MIKE TOMLIN, coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
Opening Statement: Needless to say, we’re excited about a lot of things and hosting the Jacksonville Jaguars at Heinz Field this weekend is one of them. We don’t take where we sit lightly. We’re excited about it. It’s the next step in the quest that we had this year. We look forward to preparing to meet the challenges that await us.
Of course, the Jacksonville Jaguars are a stiff challenge. They are a very good football team. They’re an 11-5 football team. They’re big. They play a physical brand of football and it starts first and foremost with Fred Taylor. He’s a dynamic tailback that has been doing it a long time for those guys. He’s complimented by Maurice Jones-Drew, who is a good football player in his own right. He’s a compact guy, a powerful guy. He does a lot of things for them. He catches the ball out of the backfield extremely well. He returns kicks. He’s a third-down back, if you will. He’s very good at blitz pickup. He has a body count of guys that he gets after from a blitz-pickup standpoint. They’re big up front. Their tight ends are excellent. (Richard) Angulo is a big blocking tight end. Marcedes Lewis is a vertical threat. They’ve got big wide receivers. Studying the tape this week, Reggie Williams has really picked his game up at wide receiver, blocking and creating some holes for those guys. He’s probably as big a part of their running game as anybody. The way he blocks and picks up things on the perimeter, it allows their backs to get one-on-one with the cornerbacks. It’s impressive. Jones is a big red zone threat. It shows that you can’t coach 6-5 or 6-6, whatever he is. Defensively, they’re rock solid. Much like their offense, they’ve got big people. They play a power game. John Henderderson, it starts with him. He’s a very big man in the middle. He’s complimented by Grady Jackson and (Paul) Spicer. They have a young edge rusher in Brett Hawkins who’s really emerging and really doing some good things. He’s one of the young dynamic rushers in this game. He’s been hot of late. He had a couple of sacks against us and he’s kind of taken off from there. A young guy at linebacker (Justin) Durant is doing some nice things for them. And Sammy Knight is a veteran, above-the-neck player savvy football player at the safety position. He played an extraordinary game against us the last time. It’s that time of year. When you think about it - and I do often - you always get excited about January football because it’s something we all aspire to when we start out when the records and slates are clean and that summer feeling is in the air as you approach training camp. There are 32 teams in 32 different citiies that aspire to be a part of this and it’s narrowed down to 12. That’s the nature of this thing. The road’s going to be tough when you get down to those situations. It’s something we crave. I’m sure it’s something everybody in this situation craves. You want to compete against the elite of the elite and that’s what this is. We’ve got a big challenge Saturday night. We’re excited for those reasons. We’re excited to be playing Saturday night; excited to be playing at Heinz Field; excited about being a part of that Steeler nation home playoff football. Fans are going to make a few tackles for us on Saturday night, no doubt. We’re looking forward to meeting the challenge.
Let’s take a look at some of our injuries before I take questions. Some guys who are out: Clint (Kriewaldt) has been dealing with an injury for a long time. It hasn’t gotten any better. We’re probably going to make a move to get a healthy guy to participate for us. That’s probably the best thing to do for him and us, as is Max Starks, who got hurt in the game against the Baltimore Ravens. He has a meniscus injury. He’s going to get that fixed. We’re in the process of making a move to get a healthy man in here and a replacement for him. That creates an issue at left tackle for us. We felt that Trai Essex did a solid job in relief of Max at Baltimore. We also have some other potential options that we will explore. We’ll start first and foremost with Trai Essex at left tackle. He made a good accounting of himself against a good front in Baltimore, starting with (Terrell) Suggs. We kept Charlie (Batch) pretty much clean all evening. He was a big part of that. Some other injuries: Bryant McFadden reinjured his ankle during the game. He’ll be limited at the front part of the week. We’ll see where he goes. Troy (Polamalu) has knee inflammation. He’s going to be limited as well at the beginning of the week. Hopefully he can participate. Willie Reid has a shoulder, AC sprain. He’ll be limited, we’ll keep him out of contact early in the week. Deshea (Townsend) has foot discomfort, he’ll be limited but we expect him to play. And Hines Ward is in a similar situation with his knee. He may be limited at the beginning of the week. We need to push those guys. These guys understand the gravity of the moment. We know they will do everything in their power to get well. They’ve done that. They were in the building yesterday. They were in the building again today. Some of the guys I’ve mentioned since Clint and Max, we anticipate these guys pushing and getting through it and being able to participate for us. Of course, Marvel Smith will still be out. Allen Rossum is questionable with the hamstring. His ability to run later in the week is going to determine his ability to participate. I’ll answer any questions.
Is your quarterback all right?
Yes. He’s going to be fine. We expect full participation from him.
Is Starks done for the season?
Yes he is.
You talked about Rossum. If Willie Reid can’t play, who would you put back there?
We’re looking at a variety of candidates. Najeh Davenport has returned kicks for us. Cedrick Wilson has fielded punts for us. Santonio Holmes has an ability to do those things. We’re going to look at some guys. We’re going to look first at Najeh and Cedrick Wilson.
Will you sign a lineman?
Yes we will, but again, when we talk about signing a lineman at this point in January, we’re talking about depth. It’s unrealistic that somebody who is going to fly in here today is going to help us play winning football this weekend. We are where we are. We always look for our answers from within. Trai is the next man up. The level of expectations will not change. Of course, using common sense since he is the third guy we’ve lined up at that position this year, we’ve got to do some things schematically to help. We intend to do that, but we expect him to play winning football for us.
Is among the options possibly moving (Alan) Faneca out there or is that not among the options?
That is an option.
Will you look at that some in practice?
Max has a meniscus tear and will have surgery?
You’re leaning to Essex and hoping he can get the job done?
Well, we don’t want to show our hand, but those are the options for us.
Essex did a nice job early in his career filling in. What’s happened that he has not been able to get on the field since then?
It’s about the quality of his play versus the quality of play of the guys he competes against. It’s just that simple. He is working. He has done some nice things for us since I’ve been here. But it hasn’t been as good as some of the people playing in front of him. That’s just being brutally honest. That being said, we still expect him to deliver for us this weekend.
What did he do against Baltimore that you liked?
He stayed after people and from an assignment standpoint he played at a high level. And it starts with that, knowing what to do, particularly with a guy in his position, who hasn’t gotten a lot of quality, meaningful reps over the course of the season. From an assignment standpoint and staying after people, I thought he was impressive. And those are thetwo key ingredients of being able to play at a winning level, knowing what to do and competing and he did those.
Aside from moving Faneca out, who right now is the third offensive tackle? Can (Chris) Kemoeatu play there?
It might be me. We don’t want to do that. It really is what it is. We have Trai. We have Willie Colon. Potentially we have Alan Faneca, who has done it some in the past. And that’s what we’re working with.
Why did the third-and-10 draw plays (Jacksonville) ran against you with Jones-Drew work against you?
They executed at a high level. You never want to discount what they’re capable of, particularly Jones-Drew. But we’ve got to do a better job of shoring up some gaps and making tackles. We had several opportunities to bring those guys down. When you get in those situations, when people run the football, there’s a chance of getting four or five yards because of the posture that you’re in. But we missed a few tackle opportunities, they blocked things up well. They executed and we didn’t.
Why was Fred Taylor able to have so much success?
He’s a great player. He’s got 10,000-plus yards. He’s got a career highlight tape of why he’s successful against us. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s a great cutback runner. He’s tough to get on the ground. He doesn’t provide much of a surface for you to hit. He finishes off runs well. They block well for him. Pick one or several.
Have teams blocked you differently since Aaron Smith went out?
I don’t know if people have blocked us differently, but they’ve blocked us effectively. We’ve got to combat that with quality play. We’ve got to shed blocks and whip tackles and run to the football. When you get there, tackle and get multiple people to the ball. It’s no question when you lose a guy the caliber of Aaron Smith, there’s going to be some dropoff, but we still have got to play winning football. We still have to tackle ballcarriers. That’s our level of expectation. We’ll make those corrections and get that done this weekend and I know Steeler Nation will be there to assist us.
Is a matter of winning one-on-one battles?
It certainly is. And when you do that, tackle and tackle extremely well.
LaMarr Woodley picked up another sack. Has he warranted more playing time as you head into the playoffs?
He has. It’s nothing new. With the limited snaps he’s gotten, he’s shown he can be productive and it’s been our intention to work him in. Part of the reason he hasn’t been in as much as we would like or he would like is that he’s been battling injury from a hamstring standpoint off and on from the middle to latter part of the season. He’s healthy now, so we’re playing him. He was healthy in St. Louis, so we played him some. His production and play is more of a product of him being able to play more than any change in our mentality or what he’s capable of.
Does he know the defense now?
Yes. And it wasn’t necessarily any knowledge of the defense when he got into the second part of the year. He just wasn’t healthy.
How do you correct missed tackling so late in the season?
It’s a lot of things. Sometimes you miss tackles and it doesn’t show up because the next guy is there cleaning it up. And it looks like you’re gang tackling. We’ve got to get more guys to the football and we’ve got to whip blocks. That’s the nature of it. You’re going to miss tackles from time to time, particularly when you play great backs. That’s our focus this week.
Is the defense designed so that guys have to be gap sound more so than in other defenses?
I don’t know a defense where gap integrity is not important. I haven’t been part of one. It’s definitely important for us. That’s just part of playing good, sound defense.
Lately players have been talking about not being in their gaps and taking chances. Has that just been happening lately?
You don’t talk about it publicly unless you’re struggling. When we’re kicking butt and tackling folks, you don’t ask those questions so the guys don’t talk about it. It is something that’s in the front of our minds from day one to the end of this thing. Great defense starts with that, doing your job and where you’re supposed to be. It’s the top of the conversation because we’ve played some great backs and they’ve had some success against us.
Has there been one or two running plays that teams have consistently used that have been effective against you?
It differs from team to team. It hasn’t been any particular run. I think everybody has their own personality the way they design their running game and draw their things up, as does Jacksonville. You deal with it.
Jacksonville gave up two kick returns for touchdowns. Was that a product of having some different guys in there?
That’s probably a question for those guys to answer. We’re focusing on getting ourselves ready to play as I’m sure that they are. I’m sure they’ll work to correct those problems this week as we will ours. We expect to get their best as I’m sure they expect to get our best. It’s January football. That’s what January football is about. That’s what is exciting about this weekend. We don’t expect any chinks in the armor. We expect their best shot and we’d better be prepared to deliver ours and continue to chase the dream that we both have.
Fred Taylor said earlier on the conference call that he hates this field even though he had such a good game. Do you feel this field gives you an advantage?
Sure it is. If he feels that way, it’s an advantage for us. I don’t know anybody on our team that hates our field. So I’d have to say it’s an advantage.
Is there an advantage at quarterback in terms of playoff experience?
Specifically, playoff experience for us is a weapon because you understand what the feelings are like. You understand the moments and how special they are, particularly when you have a group of men who have been a part of it, had it taken away and now they’re back in it again. We expect to use that as a source of energy, enthusiasm and focus for us. It’s a natural thing. It’s playoff football.
How much different is it for you as a head coach going into the playoffs than as an assistant?
It’s not at this point. It may be a little different on Saturday night at 8:05. We’ll see.
The first game when Hawkins was successful, that was the game Marvel was hurt. Have you seen him giving other teams problems as well?
No, this guy is a legitimate, emerging player. Whatever it takes to get turned on, he’s getting warm. That’s the nature of it. That’s what’s awesome about this league. Everybody is a potential playmaker. It’s what you do on a day-to-day basis. This is a young guy who’s on the come, making plays for them and getting more playing time because of it.
Are you concerned having lost three of the past four that the team may have lost a little bit of its swagger?
That’s a concern. A lot of things are a concern. I kind of take the approach of what lies ahead and what lies ahead is an enormous playoff game versus a great football team at our place. That’s our focus. We’ve got some guys that understand the gravity of this moment. If there’s any hesitation, they’d better get over it because the ball is going to be kicked off shortly.
This being your first playoff game, do you talk to any coaches who have been through it?
I haven’t at this point and really don’t anticipate it. One thing about sitting in this chair, every day I confirm what I already know in that, you’ve got to trust your instincts and do it your own way. I’ve got a bunch of mentors and peers that I respect a great deal and I know they are there for me if I need advice. But ultimately, I’ve got to go with my gut. I’ve done that and will continue to do that.
What are the dynamics of playing a team so soon after you just played them?
I hope January football is enough motivation, but no doubt, losing to this team, being the only loss we had this year at Heinz Field is motivation for us. They’re a good football team. This is playoff football. If you can’t get up to play at Heinz Field in the playoffs in January, then you’ve got a problem. And I don’t think any of our guys got that problem.
How much have you missed Troy this season? He’s an impact player, but he’s been playing hurt.
Injuries are part of the game. When I say that, I believe it. We’re not unlike any team. Any of the 12 teams that are in this field have had injury issues. They’ve found ways to overcome it. Whoever hoists that Lombardi Trophy in a month or so will have had injury issues and will have found ways to overcome it. We don’t dwell on it. That’s as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. The healthy guys play. The standard of expectations doesn’t change. Yes, Troy is a great football player. Yes, you lose something when he doesn’t play. But you’ve got to play to win and that’s what we do. I believe in the men on this football team. They understand what team is about. That’s why this is the ultimate team game. We won’t make excuses.