Q. One year ago, the preseason was cancelled because of COVID. A lot of people in many different professions had to learn to work around COVID-related changes to the way they did their jobs. Understanding that it was the same for each of the 32 teams, but what did you have to learn to work around because of no preseason?
A. We had to get our team game-ready without the benefit of the environment that preseason games provide. There's so much realism in preseason play. Obviously it's not regular season play, but it is a notch above a practice setting. The drills that you do in practice are football-like, but they're not football. Football is played in preseason games. We all stepped into stadiums a year ago not knowing a lot of things about our team – its ability to adjust in-game to circumstance, its ability to transition from unit to unit on and off the field with cleanliness, our ability to adhere to the play clock, our ability to match personnel defensively appropriately and in real time. All of those things we were discovering in week one of the regular season. We worked our tails off to prepare for it, but it's just very difficult to simulate in a practice setting. We had a rehearsal game here in Pittsburgh in a scrimmage setting. Not only was it a big day for us, but it was a big day for our stadium's operational people, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that. Everybody within our organization and other organizations had to be game ready on opening week without the benefit of the rehearsal that the preseason provides
Q. Do players, especially the young guys, have to earn playing time in the preseason based on performance in practice and their understanding of assignments in those practices?
A. Partially. If you perform well enough in practice settings, you're working in Group 1 or Group 2. Group 3 is the group that gets a lot of attention in the preseason, because at the end of August man there is no Group 3. And so what happens with the third group is that people's ability to distinguish themselves in a practice setting allows them to move up and have Group 2 reps. How they perform in preseason groups and preseason settings really determines what transpires. It is young guys and there's a young guy focus, but I've really kind of narrowed the focus of our group through this process to focus on first team, second team, third team, with the understanding that by Sept. 12, there will be no third team.
Q. During your news conference earlier in the week, you mentioned that you wanted the young guys – even those young guys who are anticipated to have significant roles in the regular season – you want them to understand what going through the process of getting ready to play is about. What is that "process of getting ready to play?"
A. When we travel to play, or even when we have home games, we have a game itinerary. And in my mind, you're on the clock when the game itinerary starts and it's important that you find rhythm in that preparation process: the things you do to ready your body, such as massage therapy, hydration, etc.; how we present the final elements of material to guys and how they receive it; getting comfortable with that process of night-before-the-game meetings, the things that we focus on and the things that they focus on individually because of that; the routines that they have in terms of what it is they eat the night before the game as well as on the day of the game in terms of the pregame meal. I think young guys are exploring and discovering rhythm this time of year and what works best for them. And four preseason games provide an opportunity for them to establish that so they can position themselves to be at their best when the regular season starts. Obviously there's a lot to be learned from play, and there'll be a maturing process from the play and the things that happen in-game, but the process leading up to play from my perspective is just as important to optimize their performance.
Q. For an offense, what is hoped to be accomplished through the use of pre-snap motion?
A. We want to win the down before it starts, and it's as simple as that. We want to be thoughtful about what it is we do pre-snap. We want to work fast but not in a hurry. We want to stress the defense. We want to stress the defense's ability to utilize specialized personnel. We want to stress the defense's ability to communicate and gain an understanding about what's coming at them. We just want to pace the play, and so we're thoughtful about what it is we do on offense. Sometimes we work fast, sometimes we work slow, sometimes we'll work on first sound, sometimes we'll have pre-snap shifts and motions, and all of it is in an effort to gain an advantage in essentially trying to win the down before the ball snaps.
Q. Can a job be won or lost in the preseason opener?
A. Not necessarily in the preseason opener. One thing about the preseason opener is in the significance of the game. We will know a heck of a lot more about these guys coming out of that stadium than when we went into that stadium. And we're going to be surprised, positively or negatively, and it's probably gonna set the trajectory for the next seven days until we get into the next stadium. We'll be looking for confirmation in that next stadium of some things based on what we saw in the first stadium. A guy can really make a case for himself, but a job cannot be won in the first preseason performance.
This stuff is cumulative. The first preseason game can be viewed as a test when you're taking a class. Maybe the second preseason game is like the midterm exam. The third one is the term paper, and the fourth one is the final exam. There's a process, and it gains momentum and significance as we proceed through this process, because we want to know what we're going to get from guys game-in and game-out, down-in and down-out. So if a guy is real, you can forget his highs. There will be a certain floor in terms of his performance and a certain consistency to his performance that's varsity. Often this time of year, I use the terms varsity and JV, because everybody understands what that means. I'm looking for consistent varsity performance in terms of determining roles and divisions of labor.
Q. You always emphasize the jump you expect from players entering their second NFL seasons. Alex Highsmith and Chase Claypool have been talked about a lot so far this summer, but what have you seen from some of the other second-year-players-to-be?
A. I've been really pleased with the general growth and development of that group. It all starts with their level of conditioning, which displays readiness. And they should display readiness, because they have an understanding of the challenges that lie ahead of them; they lived it a year ago. And all of those guys showed up in tremendous condition. Can't say enough about Anthony McFarland and Antoine Brooks, specifically. They are two guys who showed up in really good condition and have been really consistent in terms of laying down varsity-like practices. I expect that group to make significant jumps. I've seen it a lot. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention James Pierre as well. He's another guy who showed up in great condition and has made a bunch of plays in practices. We're going to need significant contributions from that group, and to be honest you, our level of expectation changes. What was good for them a year ago, what allowed them to be contributors a year ago, what got them jobs a year ago, none of it will get them jobs in 2021. And that's just a reasonable expectation. They've displayed an understanding of that, and they have elevated their play. Every single one of them.
Q. You mentioned James Pierre. He's a cornerback, and every NFL every team needs coenerbacks. How does a guy like him go undrafted?
A. There are just a lot of good football players in college. There are over 120 college football teams. There are teams that don't get a lot of national exposure and attention via television, often referred to as "the group of five," and he went to one of those programs (Florida Altantic). There are a lot of guys who are capable of playing. Our team is represented with a lot of regional Mid-American Conference guys, and we've gotten exposure to those guys because of regional television and the fact their games are on TV during the course of the week. A lot of those MAC guys are from this part of the country, and a lot of those coaches recruit the Pittsburgh area, and when they do they come by and spend time with us, and so we gain an understanding about some of those players. I really think it's about exposure. Kids at big programs get big-time exposure; kids at smaller programs get less exposure. And sometimes quality players slip through the cracks, and Pierre is definitely one of those who, looking back on it, no doubt was draft-worthy. But we're glad we have him. But as you can see, and it's the beautiful thing about our profession, it doesn't matter by what means you get here, because if you have the skills and the mettle to stay, you'll have an opportunity to carve out a role for yourself.
Q. In response to media questions about injuries during training camp, you have said that you don't have to report injuries at this time of year and so you choose not to. How is the league's injury policy determined, and who is involved in that determination?
A. It's the Competition Committee. We strive for competitive fairness and transparency in-season. The injury policy is spelled out for us, and we have to be very transparent about who's available and their level of potential availability. I have no issues adhering to it, but during the time of year where we're not required to do so, I like to follow the lead of my guy (Penguins coach) Mike Sullivan and those in the NHL and just talk random body parts. "He's got an upper body injury, and we'll see when he gets back." It is really about transparency and competitive fairness in our game. In this time of year it's not a big deal, and so I'm not going to disclose any pertinent information that I don't have to disclose. It's really about the safety and protection of the guys. Footballs is a game played, in many instances, where there are less than ideal circumstances from a health standpoint. And if we don't have to put the bulls-eye on a guy or a guy's body part, then we won't.
Q. In addition to what you just mentioned about putting the bulls-eye on a guy's body part, is there a psychological game you're playing with that injured player, maybe not to allow him to use his injury to seek comfort in how he performs, or whether he practices, or the way he approaches his business?
A. (Laughs) There's the potential of that. I will neither confirm nor deny that. But that's a solid line of thinking, certainly.
Q. What has this group shown you so far this summer?
A. I like their competes. This morning I was just talking about that term that we use in scouting: "competes." You hear it often, and it's really more centered around their will. I've seen some strong-willed men. I've seen some guys who like football. I've seen some guys who don't shrink in the face of competition or adversity, and that's exciting.
Q. This is a huge weekend for the Steelers franchise. The team is participating in the Hall of Fame Game, and it's my opinion you are participating in the Hall of Fame Game because five members of this franchise are going to be inducted in the days immediately after the game. Can you allow yourself any time to reflect on that, and what it might mean to the franchise?
A. Not that I'm numb to it, but I'm used to it. It's just another example of the uniqueness of this organization and how good it is to be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It's about the men. It's about the men who are being enshrined, it's about the men who have come before us, who have set a clear standard that provides a great clarity for us to aspire to. And it's an honor to try to aspire to that standard. It's just great to be in the presence of those guys because they're larger than life. It's cool for me because I'm a football junkie and a football enthusiast. It's cool to be a part of something greater than yourself, and I hope our guys feel the same way, and I know in many instances largely they do. They have an understanding of how special this is, and they appreciate it. And that's important. Oftentimes we appreciate things after it's over. I've been fortunate enough to understand this and appreciate the gravity of this while I've lived it. I aspire for my guys to do the same while they're here and a part of this.