Labriola On

Tomlin on '19 Steelers, Gronk, Belichick, Brady

Q. The 2019 regular season opens tonight. What do you think of the initial group of 53 players you’re taking in to the start of this season?
A. I really like the group. I like the group from a talent standpoint, from a tangible standpoint, the pedigree of the men, the depth and competition at most positions that we’ve been able to formulate. I like all of those things, but the thing I really like is the things you can’t measure. The intangibles. I think this is a legitimately close group. I like the developing leadership, I like the fact our young guys are legitimately humble and open to receive leadership. I just have a good feel about some of those things you can’t measure. And you know at the end of the day those are the things that really get you out of stadiums when it’s good vs. good.

Q. What did the group show you during the team development process that you liked?
A. First of all, I think it’s a young guy’s job to make himself likeable. You start there. The young player has to make himself approachable, likeable, ask good questions, be attentive and things of that nature, and I think that goes a long way in terms of creating the environment. The legitimate humility of men like Devin Bush and Benny Snell and others really has created an atmosphere where the veterans like Vince Williams and James Conner want to help their growth and development. There’s a lot of coaching going on, formal and informal, and when we’re doing that we have a chance to accelerate the team development process.

Q. Rob Gronkowski is a Hall of Fame tight end in everyone’s mind, and he retired during the offseason. You have been through the loss of Hall of Fame caliber players during your time here, with Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu being two of those kinds of players. How do you approach the loss of a player of that stature – is it a matter of simply plugging someone into that spot and doing what you do, or is it more about re-shuffling the cards and trying to do the job in another way?
A. The answer is both. Someone physically has to man the position, of that there is no doubt. So you go out and get the very best player you can, either through free agency or the draft, or through the development of someone who’s already there. Someone has got to play the position. But if you have a realistic level of expectation, what you also need is a redistribution of play-making. The plays have to come from the person you inserted into that spot, but also the plays have to come from others. Whoever is playing tight end for New England is going to be required to make a certain number of plays, but I imagine that, particularly in those significant moments, others are going to have to make plays in order to make up for the absence of such a significant person. That’s always the case when you’re talking about replacing special people. There is someone who occupies the position, but also there generally is a redistribution of play-making.

Q. During your news conference last Tuesday, you said about New England, “Up front they do a great job of collectively rushing, but they also do a great job of always individually rushing.” What did you mean by that?
A. They have certain players they hire to do certain jobs. Chase Winovich, their draft pick out of Michigan, I think he’s that edge flame-thrower. And when you have the type of continuity that they’ve had, you see trends in terms of what they seek personnel-wise over the course of many years. Tennessee Coach Mike Vrabel used to occupy the role for them that Chase occupies for them now. It was Rob Ninkovich after Vrabel. It was Chandler Jones after him. They’ve always got an edge flame-thrower, if you will. There’s always an interior individual rusher on the field for New England, someone they like to match up on your interior people. They just acquired Michael Bennett for example, and prior to him it was Trey Flowers. He was their interior matchup guy. They have guys they identify who have certain traits they want to get against certain people, and when they’re not doing that they’re very good at their twists and games, and the other people who are rushing are good at it collectively.

Q. Also in your news conference, you said about Tom Brady that you were less interested in matching wits with him, and that you were more concerned about “Our level of communication, our readiness, our positioning, our eyes.” Tell me what you mean when your referred to “our eyes.”
A. We need to be looking at what we’re supposed to look at. That’s how you get gaps or seams in the defense. You have a call that prescribes that everybody keys the quarterback, and if you have one guy not keying the quarterback, it creates potentially a void or space that potentially could be attacked. On the calls that require us to look at certain things, we have to be looking at those things. And with all 11 men, because when a guy with the talent and experience of Tom Brady, that’s where the results of the potential big plays happen. I think that’s just overall the urgency you have to teach young plays about football in the National Football League. Mistakes are magnified because of the quality of players and the experience of those players are different. In college you can drop a coverage and miss an assignment, and it could be catastrophic. In the professional game, it will be.

Q. In your mind, is tonight’s game in any way a competition between you and Bill Belichick?
A. I think whenever you step into a stadium, that’s the case. Ultimately, it’s played out on the scoreboard, and that’s how I view it, but strategy, utilization of people, management of games, certainly. There’s always a chess match, if you will, with people you’re competing against.

Q. You have talked often about the importance of communication in a game like this one tonight. I would like to you take me through a hypothetical example of this. So the defensive call comes in from the sideline to the player with the receiver in his helmet. What happens first?
A. He relays the call to the rest of the defense. There are certain adjustments or leverages and things of that nature relative to the call that’s communicated prior to the snap. It’s capable of changing based on pre-snap movement. You know when you play New England, there’s a lot of pre-snap movement. They’ll show you one look, then they’ll send somebody in motion, they’ll empty the backfield, bring somebody back into the backfield. All of those things require communication and necessary adjustments, and then you play the down.

Q. The guy who gets the call and relays it to the rest of the players on the field, does he do all of that checking, or are all of the other players responsible for knowing what to do?
A. Central communicators in any defense are the linebackers and the safeties, those second and third-level players in the middle of the field, guys who are a hub of communications. They can talk to defensive linemen, they can talk to cornerbacks. The vast majority of that communication is distributed between linebackers and safeties, and the play-caller, if you will, is just the guy who gets it all going.

Q. In the process of making all of these checks, does the call change?
A. Some calls are multiple calls. Some calls are capable of changing, and some calls are play-it calls. It depends on the game-planning, the circumstance. Sometimes what the offense is doing to us dictates that we change. Sometimes we go in with potentially two calls based on certain criteria. That’s the chess match element of football at this level. That’s why those of us who love the game really love coaching and playing at this level. It’s challenging. It’s challenging intellectually.

Q. How is all of that altered if the offense is in a no-huddle mode?
A. It’s not necessarily the pace of it, it’s the potential pace of it. Just because the offense is in no-huddle doesn’t mean they’re going to be operating at an uncomfortable or a fast pace, but you better be prepared because there’s the potential for that. It affects defenses in certain ways – it makes you make quicker decisions, it makes you get communications out, and then the ball might not be snapped and the offensive play might change. Then you have to repeat the process. The one thing you think about when you think about no-huddle is that key word “potential.” It’s potentially a pace change, but not definitively. You have to be prepared for it, but it’s not an absolute. I think we all make good decisions when we’re comfortably working, but when you turn the volume up on things and you make people operate at pace, you get some revealing things about them. But that’s why all offenses in today’s game use no-huddle in some instances. They’re trying to reduce a defense in some way. They’re trying to gather information that gives them an opportunity to execute what they’re trying to execute.

Q. You’re all about providing your team with what it needs at any given point in time. What does the team need from you tonight?
A. That will be revealed to me during the course of play. Often times the circumstances that unfold in games dictate that. I’ll watch them. Obviously, you have your antennas up in the early portion of a season for the things you may not have the antennas up for later in the season, like fatigue. Fatigue is an element of play. The first time out, nobody has played four quarters of football, so you might see rotations and things of that nature that you don’t see later in the year. It’s our job as coaches for us to be what they need us to be, me included. I’ll have my eyes and ears open, and experience helps you there. I’ve been in this situation a lot with teams and have a protocol, if you will.

Q. Are you somewhat comfortable that by this time through this whole process that you’re not going to be faced with a situation where it’s too big for a guy?
A. No, you’re always going to be faced with potential circumstances. It’s just part of it. You learn about yourself, you learn about those you work with when you’re in adverse circumstances. I think that’s one of the things that’s awesome about sports. That’s why we – and I mean all of us – love sports. It challenges us in ways where we learn about ourselves and each other; it brings the best or the worst out in us. I love that. Hopefully it doesn’t get too big for somebody tonight, but it could. That’s just the nature of this thing.

Q. If it does, how would that manifest itself to you?
A. It manifests itself in a lot of ways. People manage stress in a lot of ways. Some people internalize, some people externalize, some people lash out, some people shut down. Football is no different than life, or jobs, or relationships at home. People deal with adversity and stressful situations in different ways relative to their personality. There is no cookie-cutter way that it’s revealed.

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