Q. There was a stretch of the 2008 regular season where the Steelers were involved in what you like to call the five-star matchup of the week. Over a nine-week span the Steelers faced the defending champion Giants, Peyton Manning's Colts, Phillip Rivers and the Chargers, the Bengals, at New England, Dallas, at Baltimore, and at Tennessee, which was the No. 1 seed in the AFC. These last two weeks, you've played a mini version of that, with the opponents being Cincinnati and Denver, two of the top scoring defenses in football this season. What did those five-star matchups tell you about your team in 2008, and what did these last two tell you about this team?**
A. No question, that run in 2008 hardened us for the battle of good-on-good that defines January football. And in a lot of ways this mini-stretch that we've had is doing the same thing for this group. Time will tell, in terms of how we continue to perform, but anytime you're challenged against good people, sometimes in hostile environments, you grow from that. It's an experience that teams need because you know that is the weekly battle as you get into January football.
Q. Do you see it happening, or is it something you look back on and recognize after it's all over?
A. There's an element of you that sees the potential for that as soon as the schedule comes out. Often, people lament tough schedules, but I've always been one to embrace tough schedules and challenges toward the end of a season, because I know if we're a team on the rise, if we're a team with the right trajectory, then those battles will be significant in terms of preparing us for what's ahead.
Q. On your daily schedule each week are two things called Winning Edge, and Mock Game? What happens in those sessions?
A. Winning Edge is something that's both formal and informal, in that individuals, or small groups of individuals, come together and search for a nugget, something that can add a little sugar on top, if you will, in terms of their preparation. Most of the time we encourage guys to make that session situational, elements of situational ball – red zone, third down, goal line, short yardage. It's something our guys embrace. Sometimes it's physical, sometimes it's extra time on the grass, but most of the time it's mental. Some type of classroom work, or some thoughtful review of preparation.
Then the Mock Game is just taking yourself through a physical preparation on Saturday of the number of things that could happen from a coordination of people. It's really a logistics exercise, as you move from offense to special teams to defense to different situations that could occur in a game. More than anything, Mock Game is a head count, a logistics exercise, so that we're focused on what's important during a game, which is our play and not getting the correct, or right number, of people on the field.
Q. Another regular part of the weekly schedule is the pre-game meal, where in the old days the players were fed steak, but ideas about nutrition have evolved since then. What is served at pre-game meal these days, and who sets the menu?
A. It's probably about 53 individual meals. (Laughs) That's where the evolution of the pregame meal has gone. There is so much education out there, and each man takes such a great deal of pride in what he puts in his body and has such a regimen that's geared for him. Guys today will draw blood to dictate diet. It's that individualized and specialized, and pregame meal has mirrored that. It's whatever they feel like they need in a professional manner to prepare them to play. But in a lot of ways you'll see a lot of the traditional things – pasta, steak – but not in the quantities that you and I remember.
Q. There have been coaches here who took attendance at pregame meal to make sure everybody showed up and ate at least something. What's your procedure?
A. I don't. Be in the locker room two hours before kickoff – that's my rule. On game day, it's just my style – less is more. I don't want to have to police a lot of things. If Antonio Brown doesn't want to eat a pregame meal, I don't want that to dictate my relationship with Antonio Brown on game day.
Q. In the NFL this season, there have been five different teams that have played with three different quarterbacks so far this season. Those teams are Houston, Dallas, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. The Steelers are 9-5; the Cowboys, Browns, and Ravens have won a combined 11 games; and the Texans are 7-7. Generally speaking, what is involved for a team to continue to win despite turnover at the quarterback position?
A. You have to have a plan, a thoughtful plan going into it. Then quality depth at the position. We've developed Landry Jones for a number of years, but you've also got to be willing to change mid-stream and realize you need battlefield adjustments. There was a point in the preseason when Bruce Gradkowski wasn't able to regain his health and so we deemed it necessary to go out and acquire Michael Vick. At the time, it might not have seemed like a very necessary procedure, but looking back at it and looking at some of the things we've had to deal with at the position, it definitely was worth it. All three of those quarterbacks have been key contributors, both formally and informally. And I really think that's what it's about. It's about having a definitive plan but at the same time being light enough on your feet to acknowledge that plan may change and we better change with it as the variables do. That's one of the reasons why we were able to navigate that.
Q. Do you also have to brain-wash the other players on the team that winning is still possible with multiple backup quarterbacks having to start?
A. What you do is acknowledge what you have that week and your personality that week, and you map out a plan of how you're going to win the game, and everybody knows it. We're not going to expect Ben-like things from people who are not Ben. We're going to build our plan around the strength of our football team, and make sure those guys understand the responsibility that comes with being the strength of the group. If it's not the quarterback position (that's the strength) then the play has to come from somewhere else. Some of the times Ben was not available to us, Le'Veon Bell took a personal stake in delivering for us, for instance. And there were others. That's just what team is about. You can't run away from those discussions. If you have those discussions outwardly, guys embrace the challenge that is winning, and ultimately that's what we're here for.
Q. I saw Monte Kiffin a few times at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex lately. What is he doing?**
A. Monte is a guy who has no hobbies. (Laughs) He's retired from football, and he doesn't fish, he doesn't bowl, he doesn't golf. This was fantasy week for Monte, getting to be around some ball and some guys who are chasing something significant. He and I go way back. He was very instrumental in my growth and development as a coach, and to have him come in and spend time with us and be close to the game was really a win-win situation for us all.
Q. You said it was win-win. You gave him a chance to be around football again. What did you get out of it?
A. We got the beautiful nuggets that are Monte Kiffin. He's a football lover. He's a teacher, a fundamentalist. He loves to share ideas and principles that he holds near and dear to his heart about how the game should be played and the schematics of the game. It's always fun to have a guy around like him, because in a lot of ways I share very similar thoughts.
Q. Kiffin was the defensive coordinator in Tampa when you broke into the NFL as the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach. What did you learn about coaching in the NFL, and also about defense in the NFL, during the time you worked with him in Tampa?
A. Monte is a very thoughtful communicator. He often repeats the same themes that are important to him. He doesn't get tired of saying them. Over the years, I have come to share a similar approach in that way, and a lot of that is attributed to my time with him. My guys often laugh about the repeated clichés that I hammer them over the head with because I'm trying to drive those points home that are principles of our football. In a lot of ways I got that approach, the consistent delivery of a message, from Monte.
Q. You also worked with another legendary defensive mind here with the Steelers. Are Monte Kiffin and Dick LeBeau as different as their schemes would appear to be?
A. They are very different, but at the same time they have some very strong similarities. Both men have a unique personal relationship with the game of football, and they can't hide it, they can't deny it. It's in their being. That's where they're the same.
In just about every other way, they're different, and I really think it's about the basis of their relationship with the game of football, or how they see the game. Monte was a defensive lineman and a defensive line coach. He evolved as a coach from that perspective. Dick LeBeau was a secondary man, a cornerback specifically, and a secondary coach, and he evolved as a coach from that perspective. I think that's probably the essence of why they're very different, in terms of their approach and how they see defense.
Q. You said in your news conference earlier this week that you wouldn't be bringing up any playoff scenarios with the team. Why do you approach it that way?
A. Because I think some of things are obvious, and at times I prefer to move on and address more meaty, more thoughtful things, more things with depth in terms of our collective time spent together. These guys have been living this journey since last summer, living the pursuit of where we are right now and the opportunity that is in front of us, and to have those discussions at this juncture would often times make you wonder what it is we've been working toward for the last six months. They're well aware of it.
Q. What do you like about where your team is right now?
A. The singular focus. The selflessness. Those are things that get honed at this time of year. A selfish guy can see the big picture this time of the year. It's an awesome time of year from that standpoint. A guy who's easily distracted isn't easily distracted this time of year because of the urgency of these moments. I like that time of the year from a professional standpoint.