STEELERS at RAVENS SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2009 KICKOFF 8:20 P.M. M&T BANK STADIUM
HEAD COACH MIKE TOMLIN'S PRESS CONFERENCE TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 24
Coach Mike Tomlin: Good Afternoon. I think given where we are, we'll start with the state of the union if you will. We're 10 games into this thing, we're a 6-4 football team. Definitely not where we anticipated being or want to be, but definitely where we are. I'd probably be saying similar things if we were 8-2, but that's just the nature of this thing. I think when you drop a couple of games like we've dropped a couple of games here of late, you need to assess where you are as we push forward here over these last six games. When you look at where we are, we're sixth in the league in offense, we're first in the league in defense, we're tied for 25th in the league in takeaway/giveaway ratio. That gives you a little insight in terms of where we need to work here moving forward. We have 14 turnovers defensively in 10 games, not enough. We've got 19 turnovers on offense in 10 games, too many. We'll let that guide our approach in terms of how we prepare for this game and those that follow. Also, we've given up five touchdowns on special teams. Giving up touchdowns while your defense is on the sideline is unacceptable not a good thing. We've given up four on kickoff coverage, we've also had a punt return taken from us and returned, I think that was from San Diego. Five touchdowns on special teams coupled with 25th in the league in turnover ratio will make a team that's capable of moving the ball and stopping people 6-4. That provides great clarity for me, I think it's going to provide great clarity for our football team as we work and prepare for this week, but also the weeks that follow. If we address our ills and really don't blink in the face of adversity, and really let that guide our energy and decision making and continue to do the things well that we're doing well, we should be fine and should be able to correct these issues. In the short term? Uncomfortable? Absolutely. This is a competitors business and we're competitors, but redemption Sunday is coming for us in the form of the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday Night Football. We're excited about that. That medicine is kind of just what the doctor ordered when you look at where we are, having the opportunity to play our rival at their place on prime time television. Along with that, I thought I'd discuss some injuries. The big one of course is Ben [Roethlisberger]. Of course as you guys know, Ben [Roethlisberger] sustained a concussion in the game. Give you a little background in terms of what happened with him after that. Monday morning, yesterday morning, we brought him in and he took a battery of neurological tests done with our medical staff. He was asymptomatic, he was fine, he passed all those tests, he felt fine. So, given that information, we can anticipate him practicing and preparing to play this week, provided he remains to be symptom free and he remains to feel fine. I met with Ben [Roethlisberger] yesterday, he felt normal, he felt fine. The battery of tests that he took showed that he showed no symptoms, so we'll continue to monitor his condition and where he is on a day-to-day basis and let that guide our decision making, but as I sit here today, he's symptom-free and feeling fine, so we should anticipate Ben [Roethlisberger] practicing tomorrow. Charlie Batch's injury is something that occurred after I visited with you guys or else I would've given you that information. He's sustained a break in his arm or wrist area, he's going to have surgery tomorrow morning. They're going to insert a plate in his wrist or arm. He's going to be down anywhere from two to four weeks based on the outcome of the surgery. I'll have more information in regards to his status after he gets that surgery done tomorrow morning. Other injuries, Travis Kirschke continues to come back from his calf strain, he's going to get some work here this week. Hopefully he'll be here to help us, you know we're going to need the services of Travis [Kirschke] if we can get it in a game like this the way the Baltimore Ravens are capable of running the football. Troy [Polamalu] is still questionable at best with his knee sprain, we'll continue to monitor him. Chris Kemoeatu will definitely be out for this game. He has an MCL sprain, so we can definitely count him out for this game. Some other injuries are minor things, but people are working their way back. Carey Davis should be fine, he's missed a few weeks of games from his hamstring injury and some other stuff of normal bumps and bruises that come out of football. Now, talking about the Baltimore Ravens. You know it's fireworks every time we play these guys, we're excited about preparing for them. They're a similar team that we remember competing against. They can say similar things that we're saying at this point, that they're a 5-5 team and not happy where they are. When you watch them on tape, they don't have the appearance of a 5-5 team, but that's how it goes in this game. We anticipate those guys to be at their best and it's going to be fireworks as usual when the Ravens and Steelers get together. Offensively, they're led by their quarterback Joe Flacco who does a nice job of administering Cam Cameron's offense. He's very efficient, he's got a great arm. He can make all the throws on the field, particularly the sideline throws, the 15 to 17-yard comebacks he continues to excel at. He's throwing the deep ball very well right now to a battery of receivers of course led by Derrick Mason. Their running game is exceptional. They've got three quality running backs. Ray Rice is a darting, powerful, small hitting-surface runner who does a nice job of finishing off runs. He can stick his foot in the ground and change directions on you. He's doing a lot of things well for them, he's a security blanket for Joe Flacco in the passing game. This guy has caught a bunch of check-downs and they do a nice job of understanding where this guy is in the passing game. When you get to Joe [Flacco], he dumps the ball off to [Todd] Heap, to him [Ray Rice] and [Le'Ron] McClain. [Le'Ron] McClain is a guy that we know is capable of being a featured runner, he ran for over 900 yards last year, now he's playing fullback and plowing open holes for Ray Rice. He's also catching balls out of the backfield and at times, he's a runner himself. Of course, Willis McGahee has distinguished himself as a short-yardage, goal line backed-up situational runner who's of course capable of carrying the load. Up front they've acquired Matt Birk, who of course I'm familiar with. Savvy veteran, Pro Bowl-caliber player, Harvard man, extremely smart. He's going to be a tough guy to trick in terms of making declarations and attacking protections. There's a reason why they went out and acquired Matt Birk. He's going to be tough to fool. You can't go in assuming that you're going to fool these guys, you've got to be prepared to beat them physically from a rush standpoint. This guy is that good at getting fronts and potential blitzes and so forth declared. Michael Oher is their extremely talented, young right tackle who's fully capable as a run-blocker and a pass-blocker. He's going to present a big time challenge of course for LaMarr Woodley. On defense, it's still Ray Lewis and company. Ed Reed, Jarret Johnson is playing in my opinion better than he's ever played. He's playing at a Pro Bowl-caliber level. He's an impact player. The rest of the guys are fitting in nicely, they've got a great continuity, even though coach [Rex] Ryan is now in New York, it appears to be the same group with the same mentality and the same approach in attacking people so we've got our work cut out for us there. I respect those guys, it's going to be a physical football game. You can be pretty much assured of that, it always is, at least it's been since I've been here when we play those guys. In the special teams game, they're rock solid. Coach [John] Harbaugh has big time special teams experience, they've got a bunch of talented guys in that phase of their football team. Lardarius Webb a rookie, has distinguished himself as a return man, special teams-capable guy. Of course with the injury to Fabian Washington at corner, I'd expect that he's going to play quite a bit of defense. Doesn't appear to be anything that he can't handle, he performed well against Cincinnati a few weeks back as a defender and a special teams performer. We're preparing with an edge because we better. The situation dictates it, and definitely, the opponent dictates it.
You've talked about, "the edge" a little more this morning. Is it about what lies ahead?
Most definitely. We're 10 games in to this thing. We have some ills that are very apparent and some things that are preventing us from being consistent winners. We have to attack those things, we also have to prepare to play our next opponent which of course is a significant one in the Baltimore Ravens. Somebody that we're familiar with, someone that's familiar with us. A game that's always hotly contested and very physical. There are a lot of things that put you on edge as you sit here today on a Tuesday waiting for these guys to come back in the building and start the preparation on Wednesday morning.
Have you found anyone to replace Charlie Batch?
What we're going to do at this point, I think we're going to sign a practice squad-eligible quarterback to provide an arm, if you will, in preparation for the Ravens in terms of practice. In terms of playing in the game, we're simply at this point going to go with Ben [Roethlisberger], provided he remains symptom-free from his concussion and feels fine and of course, Dennis Dixon.
You've defined one of the problems has been the give away/take away ratio how do you address that with the troops?
Simply, we've turned the ball over 19 times in 10 games. We have to work at being more efficient in terms of protecting the ball. Our wide receivers alone have put the ball on the ground three times in the last two football games. So it's fundamental, if you will, it's an awareness, it's an understanding of what our ills our. Fully it's correctable, sometimes you're going to turn the football over and there's things you can't do about that and I understand that. That interception that happened in the end zone, Willie Colon got beat off of our right side, Ben [Roethlisberger] got hit as he threw the ball, sometimes those kind of things are going to occur, but we need to prepare with an edge and really prepare with efficiency in mind and limit the number of opportunities that maybe we expose ourselves in turning the ball over. In the same token, defensively, I mentioned the fact that we've got 14 turnovers in 10 games, definitely not enough for a number one-caliber defense. In that area, we just need to continue to do what we've been doing, continue to be on the details, continue to be where we're supposed to be, see what we're supposed to see. I don't think opportunity has been the issue in regards to getting turnovers, I really think we haven't taken advantage enough of the opportunities. We've had our hands on balls, we've had balls on the ground that we didn't come up with. We've have had tipped passes that just fall harmlessly on the ground. That's part of football, I understand but we've got to work with those things in mind as we prepare to play this game and others to turn the tide in regards to that. If we do that and stop getting kicks returned on us, we've got a chance to be a good football team.
Did Ben Roethlisberger officially sustain a concussion?
You know, it could be characterized as a mild concussion; I hesitate in terms of using the word mild because concussions aren't anything to be taken mildly. He was symptomatic at the game, that's why after the game I said he was down with concussion-like symptoms. When we were able to do appropriate testing yesterday, he was symptom-free, he felt fine, so we're proceeding with caution, but we will continue to monitor him each and everyday this week as we push forward towards game day because if any symptoms reoccur or he feels less than fine, then of course we're going to act appropriately.
What would you do in that case? Would Dennis [Dixon] start?
Would that change your strategy in terms of a practice squad quarterback?
It would definitely change our strategy in a lot of ways.
How has Dennis' [Dixon] progress been? How would the offense operate with him?
I've been very pleased with Dennis' [Dixon] progress as a third quarterback. That's different of course than playing against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday night television. No question that we would have to do some things to help him if he plays in this game and plays extensively in this game. We have to do some things schematically, his teammates know to put their head in the pile and get in the huddle with him would have to be at their absolute best to assist him. But, in terms of where Dennis [Dixon] is as a second-year player and a third year player, the arrow is point up with him. We're extremely excited about where he is as a young quarterback.
As far as dealing with Ben [Roethlisberger] and his symptoms, before you got here in '06, he tried to play through a lot of that-the car accident, the hit in Atlanta. How convincing does he have to be to you given that?
I'm not acting on Ben convincing me of anything. We have independent medical experts, Dr. Maroon and company, who are recognized internationally. People in our business in this league fly players in from other cities to see those men. We listen to them first and foremost. We have a great deal of confidence and comfort in their expertise and at this point, they are comfortable with saying that he is symptom-free. That would be the utmost determinant in terms of how capable Ben is of participating, leading up to this game and also in this game.
Along those lines, is that basically the plan-to wait to hear what he has to say, and if he says he's feeling fine, no more tests? Or do you have plans to do additional tests later?
We will continue with the process of evaluating him medically, each and every day as we push forward to this game.
To your knowledge, when you were an assistant prior to becoming the head coach here, has there been a more increased levels of what is or is not acceptable, post-concussion wise? Because he was cleared to play back then.
Well, I don't want to compare this situation to those situations because, number one, I wasn't a part of those situations so I don't have intimate knowledge of the details of those things. But anytime you're dealing with something of this nature, it's potentially different each and every scenario. A football injury and an automobile or motorcycle injury are two different things. So I'm just basing my decision making on the information that we have in this specific instance, and it would be tough for me to care less about what has happened in the past in other instances. Even though the player's the same, the situation, the circumstances are different. And of course, we're going to do what's appropriate and right.
After looking at the tape, what happened on the kickoff return? Are there further changes planned this week?
You know, we missed a couple of tackle opportunities. Could we have been in better position based on the schematics that they presented to us in terms of bringing the ball back to the field? I would agree with that. We also had several opportunities to get that man on the ground, which of course, we didn't do. I just left a workout there, we worked out several men that we think are potentially capable of helping us from a special teams standpoint. We have another man flying in this afternoon that we also believe could fit the bill in terms of helping us in that area. We are going to be aggressive about solving our ills, from a turnover-takeaway ratio standpoint, and from a "touchdown while our defense is on the sideline" standpoint. And I can assure of that.
Do you consider using more starters on that unit?
Yes, I do.
Would Ramon Foster step up for Chris K [Kemoeatu]?
Yes, and really, when you look at the number of snaps that he played this Sunday in Kansas City, I think that for a young man, he represented himself relatively well. We can proceed with even more optimism this week, in terms of his readiness, because he will be getting more physical reps with in practice this week. Under the circumstances, I thought he performed well. Here's a guy that prepared as a multiple-position backup, with not a lot of continuity and consistency, working with Max Starks and Justin Hartwig. He's going to get those opportunities, and has a full week of preparation this week. Fully expect him to be above the line and to give us a winning-caliber performance. For a young guy, he's shown remarkable maturity as a professional.
After the game, we talked about a possible lack of preparation. Did the preparation change this week? Did you get a little harder on the guys, maybe take some of the fun out of the locker room?
I base my judgment-I evaluate preparation on performance. I think I stated that after the game. We did not execute winning football, so obviously, we didn't prepare well enough. As a head coach, as a guy that leads the charge, that's the way I look at it. So of course, I will make the changes that I deem necessary in terms our preparation to become a more edgy, more efficient, more productive team inside of stadiums.
Some of the guys said that after the game, the secondary guys, that they didn't get the call on that 61-yard play. Getting the call late, I believe, was a little bit of the problem against Minnesota that Brett Favre was exploiting. What happened on that last play? Has that been a recurring problem?
Dick LeBeau told those guys what we were going to call on third down before we even took the field that series. So as far as I'm concerned, knowledge of the call was not an issue in that circumstance. They were given that call before the defense took the field to start that series-"When we get to third down, this is the call that we're leading with"-was the communication that was given. Also, after that second down play, of course, that very call that was given to them before the series started was given to them again. If we're playing without a call, that's knowledge to me.
At this point, with the back-to-back losses with two teams you should've beaten, what are the positive aspects you've seen in your team that make you believe that they will continue forward into the championship?
We're capable of moving the ball on anyone, I think. We're capable of stopping anyone, and I think it starts there. There's comfort in that. But it's not about comfort, it's really not. We have to get back to winning ways. We have to prepare to play winning football against a team that's just as thirsty, if you will, as we are. So it's going to be an exciting week in this building and ultimately on Sunday night in Baltimore.
That third-and-two, that last series-the pitch to Mewelde [Moore]-was that an audible?
No, it wasn't. It was a huddle call. Again, like I stated after the game, we were really about a yard, if you will, outside of what we felt was comfortable field goal range. So there were a couple things going on there. We had a third down and two, but we also had a situation where we were pretty comfortable, if we had gained anything, at attempting a field goal. We thought, based on the down and distance, based on the information that we had, that they would be in a man coverage. And we thought we could out-leverage them with a crack toss. Our puller got picked off by penetration, we lost our puller. When that happens, they have the chance to destroy the play, and they did. We lost several yards on the play. At that point, I made the decision to punt the football, even though we could have potentially taken the opportunity-maybe it was a 57-yard field goal-we could've taken an opportunity at that. I felt good enough by what had transpired defensively in the game to that point to kick the ball, maybe pin them down inside the twenty. We weren't able to do that because we got a touchback, and then play defense. Even with the ball on the 20-yard line, I felt comfortable putting our defense out there on the field and playing defense. Obviously, the things that transpired after that were not good, and we lost the game.
Not that it's easy playing Baltimore in Baltimore, but you've used the word "edge" several times this morning. Does it, being Baltimore down there, in primetime, somehow make it a little easier to capture that edge?
It does, but I'm sure the same thing is being said in both cities as we sit here today. You can walk into a team meeting and say, "Hey, it's Baltimore week, break it up, go to work" and I'm sure they can say the same thing about it being Pittsburgh week. That's one of the exciting things about this matchup. It's truly one of the special matchups in all of football, and something that's cool to be a part of.
Are you convinced that your team has lost its edge?
No, I'm not. I'm not. I'm convinced that we have some ails that are preventing us from winning, and we're going to address those.
When did Charlie get hurt?
To the best of my knowledge-again, he probably wasn't necessarily aware of it until after he got out of the shower after the game. But going back and looking at the video, the only instance in which it could've potentially occurred was when he threw an incomplete ball in the flat to Rashard Mendenhall, and he had late pressure up the middle. He was knocked to he ground, and he stuck his left hand out to brace his fall. It didn't appear to be anything, he hopped up immediately and proceeded on. But after the game, of course, he felt it, we had it looked at, and it was determined that he had a break.
At this time, could you give us the name of the third quarterback that would be joining the practice squad?
I'll discuss that when we sign him, provided that he pass medical tests and so forth. I think it's appropriate for me to handle it in that manner; I don't want to give you guys bad information. A lot of the moves that we make, whether it's quarterback or some of the special teams men that we're working out-these moves are contingent upon these guys passing the physical and so forth-so I'll always err on the side of caution in terms of mentioning names. But of course, when we're definitive in that area-third quarterback and special teams men-you'll have those names and that information.
Are you going to hold the roster spot open for Charlie or are you going to wait until after the surgery to see?
We're going to wait until after the surgery, but at this point, I'm comfortable with saying that yes, I am.
On the big play in overtime, when you watched the tape, were you happy with not necessarily the effort, but was everybody that you saw running as hard as they could?
Were they running at top speed? Probably not. That's not going to occur 70 or 80 plays into an overtime game. I was more disappointed that they went 61 yards on us at a significant point in the game. We'll look at the tape with regards to that, and let each man be the judge of what he did from an effort standpoint. I'll be very hesitant to question the effort of our men, because I know what these guys put into it and I know what they're willing to do. But when you look at a play like that, you have to acknowledge where we were in the game. At times, people are not going to be at top speed. That's just the reality of it. The other reality was that Chris Chambers had a little bit in his tank, as he went 61 yards down that right sideline. So we have to acknowledge that.
How much of a risk is it, going into the game with only two quarterbacks?
There is some risk; it's a risk that a lot of teams take-not only every now and then, but all the time. Some teams only have two quarterbacks on their roster, so that's a risk that we're willing to weigh and run. We don't have an answer to that third quarterback right as I sit here right now. Obviously, if we get down to that, the situation is going to be dire and our personality is going to change quite a bit. Regardless of who it is, we're not going to ask this guy to move the chains throwing and catching the football.
Would you ask him to take any snaps in practice?
To be determined.
After the game, you said that you take responsibility for this. But how much player accountability is there? In some of your losses, there have been serious missed plays by your guys-Heath Miller drops a pass, Ryan Clark misses a tackle. Are you challenging the guys to be more accountable for their actions?
Those are things that I address with them on a weekly basis, win or lose, the quality of their play, whether or not they meet the standard and so forth. Quite frankly, that's not something that I'm into as a coach, in terms of standing out here and airing business in the public with regards to that. We're an accountable group, we're accountable within our team. What I will say is that I'll be that same kind of guy-take accountability for my actions as the guy who is the head coach of this team-and that's why I said what I said following the game. And I meant it.
This was the team that knocked Rashard [Mendenhall] out. How do you think that may affect him? As a coach, how concerned are you?
I'm not concerned about that at all. Injuries are part of the game, it happened. That's big-time in our rear view. This guy has toted the ball quite a bit since then, had some successes, and had some failures. I'm sure some of those success and failures will be more on his mind than what happened a year ago. I'm sure it's going to be a storyline, but we have no control over that. Not concerned about that. We're going to line up and play football.
He had three pretty good runs in overtime, Rashard did. Was there any temptation on your part to have him be the one, whether it was on that play or another play, to carry that ball on third and two?
Not really. Mewelde has done some nice things for us; not only in that game but since the time he's been here. He converted a third down and two-ish earlier in that game as a runner, Mewelde did. He's our third-down back; that is the division of labor; that is his job description. We have a great deal of comfort in terms of what that guy is capable of doing in those situations and circumstances. So it was with no hesitation that I sent him on the field, and I'd do it again.
To your understanding, this is the game that Baltimore requested the league to have on primetime at their place. Is that right?
You can ask Ozzie and those guys. I'm not concerned about that. We have no control over schedule, who we play, when we play, and where we play them-the league gives us the schedule, we'll be there.
Playing in a Super Bowl speaks for itself in terms of being a challenge. But in light of what you've mentioned earlier needs to be addressed and what's at stake going forward, is this as big of a challenge as you've had with this particular group? Or is that something you even think about?
It's the biggest challenge because it's the one that's staring at me. But there's been many instances when I've sat at this table on a Tuesday when I've felt the same way about other challenges and issues. And I'm sure, as we move forward in the future, I'll feel the same about new and different challenges or ails, if you will. It's the nature of this thing. It never gets old, it never gets stale. It's what's exciting and challenging at the same time. And that's probably why I have a little edge today. Something new and different will probably create that edge in the future, and I'll probably feel similarly about that. I won't like it.
How tough is it to get pressure on [Joe] Flacco?
It's probably more difficult than it's been in the past, and it was difficult in the past. He's a maturing guy, he's a franchise guy, he makes great decisions. The relationship that he has with Ray Rice and [Le'Ron] McClain, from a check down standpoint, makes him extremely difficult to get to. When you beat people, when you break them down schematically-that's a big "if" or "when", because you don't break them down schematically too often-but when you get to him, he generally is able to find one of those guys and get the ball out of his hands. It's more than just an escape hatch. Ray Rice, when he gets a check down, is trouble. This guy is a great broken field runner, he's got great vision, he's a tough guy to get on the ground. He's turned quite a few check downs into significant gains. And that's something that we have to be very aware of as we prepare and ultimately play in this football game.
Would you like to see more check downs from your offense?
I'm less concerned about that and more concerned about putting together a personality that creates winning football. Like I said, we've moved the football above the line, no question about that. We have to do a better job of taking care of the football.
You're passing way more than you're running. Does that open you guys up to more turnovers and more bad things happening on offense, like putting the quarterback in danger because he drops back so much?
Potentially, but we've turned the ball over in every form or fashion, and I don't think that that speaks to why we're turning the ball over. We've fumbled balls as runners, we've fumbled balls as receivers, we've had interceptions bounce off intended receivers helmets and so forth. I think it's more about that than it is about the play selection. We've got to be more conscious and diligent about protection of the football, and understand that when you're carrying it, you're carrying the livelihoods of everybody when you do so.
How do you make your defensive players to be more conscious of intercepting or stripping?
I'm not. I'm just acknowledging that we've been below the line to this point in that area, and that I want to guard against them trying to do new and outside-the-box things in terms of generating that. The point that I made earlier is that we're going to continue to do what we've been doing; we need to play with better detail. We need to be where we're supposed to be, see what we're supposed to see, and hopefully increase the opportunities that we're getting. We're getting opportunities, we're just not cashing in on enough of them. So we just need to continue to do what we're doing, and we need to acknowledge that we need to improve in that area. But I'm not going to ask our men to do anything other than what they've been doing, because then you open yourselves up to other issues. We just have to be more opportunistic, and hopefully, we'll be able to do that.
One of the things that you've always done well is take away big pass plays. They hit you with a couple-three-the other day in the last 15 minutes or so. Was it something they just caught you with, with a breakdown or two?
No, it was disturbing. We were out of place. Not keying, and not keying properly in those instances, hasn't been a signature of our football and hopefully won't be a signature of our football moving forward. But in the fourth quarter and overtime of that football game, it was us. We accept responsibility for that.
With regard to Ben [Roethlisberger], do you worry about it?*
No, that's just something that comes with this game. Anybody who has a quarterback-so that would include 31 other guys who have a job like mine-sure has similar issues and worries.