s not a one-man job. Oftentimes, it’s a multiple-man job. But even when we had JuJu, we do things schematically. We’ll put JuJu outside, put Chase Claypool inside, put Diontae inside, and most of those alterations are matchup related.”
Anthony McFarland Jr.
One player who has been designated to return from the Reserve/Injured List but has not been put on the 53-man roster yet is running back Anthony McFarland. Coach Tomlin was asked if he anticipates activating McFarland and what his role could be going forward.
“I’m anticipating us activating him. I think the week’s work will determine if there’s a role and, if there is, what that role is.”
Melvin Ingram III, T.J. Watt, & Alex Highsmith
The Pittsburgh Steelers are still figuring out the rotation at the outside linebacker position, mainly due to a number of injuries early in the year. Coach Tomlin was asked about the diminished snap count of Melvin Ingram and if there was a specific reason behind it. In his response, he brought up T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmtih.
“Reps change based on player availability. T.J. has missed some time, Alex Highsmith has missed some time. The time that you just mentioned, in reference to the question, both of those guys are back from injury. When you have everybody available, there’s gonna be less snaps. It’s just football.”
Coach Tomlin was asked a follow-up question about Alex Highsmtih and his improved play the last game. In his response, Coach Tomlin compared him to another second-year player in Chase Claypool.
“Yeah, he’s playing well, and we need him to. Much like the conversation we’re having regarding Chase Claypool, what lies ahead is definitely going to write his story. I like what I’ve seen but stay tuned. Divisional road game play. Guys that are looking to take a step, that’s a good environment in which to do it.”
Kendrick Green, Dan Moore Jr., & Pat Freiermuth
This Sunday will be the first matchup with the Cleveland Browns since the Steelers were defeated at home in the wildcard round of the 2020 NFL postseason. Coach Tomlin was asked if the loss to the Browns would be a point of emphasis this week, and in his response he named several rookies in which the previous game meant nothing.
“I’m sure it comes up in some form or fashion,but not as a rallying cry or not as a focus of a meeting. There are a lot of variables that are 2021 that should have our attention. We’ve got a lot riding on this game. We’re going to play a really good team in their venue. It’s 2021. Last year’s game means nothing to Najee, it means nothing to KG (Kendrick Green), it means nothing to Dan Moore, it means nothing to Pat (Freiermuth), etc., etc. You’ve just got to acknowledge that, in the game of football, things change year in and year out and seemingly low hanging fruit is oftentimes irrelevant to some of the people in the room. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about old stories or old news.”
Coming back off the Reserve/Injured List, Zach Banner will be available this week for the Steelers. Coach Tomlin was asked, with a players such as Banner and Dan Moore in the mix, how he feels about the depth and competition at tackle.
“Love it. Love it. Good problems to have. And that’s what I was referring to at the opening when I said we’ll sort out the division of labor. I’m not overly concerned about and I’m excited about it.”
Before the Steelers Week 6 game against the Seattle Seahawks, inside linebackers’ coach Jerry Olsavsky took time away from the team due to the death of his wife. Coach Tomlin was asked about Ben Roethlisberger’s comments about wanting to spend more time with Coach O, and what it means to have an offensive player wanting to be supportive of a defensive coach even though they aren’t directly connected.
“I would strongly disagree with that. We’re all connected. It doesn’t matter what area you work in. That’s one of the beautiful things of team and, particularly, football being the ultimate team game. There’s intimacy. There’s codependency professionally. And you have unique and close relationships because of that. Ben has worked with Jerry a long time, and so, to me, that’s appropriate and a reasonable perspective to have, and it’s appreciated at the same time. Jerry is working his way back to us. I’m not going to get too much into that. Just know that we’re in full support of him and whatever he and his family needs, we will provide.”
One player who has yet to come up with a splash play on defense is All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. Coach Tomlin was asked if it is more circumstantial or if it’s something they are looking to do different.
“Circumstantial. Stay tuned. Minkah is a playmaker. He makes plays. I’m sure when we’re looking back at this, you won’t have that question.”
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