Mike Tomlin, Coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
Good afternoon. Really kind of a heightened sense of urgency with us as we prepare to take on the Detroit Lions for a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s an important game because it’s our next one, but we’re trying to get a couple of things done that we hadn’t done to this point in the year. One is stacking victory performances on top of one another, trying to get consecutive wins. I think if you desire to be a world championship-caliber team like we do, of course, you’ve got to be capable of doing that. And also we’re searching for our first road victory. Similarly, if you want to be a world championship-caliber team, you’ve got to go into hostile environments and play winning football. So we’re going to prepare with those things in mind this week. We’ve got a great deal of respect for what’s going on in Detroit with (GM) Martin Mayhew and Coach (Jim) Schwartz and that bunch. We’re studying a great deal of tape and looking at some of the changes that they’ve made, and the results that they have are pretty impressive, really, to this point.
When you talk about them offensively, really the focus is on the young high-round draft picks that they’ve acquired over the last several years that are making great strides and making quality plays for them. Matthew Stafford, of course, is a very dangerous quarterback. (I) really looked at him in the draft, just from a spectator standpoint; didn’t expect him to be on the board, of course. He’s got ridiculous arm strength and accuracy; very intelligent and poised young man; is representing himself well. His number one target of course is Calvin Johnson, who is extremely talented; alien, if you will, in terms of matchups. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast. He plays with all those attributes. He high-points the football. It’s not too big for him. We’ve got to try to find a way to minimize the damage he can do to us. (Brandon) Pettigrew, the rookie tight end, is a complete package. You look at tight ends coming into the league today; usually they distinguish themselves in one area. They’re vertical threats or they’re in-line blockers and so forth, preparing for last year’s draft we really appreciated what this guy did because he did both equally well. He’s worthy of the draft status that he has, and he’s showing that to this point. Gosder Cherilus, their right tackle, is another first-round young man who’s distinguished himself. He’s a big, violent man and plays that way. Of course, at running back, (Kevin) Smith is a solid second-year player, another high draft pick.
Defensively, they’ve kind of taken a different approach. They’ve gone out and acquired some quality veteran free agents and intermingled those guys with some draft picks, guys like the guy we’re familiar with in the middle, Larry Foote. Of course, we all know that he’s a top-quality player and person, high character guy and great leader for those guys. They seem to be molding well under his leadership. Julian Peterson’s another top-quality guy who’s got Pro Bowl experience at the linebacker level for them. They’ve got a nice corner in Anthony Henry, who’s familiar with playing the Steelers, got drafted into this league by the Cleveland Browns, has played rock-solid ball everywhere he’s been and, really, has continued that thus far in Detroit this year. They’re mixing in some young guys with those guys. Sammie Hill, who we looked at prior to the draft and brought in for a visit, is a big, strong, raw athlete from Stillman. He’s starting and playing well for those guys inside, along with a veteran acquisition, Grady Jackson. (Louis) Delmas at safety I think was the Rookie of the Month for September and deservedly so. This guy can cover a lot of grass, likes to hit people. It’s obvious that he plays with a great deal of passion. I like what he’s doing, and now they’re starting to pick up some contributions from (DeAndre) Levy, a linebacker from Wisconsin who’s playing some sub-package football for them, some 4-4 football for them. Really doing some nice things there. That said, we’ve got to sharpen our sword for this battle and we intend to do so.
Some injury issues, I’ll start with Troy (Polamalu). You guys probably want to hear about Troy. Troy’s been doing well and progressing well. He may participate in a limited basis tomorrow in practice with a brace on, some individuals (drills); just see how he runs around and changes direction. Last week he ran some in a straight line to pretty solid reviews, so we’ll take another step to see where he is. What that means for his game participation is unclear to this point. Really, we just want to get him out there on the practice field and see how he responds to that and then kind of proceed from there. So, anticipating him participating in a limited fashion, in some form or fashion, here maybe as soon as tomorrow. Ryan Clark will be limited at the early portion of the week with a lower back strain, an injury that he sustained or aggravated in the game, and came back and finished. Andre Frazier has a right shoulder AC sprain that may limit him early in the week here. Chris Kemoeatu has a left ankle that he injured in the game and he was able to come back and finish. It may limit him a little bit here early in the week. David Johnson, who’s missed some action here of late, should be back at practice and we’re excited about getting that young man back out, seeing what he can do. And Willie Parker may be limited again here at the top of the week as he deals with his turf toe. Hopefully we can get him back and game ready.
Q: (Ellis bolts from gate with a long question about Rashard Mendenhall.)
A: To be bluntly honest, I anticipated that type of production and performance from him given the opportunity. I really just think that that’s the first opportunity that he’s received, and at times, when you’re a young guy waiting for your opportunities, you can get distracted a little bit. I think that’s probably what happened to him early on in the season, in terms of missing some of the details and preparing himself. He addressed those, we addressed those, and he had a great week’s work. He was on the details. He was really in tune to the minor details of the game plan, not only in practice but in meetings and in walk-through. When you’re a talented guy, you take that kind of mentality and preparation and it usually produces those kinds of performances, so I wasn’t surprised by any stretch.
Q: If Willie is healthy, how do you handle your running backs this week?
A: We hadn’t pondered the division of labor to this point. I think the most important thing is we find out the level of availability of Willie, and then we’ll make that determination, but at this point the ball is in Rashard’s hands until we get further information in regards to Willie Parker.
Q: Did Mendenhall show you things he did not do in his first year plus, in terms of how hard he ran?
A: No, really if you go back and look at some of the preseason tape, he showed flashes of that. Of course, you don’t get enough opportunities in the course of a preseason game to establish the rhythm that you get when you get the ball in your hands 20-plus times. If you go back and look at the Redskins preseason game, this guy ran downhill in that football game with about six or seven carries, or whatever the number of carries he had. I think he was capable of putting together that kind of performance if you look at that tape. That’s what preseason football’s about. We saw glimpses of it, and that’s why we hold him to the standards that we hold him to, and have the level of expectation that we have in regards to him.
Q: At the end of the Cincinnati game, you said you’d made some changes in the secondary late. What changes did you make for the San Diego game and how did they work out?
A: Well, we did some things in terms of personnel groups, trying to match their people. We used Keiwan Ratliff quite a bit. Of course, we used Tyrone Carter some and of course we used Lawrence Timmons some and we used Deshea Townsend some, all searching for a formula to slow down Antonio Gates and the rest of their receiving corps, and for the most part did it with a pretty good degree of success, at least in the first half. As the game wore on, the pedigree showed, in regards to Antonio Gates and what kind of player he is, and we probably lost more of those battles down the stretch than we won. But for the most part, in terms of neutralizing their big-play capability, particularly at the wide receiver position, we were pleased with how the game plan – at least the personnel packages – worked leading up to that point.
Q: Could you talk about how Ike Taylor did matching up against top guys the last two weeks and whether maybe you’ll do it again this week?
A: There’s no ‘maybe’ about that. Why hold that secret? I’m sure you guys understand that Ike Taylor will be following Calvin Johnson. Ike is a top quality player. He has the desire to be great. His actions match his words in that regard. He prepares extremely hard every week. He’s as good a practice player as we have. He’s always game for those challenges. He and I usually have funny exchanges early in the week when he comes and asks for those premium matchups, and that’s what the great ones at that position – or the ones that desire to be great at that position – that’s the mentality that they have. He didn’t wait till Wednesday to ask about that matchup this week. He doesn’t take it lightly. We don’t take it lightly. We know what that guy’s capable of. We’re not going to send him over there to stop Calvin Johnson. He’s going to have some help in different forms and fashion, but that’s just the nature of the game. He’s a good player. The more you have, the more we’re going to ask you to give, and he does week in and week out.
Q: What have you seen from the return game that has pleased you?
A: I think it’s something on the rise. I’m not satisfied to this point, and I don’t think our team is. We’ve got a desire to be the best in the world, or one of the best in the world, in that phase of our game. It’s something we identified coming into the season, that we wanted to address and get better at, so we’re a work in progress in regards to that. Have shown some signs of improvement, but definitely capable of being better. Looking for game-changing dynamic plays, to be quite honest with you, in that phase of our team.
Q: (Ellis rebounds with a 60-word question about red zone performance.)
A: They responded to the challenge, and not only inside the stadium, but you saw it in preparation. They saw we were quite serious about getting better in that area. We had some calculated risk-taking involved and some game-plan things put in place to ensure we had a good outing in that regard. (Doug) Legursky was a factor in that; Mewelde Moore throwing the football; utilizing Heath (Miller) who’s a big target, a sure target, one that our quarterback is quite comfortable with. We’re going to continue to grow and I think that’s what this process in the early part of the season is about. And along the way you’d better find ways to win, and thankfully we were able to do that last week.
Q: How did the idea of using Legursky at fullback come about?
A: When you’re running short on bodies like we are you kind of look around and see who’s available, and Legursky’s always one of those guys that’s around (laughs). Availability is a good ability. He’s game to it. He’s a good young guy. He’s willing to do whatever we ask him to do, so we gave him an opportunity and he did a good job.
Q: Did he show anything in practice that made you think he was the guy for it?
Q: What changed that allowed San Diego to get back in the game?
A: It’s just really the natural ebb and flow that occurs during the course of football games. That’s why I urge our team not to ride the emotional roller coaster. That happens in this league and usually it’s a play or two that changes momentum and you have to withstand the push of your opponent, and that (special teams) play ignited them. They were able to produce some subsequent plays after that. In the end, we responded the way you need to respond. The offense put together a drive or two. Jeff Reed banged a kick. Guys stepped up and made significant plays at significant moments. James Harrison put an exclamation point on it with a sack-fumble. That’s how we desire to do it.
Q: How do you improve the ability to win on the road?
A: Nothing, other than win. Really. Our work week and our approach to our j-o-b is the same. Once we check into the hotel the night before the game it doesn’t matter if we’re at home or on the road. At times there are elements to the game that are different on the road; offensively, crowd noise being a factor in terms of how you communicate silent counts and so forth. At times that affects your running game because you can’t get off on the football if the crowd makes you use a silent count, then you’re essentially getting off on the same indicator that the defense is so you’re not beating them to the punch.
Q: Did you put your hands team out for the onside kick?
A: What we wanted to do was line up and look at their kickoff unit. I was potentially going to call a timeout if I saw any unbalances and so forth. We have guys on our normal kickoff return team that we’re comfortable with in terms of their hands and their decision-making, Ryan Mundy being one of them. There were no overloads. They had their normal kickoff team out there. I watched their kicker spot the ball. I felt comfortable that if they did kick it, we’d have at least a fighting chance to recover the ball. We did. We didn’t make the play. They recovered it. We move on.
Q: While it’s true that the line can make a back look good, is it also true that a running back can make an offensive line look good too? (Or did the questioner not watch the game and see the gaping holes for himself?)
A: I think I referenced that earlier in the year when we were talking about some of those things. I think they feed off of one another. I think a hard-running running back inspires the offensive line -- a guy that makes plays, a guy that breaks tackles, makes people miss. At the same time, you give guys some daylight and let him get to the second level against some smaller defenders, he feeds off of that. I think it’s mutual, really, and usually that’s the case. By the same token, it’s usually the same thing when you’re not running the ball well. We’re still a questionable outfit in every form and fashion. Don’t anoint us just yet.
Q: (Ellis with a 50-word question on loss of Troy impacting the fourth quarter.)
A: I’m not going to dispute that, but at the same time I’m not going to use that as an excuse.
Q: Has the league gone overboard in trying to protect the quarterback these days?
A: I’m not going to comment on how they’re officiating, in terms of the protection of the quarterback, as long as they provide that same blanket of protection for my quarterback.
Q: Are the rules clear on what you can and can’t do as a pass-rusher?
A: They are. They are.
Q: What factors into your fourth-down decision making?
A: Usually I go with my gut.
Q: (Ellis now nattering about the Lions. He should have to type these transcripts.)
A: I really don’t have an answer to that question at this point.
Q: (Another Clear Channel employee with rambling question about Polamalu game-readiness decision.)
A: His medical health will. We’ll rely on our experts and do what’s appropriate.
Q: Is Larry Foote’s knowledge of your signals and schemes a concern?
A: I’m more concerned about his playmaking ability. This guy’s a good football player. He made a bunch of plays for them. And if I know Larry, he’ll provide some good WWE talk prior to the game, but he’ll always step into the stadium ready to back it up. We like Larry. Got a great deal of respect for him.
Q: Mike, why was he released?
A: For a lot of reasons, most importantly is our growth and development at that position and feelings regarding Lawrence Timmons.
Q: (Tim leaps on the WWE reference, but Tomlin interrupts.)
A: I thought I’d throw you an assist.
Q: (Tim continues: Is your quarterback going to quit his day job?)
A: I don’t think you’ve got to worry about that.
Q: Did you watch it?
A: No. We don’t watch wrestling at my household. I’ve got little kids, man. They might try it at home.
Q: Would you have watched it had there not been –
Q: On Foote, Bruce Arians said he was concerned about the info Nate Washington would give Tennessee. Don’t you have to take safeguards against that?
A: Not really. There’s so much of that in today’s NFL. There really is. I think it’s overblown to a certain degree. There’s movement in the players’ ranks, there’s movement in the ranks of coaching. Very rarely does it play a significant difference in a football game. Larry Foote’s knowledge of what goes on here and how it comes together defensively is not going to determine the outcome in this football game. His play has a greater probability of determining the outcome of this football game than his knowledge.
Q: Have you talked to him since he left Pittsburgh?
A: I did. We came together at the ring ceremony back in the spring. Larry’s a good man. Always good to see him.