Mike Tomlin, coach, Pittsburgh Steelers
Good afternoon. Big week for us as we begin to prepare for the Cleveland Browns, for a lot of reasons. Number one, everybody’s aware of the rivalry that we have with this outfit. It’s a divisional game. We’ve yet to secure a division win. That’ll be in the front of our minds as we prepare. But, also, we acknowledge that the Cleveland Browns organization has gone through some changes here of late, so we have to respect that as we prepare. Coach (Eric) Mangini has brought in a new attitude with that group. So it’s not as familiar an opponent as one might expect from a divisional-opponent standpoint, so we’ve got to be really sharp in terms of preparation and acknowledge some of those changes and not get too comfortable just because some of the names and jersey numbers are familiar.
When we talk about the Browns’ offense, it looks like Jamal Lewis is healthy. When you look at the tape from last weekend, he had well over 100 yards and he’s still the bruising, downhill runner that we’re familiar with here. He almost ran for 100 yards in Week 17 against us last year. We’ve got a great deal of respect for him and what he’s capable of doing. While he was out, they discovered they also have a quality runner in Jerome Harrison, who is up over 200 yards for the season. It’ll be interesting to see how they continue to work those two. Saw Jamal Lewis play some fullback last week. Those are two guys that I know that they want to put the ball in their hands. I think Jerome is their leading receiver to this point. If you look at the left side of their line, we’re very impressed by those guys. Joe Thomas at left tackle is a perennial Pro Bowl-caliber player. He’s always had fierce battles and competitions with James Harrison. That’s going to be a premium matchup in the football game, one that we’re going to keep a close eye on. Of course, we desire to apply pressure to the quarterback and James has done that for us consistently. He faces a stiff challenge in Joe Thomas. Beside him is (Eric) Steinbach. They formulate a tough left side and I’m sure they’ll be focused on running the football over there, so James Harrison and Brett Keisel have to be ready to go in that regard. There are some changes in terms of the receivers that they work with, some highly regarded draft picks. (Mohamed) Massaquoi from Georgia rung up 150 on Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago. He appears to be a young guy on the come, one that we’d better be prepared to deal with. Of course, a local guy from the Cleveland area, (Brian) Robiskie from Ohio State, appears to be rounding into shape and getting some reps. Josh Cribbs is a guy we know and have a great deal of respect for, not only as a wide receiver but we know what he’s done to us here in the past as a return man, both punts and kicks.
Defensively, you look at them and it starts up front for them, particularly in the middle with Shaun Rogers. This is a disruptive force. This guy wreaks havoc; he does every time he plays us. It must be his personal relationship with Casey Hampton or something. We expect him to be at his best, but he also has some quality people playing alongside of him. Robaire Smith of course is a top quality player. They picked up (Kenyon) Coleman in free agency. C.J. Mosley came over from the Jets. He’s familiar with Coach Mangini and his schemes. And then of course they have Corey Williams, who they picked up in free agency from Green Bay a few years back. So they’ve got a nice rotation of big men. They’re disruptive and it starts there for them. If you look at the cornerback position, I think that’s another area of strength, one that’s going to be a key component in the game. In Eric Wright and (Brandon) McDonald, they have two corners who are very comfortable playing at the line of scrimmage and getting in receivers’ faces, challenging them. Both guys are very ball aware and have great hand-eye (coordination). They don’t tense up at the ball and are very good down the field, very instinctual players. The story of this game quite frankly could come down to our ability to get off the line of scrimmage and win in man-to-man situations, something that they’ve excelled at. Those two guys, coupled with Hank Poteat, of course, who’s been with Coach Mangini in three different cities, they’re very good at getting in people’s faces and covering people up and playing different varieties of man coverage and really destroying the timing of your routes by the way that they play on the line of scrimmage. Of course, from a rush standpoint, (Kamerion) Wimbley, their outside linebacker, is an accomplished rush man. He has four sacks at this point in the season. They partnered him with (David) Bowens, who is familiar with Coach Mangini. He’s another free agent that they brought in, along with Eric Barton, who’s a savvy veteran interior linebacker.
Those things being said, it’s obvious we’ve got some work to do. We intend to do that. I think it’s important that we prepare with an edge this week, try to seek our first divisional win, trying to string together some victorious-type performances, something that’s going to be critical as we continue to move forward.
On the injury front, Trai Essex went down in the football game and was able to come back and finish. We’ll see how he looks. He may be limited here in the early part of the week. Similar situation with Andre Frazier. He had a quad contusion, went down in the game, was able to come back and finish. We’ll see what he looks like, but he may be limited here in the front part of the week. Travis Kirschke had some tightening in his back during the course of the game, off and on. We’ll probably limit him early in the week. Chris (Kemoeatu) came through pretty good with his left ankle. He should be fine. We’re looking forward to getting Willie Parker (toe) and Troy (Polamalu, knee) back to work. Both guys are scheduled to participate in practice (Wednesday). We’ll let those guys do that, hopefully without any limitations, but we’ll be light on our feet and then we’ll evaluate their availability later in the week. It’ll really be interesting to see how they respond Thursday morning after having a day’s work. Probably the most significant injury of note is Aaron Smith. He has a right shoulder injury, one that’s being evaluated right now and potentially could be significant. We’ll deal with that information as we get it, and of course you guys will get it from there, but really at this point we’re evaluating him. Potentially he could definitely be out of this football game.
Ellis: Mike, it appears Ben (Roethlisberger)’s taking his game to new heights just about every game out. Do you see it that way? And if so could you maybe give us some of your perspective on why that’s the case?
A: Ben is a veteran quality football player who’s got awesome life experience for a guy his age. He’s seen about all that this business has to offer. He has a desire to be great. His sole motivation is winning. (His) performances aren’t perfect – he’ll be the first to tell you that – but when the rubber meets the road we’re glad that the ball is in his hands. He’s delivered time and time again. That’s what we expect. That’s what he expects. He’s pretty comfortable in those shoes. And not only the things that you see that turn up on the stat sheet, but this guy has developed into a quality, veteran leader on this football team. Of course, he’s our captain.
Reporter: When did Aaron get hurt? And when you said significant, is it potentially a long-range thing?
A: I don’t know the answer to the length of time at this point, but I will acknowledge that it is potentially significant. And of course he hurt it in the football game.
Q: How much has Ziggy Hood played this year? And how ready is he to get in there right now?
A: He’s of course played in just about every football game he’s had a helmet on. He’s played special teams in some games. He’s had more defensive snaps in others. He played a pretty significant portion of the game this past week. He’s a young guy that’s on the come. He’s got a lot of talent. He’s not out of the oven yet, if you will. We acknowledge that. He acknowledges that. And as long as we continue to do that, he’ll move in the right direction. So he’ll continue along those lines in terms of participation, but by no means is Ziggy Hood a potential replacement for Aaron Smith at this point. It’ll probably be a committee of bodies who’ll try to fill that void.
Q: Who else would that include?
A: The usual suspects: Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason, Ziggy Hood.
Q: Cleveland’s QB was 2-for-17 last week. I assume you’ll prepare for him the same way you did Jay Cutler who was coming off a bad game.
A: You know, you guys chuckled when I made that reference in regards to Cutler. There’s not enough respect for what professionals are capable of in today’s NFL, if you ask my opinion. This is a Pro Bowl guy. He’s been to the Pro Bowl. He’s delivered for them before. He’s a quality player. What he did last week is no indication or has no bearing on what he’s going to do this week. As a matter of fact, I know just the opposite: Usually guys of his caliber do bounce back and respond with favorable performances, so we anticipate him being his best. We’ve got respect for that element of it, just like we had respect for that element of it in regards to Cutler, who proved that he was capable of bouncing back.
Ellis: Mike, recognizing that you often speak about a week-to-week analysis, and yet when you look at where things are right now, do you see that maybe in some respects, what happened in Detroit, having to struggle late, could be helpful going into this week of preparation against a team that’s down as well?
A: I don’t analyze it in that way. I’m just trying to do what’s required on a week-to-week basis to win. We did what was required to win in Detroit. I think any time you face adversity and you come through the other side it helps you in some way. Maybe it doesn’t help you directly in terms of preparing or ultimately playing in this game, but I think it does bring teams together. You get knowledge and information about what you’re capable of collectively, what individuals are capable of, if they’re capable of delivering in significant moments. I think that’s what some of the adversity provides when you come through the other side like we’ve been able to the last couple of weeks.
Q: How would you assess the performance of the defense through those first five weeks of the season?
A: Three and two, just like I assess my performance thus far. Ultimately, that’s all that matters. I’m singularly focused. They’re singularly focused. At times, I know they’d like to be more dominant. I’d like them to be more dominant. But we don’t always get what we want in the National Football League. Along the way we’d better find ways to win and continue to strike the chords that are necessary to improve while you do it.
Q: Coach, if Willie’s able to go, how do you foresee he and Rashard (Mendenhall) sharing the running duties?
A: You know, I really hadn’t pondered the division of labor to this point. I think the most important thing in that discussion right now is Willie’s availability and the level of his availability. I think those answers will be provided to us as we proceed through the week and then we’ll address them at the appropriate time.
Q: How much were you blitzing Sunday?
A: We hadn’t changed our personality. We want to apply pressure to the quarterback. If you can do it with four, great. If you need more than four, than we’re willing to do that. I think consistent pressure on the quarterback is the key to playing good defense. Really, at this point, I’ve watched so much Cleveland tape I can’t recall the specific instances of what happened in the second half of that game in Detroit in regards to that.
Q: Because the blitzes were successful at the end, might you bust those out earlier this week?
A: We follow a similar formula every week, man. We want pressure on the quarterback. If four can provide it, then great, because that leaves more men for coverage. If we need to apply pressure with more than four, we’re willing to do that as well.
Q: Mike, you spoke about the Steelers fans in attendance in Detroit and all through Detroit after the game, but can you speak to the effect of what that crowd was like and really the environment in the last series when they had to make plays offensively and it was a crazy place.
A: It’s special, but so is Steeler Nation. It is a unique thing to stand on the visiting sideline and feel and get and hear fan support. To come out of a tunnel and see those Terrible Towels in visiting stadiums is unique. It’s something that we don’t take for granted. I know I don’t take it for granted. And no doubt it was significant at the end of that game, when we had to stand up and make a few plays, that support that we had from our fans.
Q: How can you get more turnovers?
A: You’d like to think that it’s going to come, and come in bunches, but usually when you’re not getting turnovers it comes down to a few things: You need more detail quality work and you need to play harder and faster. When you do those things, you’re opportunistic. And that’s what happens. Big plays happen when opportunity and technique and energy meet, so we’re focused on the things we can control. What we can’t do is get overly concerned with the lack of turnovers and try to do too much. What we need to do is simply focus on the minute details and tasks that each call, each defense, entails, and how each individual man fits in it, and do it with a great deal of energy, passion and finish. I truly believe that the turnovers in the end will be there if we do those things.
Q: Was your red zone success the last two games circumstantial? Or can you pinpoint the reason for the success?
A: We place a premium on situational football. We’ve devoted quite a bit of practice time to that element of our game Thursdays and Fridays, offensively specifically. And I just think over the course of the season as you continue to work on Thursdays and Fridays, you get better, or at least you’d like to think you get better. As you continue to do that, hopefully your batting average down there improves. I know that ours has. I think we’ve been 8-for-8 down there in the last couple of weeks. I know you can’t improve on that, but hopefully we sustain it in some form or fashion.
Q: Detroit’s batting average on third down is probably something you’re not happy with. Could you talk a little bit about some of the factors that you saw that led to that?
A: They popped a few screens. Got to give (Daunte) Culpepper credit; he broke us down with his legs a few times. He’s a big, strong guy. We had hands on him in the backfield. He shook some tackles, converted a few. Their screen game, and how they changed up their screen game with Scott Lineham, their offensive coordinator, was impressive. You’ve got to tip your hat to those guys. They threw screens to different backs, to Will Heller a tight end. They did some nice things. They ran a counter play on 3rd-down-and-8 to a fullback who hadn’t touched the ball much. We thought the guy was in there as a protector. They spun the dial on us pretty good. You’ve got to tip your hat to them.
Q: How much better can Rashard get?
A: Boy, he’d better continue to do that. That’s something we ask for and require all of our young guys to do. We know he’s capable. We know he’s a talented young man. He’s delivered for us pretty good over the last couple of weeks, but his best days as a running back and as a Pittsburgh Steeler definitely lie ahead. As long as he respects the preparation process and continues to come in here with a humble and willing-to-work demeanor like he has, I see no reason why he doesn’t continue to improve.
Q: What about closing out games?
A: I’m always going to see room for improvement. I don’t get preoccupied with some of the discussions that we have, to be quite honest with you. There’s always going to be discussions, there are always going to be areas that need improvement. I haven’t answered a running game question here in a couple of weeks. I haven’t answered a protection question here in the last few weeks. The issue now is finishing out games in the fourth quarter. So be it. I just answer questions. As long as we find ways to win, I don’t have any problem with what we talk about.
Q: Would you have liked to have run more in the second half?
A: Hindsight is beautiful, man. It’s perfect. It’s 20/20. The reality is we made sound calls. We could’ve executed them better. In hindsight, would I have liked to have done things differently? I’d liked to have done things differently in all three phases of the game looking back at it, but you don’t get that do-over. That’s why it’s important that we prepare, and prepare with an edge, and focus on things that lie ahead of us this week.
Q: Why are the sack totals down? Is Ben getting rid of the ball or is he getting better protection or a combo of both?
A: All of the above potentially. They’re down because they are, but that’s not our story. We’re writing our story. We better be prepared to protect Ben and Ben better be prepared to get rid of the ball this week. If not, he’s going to have a very large man in the backfield, No. 92, and a guy No. 95 that’s coming off the edge, and some other guys. They’re dangerous people. They get to the quarterback. I just finished watching their Minnesota game. Minnesota won the game in a pretty convincing fashion, but I saw Brett Favre on his back quite a bit looking at that football game. It’s an area of concern as we prepare this week.
Q: How will you handle Limas Sweed’s playing time going forward?
A: Again, that’s something we’re going to look at this week. Shaun McDonald’s a veteran guy who’s capable of potentially freeing himself up and getting open against people that are going to play in his face. We’re going to put together a formula that puts us in the best position to win, so we’re going to watch those two guys work this week and determine who gets the hat.
Q: Did you play Limas based on Xs and Os? Or did you want to get him back in there and involved?
A: It’s really going to be week to week as we proceed with those two from here on out. Last week Limas provided us a little more assistance on special teams. He’s a bigger bodied guy. He’s a legitimate special teams player as a wide receiver. He plays tackle on our kickoff return team. He does some punt return work for us. That adds value to him when you determine who plays for you. As coaches, we subscribe to the philosophy of The More You Can Do, but we also acknowledge that Shaun McDonald’s a guy that’s capable of separating at breaks points and getting open and moving chains. We’ve seen him do that in other cities. We also saw him do that quite a bit for us in the preseason. He caught quite a few third-down balls for us in the preseason. Those are the options we weigh as we prepare.
Q: How does Shaun Rogers block so many kicks?
A: He’s big. He’s powerful. He’s athletic. Every time we play that guy, we take attendance in the meeting and always get a collective total of NFL blocked kicks in the room. He’s got more than our team. I’m sure he’s got more than most teams. He’s special in that way. That’s an element of the game that we’re going to play close attention to. It’s something that we do every time we face him because we acknowledge that he is the best in the world at doing that.
Q: Has the recent improvement of the offensive line allowed you to use Heath Miller more as a receiver?
A: No. I just think we’re finding him. We know what he’s capable of. He and Ben have worked together for an extended period of time now. There’s a great deal of comfort there. Heath is a proven veteran player. We’re glad that we’re getting production from him. I wouldn’t say his increased production has anything to do with offensive line play.