Labriola On

Tomlin on Bud, ROLBs, ball-hawking safeties

Q. How would you assess Bud Dupree’s play to this point in the season?
A. He’s been impactful. He has been good against the run and the pass. He’s been a catalyst for our group emotionally, and I think that’s not something revealed through stats or highlights, but it’s cool to watch a guy come into his mid-20s who has been in a system for a number of years and establish a position within the group and is looked to as a catalyst for energy. He does a really good job of leading the group in that way. The guys gravitate to him from an emotional standpoint, so not only is he making plays for us, but he’s an emotional catalyst for the group as well. Guys love to get fired up with him and celebrate with him, and he’s done a good job of spreading his talents that way.

Q. Did you see this kind of production coming from him?
A. Surely. I thought we saw signs of it a year ago. The stats didn’t necessarily tell the story, and often times they don’t. The sack is a measure of a pass rusher for sure in a lot of ways, but it’s not a complete story-teller. Really, this year is more of a continuation of some of the things we saw from him last year. He’s getting home and finishing more, and so he’s getting recognized for something that’s probably been going on for longer than we’re acknowledging.

Q. When it was being discussed whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option on Dupree’s contract, was that a difficult decision in your mind?
A. It wasn’t.

Q. Was that because of what he gave you, or what you didn’t have behind him to replace him?
A. Just the overall trajectory of his growth and development. When we made the decision to move him from left outside linebacker to right outside linebacker, this ball started rolling downhill from that day forward, and we’ve been comfortable with that and his play has illustrated why we’ve been comfortable with that.

Q. When it comes to what is asked of the right outside linebacker position, how has that changed here since you were hired in 2007?
A. I don’t know that it has, but most offenses in terms of play-pass and misdirection have right-handed quarterbacks so they’re right-handed in those actions. So left outside linebackers generally have a myriad of things to play – the boots and things of that nature. A right outside linebacker gets an opportunity more times than not to pin his ears back and be an isolation rusher, work off the quarterback’s blind side, have an opportunity to focus on drop-back pass and strip-sacks and things of that nature. It’s ideal the way that we have our guys configured now. T.J. is a very instinctual and aware player, he’s ball-aware, he likes to bat passes and disrupt the normal flow of the offense. Bud likes to pin his ears back and get after tackles and sack the quarterback. In terms of their natural skill-sets, that division of labor is perfect for the challenges we see week in and week out from offenses.

Q. Is Dupree asked to do more in coverage than maybe James Harrison was asked to when during his time here?
A. There are probably more coverage responsibilities in today’s game. There is more spread ball, more rhythm passing, there’s more drop-eight-into-coverage because of that. And so in general I would imagine the coverage challenges are more prevalent in today’s game, but you could say the same thing about the inside linebacker position. Devin Bush is being challenged in ways that James Farrior was never challenged because it’s just a natural evolution of the game. You’re seeing people’s top-flight wideout lined up in the slot and they’re trying to isolate him against linebackers in today’s game. Ten, 15 years ago, they were trying to isolate him on the weak side of trips to get him on a cornerback. Now they have him on the interior of formations, and those are linebacker-like challenges.

Q. When a team has a safety in its defensive backfield who has a knack for intercepting the ball, how does that affect the defensive calls, the coverages a defense will use or maybe won’t need to use?
A. I don’t know that it does. That’s one of the things a ballhawk really provides. It really doesn’t matter what circumstances you put him in, he finds ways to end up at the ball. I’ve been around some of those types of guys over the years, and it’s amazing. It doesn’t matter what scheme you put them in – man-to-man, or zone, or zone pressure, or man pressure – those who have a knack for being opportunistic, they did it in high school, they did it in college and it’s just a continuation of that. And scheme is really secondary. It’s about their ability to clue the quarterback and anticipate.

Q. Does a guy with those kinds of ball skills eliminate certain areas of the field that a quarterback might attack with the football?
A. When you have a reputable guy in that area, who’s known for talents in that area, it makes you really measured about how you attack the field vertically. I think back to the Ed Reed years when he was in Baltimore, we were always really thoughtful about how we threw the ball down the field against that guy. You better locate him, and particularly on play-pass, on things where you have to take your eyes off him or turn you back to him. Misdirection passes and hardcore play-action passes, you better locate him as you come off those actions before you make throws down the field. Those are the type of guys who really affect the misdirection and play-action passing game.

Q. When facing a guy like Ed Reed, which the Steelers had to do twice a season, what were some of the things you wouldn’t do offensively?
A. Some of those blind anticipatory throws that are associated with misdirection vertical passing and play-action vertical passing. Counter-passes and trap-passes, things that often are done to influence and trick the underneath defense – you pull a guard and you go hard play-action to make the linebacker bite on it, you dump the tight end on the vertical route, for example, but if you’re going against a guy who’s capable of covering great distances, an anticipatory guy back there, you could be looking at and working a linebacker but drawing the likes of Ed Reed. So you better be really thoughtful about some of those concepts where you don’t spend a lot of time talking about deep defense, because you really spend a lot of time talking about the underneath defense and how you’re going to get somebody free or create a window, then it’s those guys you’re not talking about who are the equalizers.

Q. With the way the game is now officiated in terms of how a defensive back is allowed to play the body of a wide receiver once the ball has arrived, is going for the interception just about all that’s left for safeties in today’s NFL?
A. I don’t believe that. To me, it’s all about whether the ball beats you there or not, or you beat the ball there. The bang-out is still a component of play at that position, and those who have a well-rounded game are adept at banging the ball out when it beats them there, and it’s very technical. You’ve got to get a shoulder pad on the ball or parts of the body that control the ball. Elbow, wrist, hand, etc. And then lastly, if you’re capable of beating the ball there, you have to make that split-second decision of whether you play ball or man, and we’ve all been around and seen guys who are not good at making those decisions. They have opportunities to play the ball, but they play the man. The guy who has an understanding of that spatial relationship and can play the ball at the appropriate time has a leg-up as well.

Q. Who are some of the best ball-hawking safeties you’ve ever been around?
A. Ed Reed, obviously, clearly is the best of his generation. I had a safety in Tampa, Dexter Jackson, who had a real feel for playing in that space. I had another one in Minnesota, Darren Sharper, I think he had 63 career interceptions, who had a real knack and feel for playing in that space, and you felt the unintended consequences, positively speaking, of having guys with those skill-sets roaming around back there. You’re starting to see some of the signs of Minkah’s presence in our secondary in that regard, but he only has a three or four game body of work. I’m excited to see what the future holds as he continues to write that story.

Q. Those great ball-hawking safeties, what made them special?
A. I think it’s different from one guy to the next. Part of it is innate. In the case of Dexter Jackson specifically, he couldn’t tell you how he did it in terms of articulation. It was a feel thing for him, when he knows he knows, and since he has the courage of his convictions, he triggers. Sharper was more tape study based, but the time of his career when I was around him he was older in his career, so that’s just the natural maturation of a player. It’s interesting – Minkah is a tremendous note-taker. I witness him taking a lot of notes. I don’t necessarily read his notes. As I spend more time around him, it’s going to be interesting to see how he builds his preparation library in an effort to produce the kinds of plays we’re starting to witness.

Q. Today’s opponent is the Los Angeles Rams. If I were to ask you to describe a Sean McVay offense, how would you do it?
A. Quarterback up under the center, and that revolves around Todd Gurley and his exploits so we have to stop the run. They have awesome misdirection and play-action passes associated with it, and it makes it somewhat unique in today’s game, because you can go a month and all you see is shotgun, shotgun, shotgun. There you’re seeing a team with the quarterback under center, and utilizing pace as a weapon. First sound, snap the ball, and try to get after you from a pace standpoint. It’s really retro, but when you’re as young as Sean McVay, it’s really innovative.

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