The 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers have four practices in the books at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. With no media session from head coach Mike Tomlin on Monday, let’s look back at the players mentioned by defensive coordinator Keith Butler and offensive coordinator Matt Canada who spoke to the media on Friday and Saturday respectively. With so many player who were discussed, this will be split into two articles with one occurring for each coordinator.
First up is Coach Butler and the defense from his press conference on Friday. Remember these are current players where a specific question was asked during the Q&A period. Not every response has been included due to some repeat statements.
Sometimes life goes so far beyond football. With the tragic death of his brother in an automobile accident this offseason, Stephon Tuitt was rightfully granted permission by the Steelers to skip OTA’s as he attended to his family. Coming into training camp where Tuitt was eased into things based on his time away, Coach Butler was asked about his thoughts on Tuitt.
“He’s our starter. He always will be our starter. I feel bad for him in terms of what happened to his mother and him. I mean, that’s horrible. My brother died four years ago and it’s always tough to lose a member in your family. Stephon handled it probably like I’d handle it too. Very tough, very hard. He’s got to take care of his mom. She lost a son. I’m not worried about it. I’m not worried about him; I think he’ll be okay. When time comes to play, he’ll be ready to play.”
Coach Butler was asked an immediate follow-up question about what Tuitt is able to do right now.
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. Can he go out there and play right now? I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see when we get in pads. All this stuff is based off what we see in pads. We’re running around in shorts right now. Everybody looks good in shorts.”
With one final follow up question, Coach Butler was asked how Tuitt is handling everything.
“Yeah, he’s handled it mentally and stuff like that. He wants to play ball. He’s getting along well with his teammates. He’s a good teammate, always has been a good teammate. I think he’ll be okay. When time comes to play, he’ll be ready to play”
Robert Spillane & Devin Bush
After speaking about the retirement of Vince Williams, Coach Butler was asked about how to replace him inside linebacker. His response specifically brought up both Robert Spillane and Devin Bush (55).
“I think we’ll be okay inside. We’ve got a couple of good guys right there. I think Spillane did a good job for us last year and he’ll continue to do a good job. 55 should be ready to play. So, we’re counting on him being ready to play and I think he’ll be ready to play. There’s a couple more guys that we drafted, some young guys that we want to see in pads before we make a decision. That position is determined so much by how they do in pads. What kind of personality do they have with the pads on and stuff like that. I’m a guy who likes to see people hit. If they’re not gonna hit, they’re gonna play for somebody else. That’s me.”
Melvin Ingram & Alex Highsmith
Coach Butler was asked a variety of questions dealing with his outside linebackers. Although he talked about “three guys,” this section is keeping it to specific questions dealing with Melvin Ingram and Alex Highsmith. As for T.J. Watt, he will have his own section next. The first question was if there was an open competition between Ingram and Highsmith.
“Well, you always want to have three guys that can play. We did last year. Alex came in and did a good job filling that role when Bud was here. So, we played all three of them quite a bit. We think we’ve got three now that are gonna be capable of playing for us. So, we can rest each other.”
The next question Coach Butler fielded about the outside linebackers is if he expects Alex Highsmith to maintain the starting role.
“I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m not going to expect anything, I’m just going to watch them. So, we’ll see.”
Coach Butler was then asked if they could have all three linebackers on the field at the same time and if it’s something they’re shooting for.
“Well, not if we got Tuitt, no. If we have Tuitt, I’d rather see a true four-man, two outside guys, two inside guys, like that. If you want to do that, it’s going to have to be a third and long situation. In different situations there’s a possibility you can do that. There always is. But right now, can we put all three of them on the field at the same time? Yeah, we’ve done that stuff before. Does it help us? Not in mixed downs. What I mean by mixed downs is first and seconds downs, third down maybe. Maybe.”
Finally, Coach Butler was asked if he planned on leaving Alex Highsmith on the right side of the defense.
“He played both sides last year. And Melvin played both sides. So, both have done that. I’m not worried about which is playing which. Both might be in there at the same time and they probably will because we’re going to rest T.J. some too. So, we feel like we’ve got three good players there and hopefully, that will help us in terms of keeping the same numbers in our pass rush in terms of sacks and stuff like that. Hopefully we’ll do that.”
Later in the interview, things circled back to Highsmith as Coach Butler was asked about him being one of the last players on the field during Friday’s practice.
“He’s not crazy, that’s what he is. That’s what he is. Last year, when we had him as a rookie, we’d tell him to do something one time and he did it. He was very easy to coach. He comes off the sideline, he doesn’t drop where he’s supposed to, so we tell him, “Okay, look at this and drop where you’re supposed to.” He does and he picks the pass off. He is easy to coach, real easy guy to coach, got a great attitude. I wish I had 11 like him.”
In a follow-up question, Coach Butler was asked about if he knew about Highsmith’s coachability before he was drafted.
“I didn’t. Maybe our scouts did, but I didn’t. I didn’t until he got here, and I talked to him and got a chance to teach him a little bit, stuff like that, how he learned more so than anything else.”
One final question for Coach Butler about Alex Highsmith was how he took to the signing of Melvin Ingram.
“Well, I think he understands what we did last year because he knew he was kind of a three-way guy last year. Meaning that he mingled in there with Bud and T.J. when those guys were tired. So, he knows that it’s very difficult to sit two outside linebackers out and let them play the entire game when they’re wrestling with guys that weight 300 pounds. You ever wrestled a 300-pounder? Those suckers are strong. You get tired doing that, you know what I mean? I was just trying to give the example that I wouldn’t.”
T.J. Watt & Cam Heyward
As promised, T.J. Watt is next on the list has Coach Butler was asked about his football IQ and if he expects to see him be better in year five that he was as a rookie.
“Oh, of course, he should be. But you saw Bud (Dupree) didn’t you? It takes awhile to learn. Even outside linebackers, I want them to know what everybody around them is doing because they know where the help is. And if they know where the help is, then they’ll apply pressure away from the help. And T.J. knows that now, and he’s learned it as he’s gone on for the four or five years, as Bud did. I expect him to improve as much as Bud did his fifth or sixth year. Hopefully he’ll be a good player for us. I think he will.”
To bring Cam Heyward into the mix, Coach Butler was asked about Watt’s role as a spokesman for the defense. In doing so, Coach Butler also brought up the other defensive captain in Heyward.
“I think he likes the role. I think he does. As long as he likes it, I’m fine with it. All of us will be fine with it because he’s a good player. He just doesn’t talk about it, he does it on the field. So, if he’s capable of doing it on the field, he’ll get a lot more respect from his teammates and the guys around him, and they kind of see that in him. It’s not something that he’s being assessed about or anything like that. He’s not. He’s a quiet guy. He’s a confident guy in terms of what he’s doing and stuff like that. He’ll be a good leader for us. So is Cam Heyward too.”
Antoine Brooks Jr.
One surprise to many Steelers fans is the emergence of Antoine Brooks in the nickel cornerback position. Coach Butler was asked if Brooks has been showing things similar to what they had in 2020 with Mike Hilton.
“Not yet. But we hope he does. He’s gotten better. He’s practiced better these last two practices, but we’ve been in shorts. Everybody looks good in shorts. So, we’ll see. We’ll see when he gets the pads on and he starts coming from outside and putting a little fear into the quarterback a little bit. I think he’ll be good at that.”
Coach Butler was asked a follow-up question about choosing Brooks for that role.
“Mike (Tomlin) has known him a long time. His son went to Maryland and he played at Maryland, so he knows of him. And so, he’s seen him play in games before we drafted him and stuff like that. He’s still got a lot to learn but we think he’s capable of doing it, capable of learning. We’re not gonna not be competitive with him. Meaning that we’re going to get somebody behind him that’s going to be competitive with him to push him a little bit. And we try to do that with everybody on our defense.”
Quincy Roche & Cassius Marsh
With Keith Butler also being the outside linebackers’ coach, it was only fitting he was asked about the rest of the depth chart with Quincy Roche and Cassius Marsh. Coach Butler was asked if the situation with these two players is down to being “two dogs, one bone.”
“Roche is still going to come on. He’s still a rookie. And we’re not forgetting about him either. We’re not forgetting about Cassius either. We’ve got some pretty good outside guys, we feel like, but they’ve still got a lot to learn. The reason Alex was as successful as he was is because he learned quickly, and we were confident enough to put him in there and let him play. So, we’re not worried about that. We like the competition level of what we got, and we’ll see what happens when we get in the preseason. The best thing about this year is we’ve got three preseason games where we can evaluate people. Last year, we didn’t have that. So, it’s going to be good for us to get that evaluation and make sure we’re right on the outside.”