In his QB's corner: The NFL Coaches Breakfast kicked off the day at the Owners Meeting, and Coach Mike Tomlin once again was answering questions, this time many of them coming from the national media that are gathered in Phoenix.
And once again the question of Ben Roethlisberger's leadership came up. In recent weeks several former Steelers players questioned Roethlisberger as a leader, while others have strongly come to his defense, including two of the team's young stars on offense, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner.
Tomlin also is in the quarterback's corner.
"I have no problem with his play or his leadership," said Tomlin. "I have heard some of the scuttlebutt about the situation. I am focused on the guys that are within our group and on our team. I think that's what's appropriate for me. I have no reaction to former Steelers and things of that nature. We were a 9-6-1 football team last year. We all need to look into the mirror at what we do and how we do it, starting with me. That is the approach I am taking. That is the approach I will ask him to take. Not in response to any criticism from the outside or anything of that nature. Just doing what is appropriate in terms of us being as good as we need to be."
Tomlin said he hasn't spoken with Roethlisberger regarding leadership since the season ended, and also hasn't thought about what he would say to him about what has happened in the offseason. He just knows one thing…that the veteran will respond like he always does.
"You know him," said Tomlin. "You don't do what he has done, at the level that he has done it, for the time in which he's done it, without responding appropriately to challenges and adversity. That's just his DNA."
Keeping an eye on minority coaching hires: During his press conference at the Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell discussed the Rooney Rule and the lack of minority coaches being hired as teams are focusing more and more on offensive coaches. There were eight minority coaches in 2018, and only four heading into the 2019 season, with only one minority coach hired.
Tomlin was asked about the lack of minority hiring, and said it's something he watches closely and it concerns him.
"I think the numbers speak for itself in that regard," said Tomlin. "It was a disappointing hiring cycle for someone who watches it like I do, knowing some of the deserving men I do who I thought should have gotten an opportunity and didn't. But we'll continue to work and fight for equality and opportunity. I think that's what the Rooney Rule speaks to, is equality within the opportunity. We'll continue to fight for that, not only in terms of head coaching searches, but maybe other areas of the profession as well. I know there's some discussions in the offseason regarding some of that."
Tomlin said when he started out as a coach, back in 1995 when he was at VMI, he was on the offensive side of the ball as receivers coach. He held the same position at Arkansas State for one season, 1997, before switching to defensive backs coach in 1998 because he was told it would be more beneficial.
"I think it's how young coaches are cultivated," said Tomlin. "I was having a discussion with someone a few weeks back. In the mid-90s I was a young offensive coach. I received sound advice that I had a better chance ascending on the defensive side of the ball. So I became a defensive coach. If offensive coaches are in vogue in this hiring cycle, and guys in my age group, particularly those of color, have been advised in that way, then obviously there might be a void of offensive coaching talent. I think just the overall development of young, sharp coaches at all levels, and an investment in that, is important."
New role includes replay: The Steelers made some changes to their coaching staff this offseason, including the addition of Teryl Austin, who will serve as senior defensive assistant/secondary coach. Austin's role is a new one on the coaching staff, and Coach Mike Tomlin said it will encompass several things, including assisting with replay as he will be in the booth.
"He is just an awesome veteran coach who extends assistance outside of his area of expertise," said Tomlin. "Obviously, the job that he signed up for is in the secondary capacity, but we're talking about a guy who has been a coordinator, a guy who has been at the doorstep of head coaching opportunities.
"I expect to utilize his talents in replay and some game circumstances in-game, things of that nature, things he's been preparing for a number of years because of the jobs that he's been aspiring to. I think he adds an extra benefit to us outside the bounds of his quote-unquote position."
Tomlin said there will be some division of working with the safeties and corners in drills during practice with the addition of Austin to the staff, but it won't be a straight division of him working with one and secondary coach Tom Bradley working with the other.
"By drill or by moment, but collectively, no," said Tomlin. "We want to have the flexibility of breaking the group down in a variety of ways because sometimes circumstances dictate it. Sometimes six defensive backs on the field are three corners and three safeties, sometimes six defensive backs on the field are four corners and two safeties and etc., etc. Sometimes five defensive backs mean there are three safeties and two corners or three corners and two safeties. We're going to coach them all collectively and break up that teaching on a case-by-case basis, a lot of times based on the circumstances of the drills in which we got a lot of focus.
"We've got a lot of confidence in Scrap (Tom Bradley) and TA (Teryl Austin). We look forward to watching them. The interesting thing about them is they have a shared history that goes back a long, long time. I think TA was Scrap's graduate assistant like 30-35 years ago. You see that in how they interact in an office-like setting when they're talking schematics and ball. It's made the transition of Teryl into the group a more fluid one."
Loving what he does: Tomlin will be entering his 13th season with the Steelers, which ranks him third among current coaches as far as longevity with their current team, behind only Bill Belichick and Sean Payton.
Tomlin said he has no problem keeping energized year after year because of the passion for the job.
"I just love what I do. I love the people that I work with. I love what our organization represents," said Tomlin. "I don't focus on the longevity aspect of it. I never have. I'm kind of a tunnel vision guy, I'm kind of a small picture guy, but I also think that probably allows that (longevity) to happen. This thing is ever-changing. I know I subscribe always to having a hardcore plan, but being light on your feet. And knowing what I know, I think the longer I'm in this position, it confirms that mentality."