Sat Dec 5 2:41pm ET
By WILL GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree grimaces as walks on the sideline after being injured playing against the Baltimore Ravens during an NFL football game Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Pittsburgh. The Steelers won 19-14. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards (35) gets into the end zone with a touchdown under Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) during the first half of an NFL football game, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
PITTSBURGH (AP) Bud Dupree stood at the line of scrimmage during a stoppage in play Wednesday against Baltimore and did what the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker almost always does when there's a lull in action.
Minutes later, the relentlessly upbeat Dupree was limping to the sideline, his right knee shredded and his season over. The immediate impact on the NFL's last unbeaten team was palpable. Perhaps no player felt it more than fellow outside linebacker T.J. Watt. The two have spent the last three seasons evolving into one of the NFL's best edge-rushing duos on the field and close friends off it.
''There's just so much going on when you hear something like that happen,'' Watt said Saturday. ''Holy cow, his season could potentially be over, (he's) in a contract year, (he's having) such a phenomenal year and is such a key player for what we do and who we are as a defense.''
And now he's gone, the second member of Pittsburgh's linebacking group to have his season wrecked by a knee injury. Second-year inside linebacker Devin Bush went down late in a victory over Cleveland in October. Rather than panic, however, the Steelers persevered, handing the majority of the snaps to Robert Spillane, who made the team as a special teams ace but has held his own while replacing a first-round pick.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin expects the same from rookie Alex Highsmith. The Steelers grabbed him in the third round of the draft, viewing him as a potential long-term replacement for Dupree, who is playing this season under a one-year franchise tender and is likely to hit the open market next spring.
Highsmith arrived as a bit of a project after playing most of his career at Charlotte at defensive end. Yet he's seen his playing time tick up in recent weeks even before Dupree's injury, including making a tide-turning interception against reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson that sparked a comeback victory over the Ravens on Nov. 1.
''He understands. If he doesn't understand, he asks very intelligent questions,'' defensive end Keith Butler said. ''He has a good football mind and he does what we ask him to do. You only have to tell him once, and he then he gets it.''
The Steelers (11-0) will need Highsmith, Ola Adeniyi and Jayrone Elliott all to ''get it'' if they want to keep their hold on the top spot in the AFC. Pittsburgh is on its way to leading the NFL in sacks for a fourth straight year and is one game away from tying the league record for most consecutive games with a sack. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took down the quarterback in 69 games in a row between 1999-2003.
Pittsburgh's current streak happens to coincide with Dupree's evolution from first-round disappointment early in his career to a physical presence who makes teams pay for focusing too much attention on Watt.
Now the Steelers are expecting Highsmith to do the same.
''Those guys work behind the scenes every day working 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,'' Tomlin said. ''We are ringing Alex Highsmith's bell now, so it will be exciting to watch him respond to it. It will also be exciting to watch his growth because growth is associated with experience. No doubt in upcoming weeks he will be gaining a lot of that.''
Starting with Washington. Washington has won two straight games to put itself back into the mix in the NFC East. Washington has given up the third-most sacks in the league and now has to contend with the league's third-ranked defense, albeit one with some notable pieces missing.
Tomlin dismissed the notion that Dupree's absence will make Watt's job more difficult. Watt is making a compelling case for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. Watt's 11 sacks lead the league and he's become a weekly nuisance in opposing backfields.
''I don't think T.J. Watt gets assistance from anyone in terms of his quality of his play,'' Tomlin said. ''T.J. makes his plays. I don't think that's going to be an issue at all. Guys like T.J. don't depend on anyone.''
Watt doesn't expect Highsmith to become a game-wrecker like Dupree. Highsmith is not as big. He's not as fast. He's not as experienced. He's still very much a work in progress, one that Watt believes can still be a difference-maker as the Steelers barrel to their first playoff appearance since 2017.
''Alex has been preparing like he's been the starter the whole time,'' Watt said. ''I have all the confidence in the guys in this locker room that we will be all right.''
NOTES: The Steelers activated DE Stephon Tuitt off the reserve/COVID-19 list on Saturday, clearing the way for him to return Monday against Washington. ... QB Ben Roethlisberger (knee) and K Chris Boswell (hip) did not practice on Saturday and are questionable. DB Steven Nelson (knee) is doubtful.
Free-agent CB Tramon Williams (Ravens) worked out for the Green Bay Packers Wednesday, Jan. 20, and is expected to sign to either the practice squad or the 53-man roster.
Cleveland Browns DT Larry Ogunjobi said he'll assess his options in free agency as it's unknown if he'll return to the Browns. 'When I go into training this offseason, just kind of figure out what fits best for me and then obviously when you get into March, you figure out where the team wants you as, what they see you as and what role they want you to play here or somewhere else,' Ogunjobi said Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II (quadriceps) and wide receivers Mike Evans (knee) and Chris Godwin (quadriceps) were all limited participants during Wednesday's practice. Jones was able to practice in a limited fashion last week before ultimately suiting up against the Saints, while Evans' and Godwin's reps are being managed as precautions. Jones has a good matchup against Green Bay's front, though he and Leonard Fournette are trending towards a timeshare after head coach Bruce Arians described them as a "1-2 punch." Meanwhile, Evans will likely tango with star corner Jaire Alexander on the outside, as tough a matchup as any. Godwin is due for a rebound performance after dropping a surefire touchdown last week and could see more targets if Evans struggles and Antonio Brown (knee) is banged up.
Baltimore Ravens QB Lamar Jackson is wanted on a long-term contract, according to head coach John Harbaugh Wednesday, Jan. 20. 'Absolutely, we want Lamar to sign a long-term deal and be with us,' Harbaugh said. 'I'm totally certain that's going to happen. When it happens, that's the details.'
Fantasy Spin: Harbaugh also said they aren't going to adjust the offense to be more pass-heavy. So long as Jackson is healthy, he'll be a top fantasy QB for the foreseeable future due to his added production on the ground.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (quadriceps) said Wednesday, Jan. 20, he already feels better than last week and he's all good for the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown (knee) was listed as a non-participant for Wednesday's practice. Brown sustained the knee injury during the divisional-round win over the Saints, with Tampa Bay officially listing him as day-to-day. The veteran wideout will look to ramp up his activity during Thursday and Friday's sessions to give him a chance at suiting up against Green Bay in the NFC title game. Fellow wideouts Scotty Miller and Tyler Johnson- who both made big plays in the victory over New Orleans- would be in line to receive more targets if Brown isn't healthy enough to play.
Philadelphia Eagles DB Nickell Robey-Coleman was removed from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Indianapolis Colts RB Jordan Wilkins was activated from the Reserve/COVID-19 list Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Green Bay Packers LB Krys Barnes (thumb), PK Mason Crosby (shoulder), RB AJ Dillon (quadriceps), DL Kingsley Keke (concussion), TE Marcedes Lewis (knee), LB Za'Darius Smith (thumb), WR Equanimeous St. Brown (knee, ankle), OT Ricky Wagner (knee) and RB Jamaal Williams (ankle) were limited at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. S Will Redmond (knee) practiced in full.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin (hip, quadriceps) was limited at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Godwin caught four of seven targets but for just 34 yards against the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Divisional Round. The Buccaneers' passing game wasn't needed much as Tampa Bay operated from favorable field position for much of the game. Godwin, Mike Evans and Antonio Brown should all see more work against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship. Godwin is likely to see the most targets.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Ronald Jones (finger, calf) was a limited participant at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Jones ran 13 times for 62 yards against the New Orleans Saints last week after being considered questionable for most of the practice week. He should be more involved this week, but the game script isn't likely to be as favorable for the Bucs as it was in the NFC Divisional Round. Jones will be a touchdown-dependent fantasy FLEX option this week.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers LB Jason Pierre-Paul (knee) didn't participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. S Jordan Whitehead (knee) and CB Sean Murphy-Bunting (quadriceps, ankle) were limited. DL Jeremiah Ledbetter (calf) and G Ali Marpet (pectoral) practiced in full.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Antonio Brown (knee) didn't participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Brown is expected to be fine in time for Sunday's NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers. He'll represent a contrarian pivot from either Mike Evans or Chris Godwin.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans (knee) was a limited participant at practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Evans didn't practice much last week and was targeted just three times in the NFC Divisional Round game against the New Orleans Saints. His day was saved by a three-yard touchdown catch, but it was his only reception. He should be more involved in the NFC Championship with another week of recovery under his belt.
Buffalo Bills WR Stefon Diggs (oblique) was limited during practice Wednesday, Jan. 20.
Fantasy Spin: Diggs has posted at least 100 yards in five of his last six games and is a must-start fantasy option if he is active for the game.
Buffalo Bills DT Vernon Butler (quadriceps) did not participate in practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. QB Jake Fromm (non-injury) and DT Quinton Jefferson (ankle) were limited during practice. PK Tyler Bass (hand), LB Tremaine Edmunds (hamstring) and DE Darryl X. Johnson (knee) fully participated in practice.
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs (oblique) remains on the injury report and was a limited practice participant on Wednesday. Diggs has been battling an oblique injury late this season, but it hasn't really slowed him down at all. The NFL's leader in receptions and receiving yards in 2020, the 27-year-old has 14 catches on 20 targets for 234 yards and two touchdowns in the team's two playoff tilts against the Colts and Ravens this year. Diggs was able to haul in six of his eight targets for 46 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting with the Chiefs back in Week 6 in a 26-17 loss. With quarterback Josh Allen having a breakout season under center, Diggs has been one of the most valuable fantasy wideouts this season, and that shouldn't change in the AFC Championship this Sunday.
Updating a previous report, Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes (concussion, toe) is now listed as limited during practice Wednesday, Jan. 20. He was initially listed as a full participant Wednesday.
Fantasy Spin: Mahomes is going through the concussion protocol but may be able to do more during practice over the next few days. He is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL when healthy and should be a starting option if he is active.
Buffalo Bills rookie wide receiver Gabriel Davis (ankle) and defensive tackle Vernon Butler (quadriceps) both missed practice on Wednesday. Davis injured his ankle in the Divisional Round win over the Ravens last Saturday night. As of right now, the impressive 21-year-old should be considered questionable to play against the Chiefs in the AFC Championship on Sunday, but keep an eye on his practice status through the rest of the week. He was unable to haul in any of his four targets against Baltimore's defense last week after going for four catches and 85 yards in the wild-card win over Indianapolis the week prior. He's hard to trust for consistent production behind Stefon Diggs, John Brown and Cole Beasley. If Davis can't play this weekend, Isaiah McKenzie could see an expanded role.