Mike Tomlin, coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
Good afternoon. It’s a big week for us. It’s the first week of a three-game road stretch. We’re going down to South Florida to play the Dolphins. We’re pretty familiar with these guys. We played them late of course last year. They’re a really good football team. They’re 3-2 this year. Their losses are to New England and the Jets, two very good football teams. I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys and what they’re capable of. As we look at the tape there are several things in all three phases that stand out.
First of all, when you’re talking about their team, how they play, they stay on schedule offensively. They’re converting 49.3 percent of their third-down plays. So they’re moving the football, converting third downs, they dominate time of possession. Of course they’ve got two quality running backs, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. It starts from there for us trying to contain those men. They can wage a war of attrition if we don’t do a nice job against those guys. In that, of course, is included the wildcat attack. They’re originators in this league of that attack with what they do with Ronnie Brown. He is special and different from most wildcat runners because he is a runner. He is a tailback. He’s a force to be reckoned with in that offense and in that base offense. (Lousaka) Polite, the Woodland Hills guy, is a quality fullback who opens holes for both men. Their quarterback, (Chad) Henne, is doing a very nice job. He’s got some nice weapons to throw to. They’re different than last year that they have Brandon Marshall, a Central Florida man, who is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player. He’s big – 6-4, 230 pounds. He‘s a physical matchup problem for anyone in your secondary. He’s strong, but there are a lot of big receivers and what makes him unique is his ability to run after the catch. He’s got little-man quickness in terms of his ability to drop his weight and change direction. He’s got great balance. He’s a tough guy to tackle once he catches it. He’s an easy target down the field. They move him around quite a bit and Henne appears to be very comfortable throwing him the ball. He was targeted 17 times last week and caught 10 of them. So I’m not going to sit here and talk about denying this guy the ball. If they’re committed to getting him the ball, they will. I think it’s important that we try to minimize the amount of damage he does to us, similar to Roddy White when we played Atlanta. When they’re committed to getting the ball to Pro Bowl-caliber guys, they’re going to get it. You just try to minimize the amount of damage to you when they do get it. You want to tackle him, of course, and you want to challenge the throws. (Davone) Bess, their slot man, is very good. I think he was just rewarded with a contract extension, and deservedly so. He works well in the slot. He’s a tough matchup problem in zone defense versus linebackers and people of that nature. When you get him one-on-one versus nickelbacks and so forth, he does a nice job of getting separation at breakpoints. He’s a guy that’s experienced beyond his years because of the number of balls that he caught at Hawaii as a college player. Of course their line is anchored by (Jake) Long at left tackle. James (Harrison) has got his hands full again this week. He went from Joe Thomas to Long, but such is the battle with being a right outside linebacker. Those left tackles are usually pretty good, and boy this guy is arguably as good as anyone that plays that spot in the world right now.
Defensively, up front, Kendall Langford, a Hampton man, is a very good player. Randy Starks had a big year a year ago and is continuing to wreak havoc. They anchor the front but they play a lot of people. The linebacking group is one that’s noteworthy. It starts with Karlos Dansby. They picked him up from Arizona. This is a big, rangy defender who can run. He’s good in coverage; he’s good at applying pressure; he’s good at chasing the ball sideline to sideline. He’s got a bunch of physical talent. He’s big and fast. Of course outside, Cameron Wake is really continuing to emerge as a Pro Bowl-caliber player. We’re very aware of this guy. We pursued him when he came over from Canada like we did Stefan Logan. Miami got his services and boy they’re reaping the rewards of it. This guy’s disruptive whatever tape you turn on. They move him around. He plays on the right side; he plays on the left side. He has a relentless motor. He gets after the passer, but he also does a nice job of playing the run. Sack/fumbles are his thing; he’s gotten the ball out several times. He’s really playing really good football for them. They got Channing Crowder back inside to go along with Dansby. He’s been a consistent player for those guys over the years. He missed some time here earlier in the year but he’s back up and running again. In the secondary for me it’s about the emergence of a young guy: Vontae Davis appears to be an emerging, elite corner in this league. Not many holes in his game whatsoever to speak of. He challenges guys at the line of scrimmage. He appears to be very aware. He’s got good ball skills. And he’s a very good tackler. He explodes on contact. He gets guys down. Wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, he doesn’t discriminate. He’s consistently physical. Jason Allen, their first-rounder a few years back out of Tennessee, is doing good work for them at the other cornerback position. I think he has three or four interceptions.
So we have our hands full there, good team. They’re 3-2. They’re back at home. They’re coming off a nice road victory at Green Bay, which I’m sure they intend to use as a springboard. We’d better prepare ourselves to be at our best because that’s what’s going to be required to win.
Along those lines, if you look at us from an injury-standpoint, Brett Keisel has a hamstring injury. We can categorize him as out for this week. Trai Essex continues to work back from his ankle sprain. He’s questionable. I just saw him; he had a nice little workout out back and was able to get up on his toes. He’s probably going to practice in a limited capacity this week. Hopefully he’ll participate but we’ll see. Rashard Mendenhall has a left shoulder contusion. It may limit him early in the week – really, just bumps and bruises that come along with being a feature ballcarrier. Doug Legursky sustained a left MCL sprain Sunday. He was able to stabilize it and come back into the game, so we expect him to be available and not be limited in any way. It’s a good thing because we’re going to need all the healthy bodies we can get as we begin this road trip that starts in South Florida on Sunday.
Have you gathered any information on the hits by James Harrison?
No, I guess I’ve just seen the reports that you guys have seen, that the hit on (Mohamed) Massaquoi is under review, as are all hits around the league. So I’ll let those guys do their job. My opinion is still my opinion in regard to the hits.
What’s your opinion of the strict enforcement of the helmet-to-helmet hits? Does it change how you coach?
I’m a proponent of it. I’m all for player safety. I think it’s the proper initiative that the NFL has. I think we need to safeguard the men that play this game to the best of our abilities and make it as safe as we possibly can, but I also think we have an obligation to those that look to the NFL to provide as safe a game as we can. I’m talking about high school, college and little league players around the world. So I’m a proponent of player safety and whatever rule or rule-adjustments that we do to make it safe.
How difficult is it to walk that fine line when players come across the middle? Can the linebacker do that?
They have to, or at least they have to attempt to. I’ve been highly involved in some of the discussions that have transpired over the last year or two in regards to player safety. We’ve used words like ‘flagrant’ and ‘egregious’ and ‘lowering the strike zone’ and those are words you use as a coach to make sure you play within the rules, not only to keep players safe but to increase our chances of winning. Being a highly penalized outfit is not going to help you, so I’m very in tune with what’s being asked. We coach it. I’m a proponent of player safety.
James had his arms down on the hit of Josh Cribbs. Has form tackling become a lost art?
No, we coach form tackling. Hit-and-wrap tackling is essential. If you look at that play, the first man to make contact with him was a hit-and-wrap tackler, LaMarr Woodley. We teach the second man in to try and dislodge the ball because that’s what we desire. We want possession of the football. They both did exactly what we coach and what we ask them to do. The first man to confront Josh Cribbs was LaMarr Woodley. He came to balance, did a nice form wrap tackle. The second man in attempted to dislodge the ball on contact, and was able to do it. Of course it was recovered by Cleveland.
Are tougher penalties necessary? Particularly to a repeat offender?
I’m a proponent of levying whatever kind of punishment the NFL office deems necessary for those that are repeat offenders and those that are flagrant and those that are egregious hits. I agree with that.
You’re not opposed to suspensions?
I’m not on the punitive arm of this thing, so whatever they deem necessary I’m going to be a supporter of, particularly when it comes to player safety.
Do you have a pecking order at right guard? Or is it whoever’s healthy?
First let’s see who’s healthy. I think it starts there. Preparation is a big part of determining who plays. Of course, if Trai is limited then of course the nod would potentially go to Doug Legursky. But we’ll see as the week unfolds.
How about at right defensive end?
We’ve got two candidates there in Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason. Both are capable. Both are going to play. Who starts and who comes out of the tunnel is yet to be determined, but both guys are going to have to step up their performance if they’re going to meet the standards we’ve come to expect when we see Brett Keisel play.
If they eliminated any contact with helmets and helmet/shoulder, would it hurt the game?
No. I don’t know if that’s realistic. Helmet to helmet contact is going to occur from time to time in football. Things happen fast with big, moving people. I think the issue here is that we coach a lowering of the target to minimize or reduce the number of those opportunities, and to talk about flagrant or egregious approaches.
James made comments about a difference between hurting and injuring players. Is there a fine line between the two? Is that how you want to play this game in the NFL?
I didn’t see those comments, but I know James. James says a lot of things he doesn’t necessarily mean. He’s a tough talker, like a lot of guys that play the game at this level. If you want to get to know James, catch him on a Tuesday when he’s walking through the building with his son. He’s a big softie.
How close were you to signing Wake?
Not close enough. He’s a Dolphin. Guys come out of the CFL and other areas every year. We’ve got a really good scouting staff. You turn over guys to find quality players.
When you look at the Dolphins, are the changes schematic or in personnel?
It’s both, and that occurs on every team every year. Last year is last year. They acquired some quality people like Brandon Marshall and Karlos Dansby. They’ve got a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan. The normal changes that occur year to year is a big part of it. So you look at things that may have occurred last year, but you spend more time looking at what they’ve done and they’ve got a five-game body of work that can provide quality information for us as we prepare this week.
How did Emmanuel Sanders do as a returner and receiver? And will he dress this week?
Undecided on that. We’re going to continue to pit those two young men against each other so that we can get the desired results that we want, which is third-down conversions like he provided for us, which is quality kick returns like Antonio Brown has provided for us. He did a nice job, but they’re still both growing and developing. We want to assist them in that by providing the truest motivator for them, which is competition.
How difficult will it be to win six games by the midpoint with three road games coming up?
I just acknowledge that we’ve got three road games in a row, but I’m not concerned about it. We’re not going to fly from Miami to New Orleans. We’re going to come back to Pittsburgh to prepare next week. So this is where I am with it. We’re preparing to go to Miami. We’re playing one team this week and that’s our focus.
Did you see Lawrence Timmons’s great production coming last year?
I did, and even going back to ’08 when we were playing him in sub-package football. If you look at his numbers relative to the number of snaps that he played in ’08, what he’s doing right now shouldn’t be that much of a shock to anyone. He’s been productive since he’s played defense for us. He’s going to continue to get better as he continues to get comfortable with the nuances of the game and being able to decipher what people are trying to do to him. He’s an emerging, emerging player and he’s doing a really nice job.
Ben Roethlisberger gave himself a C+/B- grade after that game. Would you agree with that?
I’ll agree with him if he wants me to. I just want to win football games. Ben’s got a desire to be perfect, so I’m with him on that.
Is Ziggy Hood where you thought he would be?
I need to see more from Ziggy, and the other 52 men on the team.
Is activating Steve McLendon a good possibility?
I wouldn’t necessarily call it a good possibility. It’s a possibility. The circumstances of those decisions change as you go throughout the year. Early on in the year you’re concerned because of the lack of snaps people played. You worry about conditioning. We’re five games into this thing now, where guys are used to playing a number of snaps. Six guys is probably more of a requirement in early September than it is in the latter part of October, but again that is a potential option for us, one we’ll look at later in the week.
Are you concerned about the high number of touches Rashard Mendenhall is getting?
I am. We had a limited number of options here the first month of the season. He had to carry the torch for us and he did a very nice job of it. Hopefully as we proceed we’ll find ways to lighten his load moving forward.
Does that mean you’re gaining more confidence in Isaac Redman?
It also means that. It also maybe means spreading the ball around a little bit. We’ll see.
Do you have a pecking order of third-down backs?
No. We think all of those guys are capable. We’ve taken different approaches in different weeks. One week we’ll have Mewelde Moore spell him on third downs in the first half and Isaac Redman doing it in the second half, or vice-versa. All of those guys are capable, so we call on them.