Labriola On

Tomlin on Berry, playing and coaching without fear

Q. For last week’s game against the Rams, you shuffled some of the players on the offensive line, and you have explained your reasons for doing that. In evaluating the video, how did the switching work out?
A. I thought we had our good moments, particularly for which the switching was intended. We put three tackles on the field, which put us in the very best position to block one-on-one. We thought they would so some things schematically to create one-on-ones, and their ability to move Aaron Donald around was highlighted within that. I thought it was good from that perspective, but it wasn’t necessarily so from a running game standpoint. But there are a lot of moving parts in terms of why our running game isn’t up to snuff these days.

Q. When it comes to the running game and the offensive line’s role in that, shuffling personnel up front isn’t really conducive to having success, is it?
A. It is not (conducive), and you have to make choices week in and week out in terms of what puts you in the very best position to win. We value the protection of our quarterback more than we did putting ourselves in the very best position to have a good running day. Sometimes you have to make those tough decisions, and I think that’s the challenge and the interesting thing about these matchups we have week in and week out in the NFL.

Q. Staying with the offensive line, on a game day where there are only seven offensive lineman in uniform, is there any hesitation on your part in having your starting center and the guy who will serve as the backup center on the field at the same time and playing another position, say as a guard? Because of the injury factor?
A. There is some angst, but there are a lot of those little things that can make you nauseous during the course of a football game. The fact you have no backup long-snapper is one of those things that could make you nauseous. Very limited backup holding experience. Ben has been our backup holder during my whole tenure here, so when all of a sudden you get into a situation where Ben isn’t available, there is that angst every time you think about, what if we need a backup holder? Such is life in the NFL when you have a 53-man roster and a more limited number of people available to you on game day. It’s challenging, but it’s also something that I enjoy.

Q. After the game against the Rams, you said to the media about your team, “I thought they played and played to win without fear.” What does it mean to play without fear?
A. Just play fast, without hesitation. Good play, bad play, it doesn’t matter and you come back for the next play. We had guys have errors but come back and make plays after that. You just sense it in their spirit, regardless of what’s transpiring around them. It’s a feel probably more than it’s something that’s tangible, and I definitely felt it from the group.

Q. Can playing without fear turn into recklessness?
A. There’s a fine line, but a lot of things are along that fine line. There’s a difference between being physical and being violent. That’s a fine line. We walk that fine line every day of our lives, and we need to continue it. But when you’re in pursuit of greatness and you’re in pursuit of something that’s special and rare, it requires rare commitment and rare action, and so those lines get blurred.

Q. Is there such a thing as coaching without fear?
A. I’d like to think that there is. I want them to sense that in me. Obviously, you have to make prudent decisions, and often times it’s analytical in nature. You have to be able to remove your emotion from it, but other times you have to be thoughtful about allowing your emotions to show in coaching ways – in terms of how you interact with guys, in terms of the decisions and the play selection that you make. More than anything, regardless of what you do or how you choose to express it from a coach’s perspective, it better be thoughtful.

Q. Also in your postgame remarks, you took responsibility for the play-call that resulted in the safety. Did you feel it was important to do that, to take accountability for something that went wrong?
A. Absolutely. And very rarely do I come in after a game and say, I called that play and it went well. It is important in those moments to let the guys know that it is my job to critique them and to challenge and expect the very best from them, but in turn I’m responsible to give my very best and be right for them. I was wrong in that instance, but I won’t be bashful about the aggressive pursuit of victory. I was looking for a splash play, a definitive play kind of in a significant moment under adverse circumstances that really could have given us control of that game. So there’s some calculated risk-taking in many of the decisions we make, and I embrace that.

Q. Your assessment of Jordan Berry after the game last Sunday was that he “has been rock solid for us not only tonight but all year.” How is a punter “rock solid” for his team?
A. In those situational moments. Forget the open grass punting or the first quarter punting, it’s things you have to have in significant moments. I think about the punt late in the game against the Chargers out there when we pinned them back, and that was significant. I think about the kicks after some of the safeties in recent weeks have been very good kicks. Those are critical kicks because of the field position element. You just had some negativity. It’s the defense’s job to go out and put the fire out, but before the defense gets an opportunity to do that, it starts with that kickoff-after-safety unit. That unit produced a turnover a couple of weeks ago, that unit had a solid play after we gave up the safety the other day, and it starts with a solid performance by him.

Q. What are some of the specific things an NFL team will ask of its punter?
A. First and foremost, it’s hang-time and ball location. The punter is the first line of defense in neutralizing a dangerous return man. Ball placement out of bonds. Ball placement in terms of some returners having to run laterally and losing their ability to attack the coverage unit vertically. So it’s the directional element of punting, the ability to put the ball out of bounds at an acceptable distance, the ability to red zone punt or situational punt – most of which is Aussie in today’s game. So, different things technically in terms of how they handle the ball when the ball leaves their foot. They’re very skilled athletes, and the game calls for it. With a lot of changes in the kickoff game in terms of what you can do with pre-set onside kicks, teams are turning to their punters in terms of drop-kicks, so specialty kicks are becoming a big element of their game as well.

Q. When you talk about directional punting, how fine do you cut it in terms of where the ball is to be placed?
A. In most instances it’s reasonable to expect all NFL punters to be able to go hashmark to boundary, and directionally punt, and maybe put the ball on the sideline or maybe out of bounds. The elite ones can go across the field to the field, and those are the guys who really challenge return men and make them work and have to cover the whole field and really neutralize their ability to attack coverage units. Those field-punt-capable guys are the ones who are special.

Q. In judging an NFL punter, is the net average the most important thing?
A. I really think it’s: what is their floor look like? What is their level of consistency? You can’t have the popcorn – you can’t have a 30-yard punt, a 30-yard punt, and a 60-yard punt and come out of a game with a solid average and that be acceptable. There is a certain level of consistency with the position from a floor standpoint that you have to be able to know what you’re going to get. Whenever punters take the field, there’s a certain amount of negativity because it’s fourth down. That consistency is a place that I think all coaches and all teams hang their hat. Sure, you want the potential for the splash – the 60-yard punt – but you can’t have the 30s. So that’s what I mean when I say their floor, the things that are unexciting, the things you don’t talk about are really the things that you value in that position.

Q. Nick Chubb has 919 yards rushing, a 5.3 average, and six touchdowns. And the Browns’ 5.2 average per carry as a team ranks second in the NFL. How would you describe the Browns’ style of running the football?
A. Taking nothing away from Nick Chubb, he is a really good back, and they have some good people up front, and they’re really good at getting hats on hats and finishing you, but an element of their running game is No. 13 and No. 80. Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, they require a certain amount of attention on the outside, Many teams play them in two-high-safeties and put safety help over the top, and so there are fewer people in the box to minimize the running game. Thus, the opportunity that it creates. That’s why it’s important to have a really strong unit, where one feeds the other. The strength of the pack is the wolf; the strength of the wolf is the pack. I think it’s reflected in some of the things they’re doing in the running game.

Q. Is Myles Garrett, who has 10 sacks so far this season, going to be Al Villanueva’s assignment throughout the game, or do the Browns move him around to create different matchups?
A. They move him around some, but they don’t move him around nearly as much as the Rams do with Aaron Donald, particularly when it comes to moving him inside. Every now and then you do seen him inside, but primarily he will be a Villanueva problem, and every now a Matt Feiler problem.

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