Q. At the NFL level, what is the relationship like between the head coach and the starting quarterback?
A. It really depends on the head coach's background. I've worked for offensive play-callers like Jon Gruden, and it's really intimate. I'm at more of a distance. So really it depends on the expertise or the background of the head coach. It's not that I'm not close to Kenny (Pickett) and don't coach him, but not on the minutia. I coach him on leadership things that come with the role, things that he and I need to be responsible for as a head coach and quarterback to make sure that we are aligned. I evaluate communication and intangible things. How he wears the responsibility of being the starting quarterback, and things of that nature, and I leave some of the minutia to the guys who I employ to work with him intimately in a classroom settings and on the grass day to day. My eyes are elsewhere. When we're in a practice environment, there are 22 guys on the field and I'm watching a lot of things. The quarterback-centric head coaches I've been around like Jon Gruden, in the practice setting their eyes are exclusively on the quarterback and they depend on their assistants to tell them virtually everything else that's going on in that practice setting. And so it's neither right nor wrong. Either way, as a head coach, you're gathering some information because things gather your attention and you have to be dependent on others to kind of bring you up to speed on things that end up on your periphery. The bottom line is you better surround the quarterback on a lot of levels – formally, technically, but also informally in the intangible things as well.
Q. In asking this follow-up I understand how opposite-end-of-the-spectrum it is, but just for comparison's sake, how would you describe you-and-Ben during his last 5 seasons to you-and-Kenny during the last 2?
A. Very different. If you're talking about the last 5 years, that means Ben and I had already spent 10 years, or a decade, together. We were an old couple at that point in terms of nonverbal communications and experience shared and conversations already had. There's a lot less to manage from that perspective, but again, we're talking about a decade of shared experience if you just frame it in the last 5 years of Ben's career. And so, dramatically different in terms of laying foundational things and gaining an understanding and working on building a relationship requires more work. And that's where Kenny and I are right now.
Q. But you still had interactions with Ben. What were those like?
A. Just not English 101, not freshman year classes. You know, graduate level classes, law school, not Writing 101. And so therein lies the difference.
Q. When you hear the label or are saddled with the label "players' coach", what do you think that label is describing?
A. I don't know what others think that means, but for me, it's about giving players what they need and not necessarily what they want. At times in the past, I've taken offense to it, because sometimes the person who delivers it I don't think they mean that. I think they mean "a buddy." I think they minimize what we do vocationally, and that's disrespectful. And so that's why I respond to it in the way that I do sometimes when I think it's done in an unflattering way, or in an effort to put whoever they're refer to with it in a box.
Q. So when you say you give players what they need as opposed to what they might want, can you give some general examples of what you're talking about?
A. Sometimes what they need and what they want are aligned. You're on a short week, and you give them a day off. They probably want it and they probably need it. In other instances, you give them what they need, such as a padded practice on a Wednesday after a less than ideal performance, and they may not want it, but it's probably what's best for him. And so, to me, that's the definition of a player's coach, all the while working on the art component of the vocation as well. Meaning you're doing what it is that you need to do, but there's a salesmanship component to it as well. And so there's a science component, there's an art component, but at the end of the day, you provide what it is they need.
Q. You regularly talk about the coaching task of "getting the best out of the players." How is that accomplished?
A. It depends on the player. People are wired differently, people come from different backgrounds, and all of those things shape how they view not only football but the world. I think as a leader of men, it's our job to have these intimate individual relationships where we gain an understanding of those we lead, so we can best bring whatever it is we need out of them out of them. What stimulates one man might not stimulate another. There are some guidelines, I guess, that you follow when you're addressing the collective, but that's more about you. You better be authentic, you better be yourself because then you're going to be consistent in your delivery, particularly as you ride the roller-coaster that is a journey or a season. But on an individual basis, no matter how big the group, and there are 53 guys on NFL roster, you better have intimate relationships with the individuals if you want to maximize your leadership.
Q. What's your definition of "hard coaching?"
A. Getting attention. What's the desired task in "hard coaching?" You're searching for a behavioral change. And so, usually a behavioral change requires attention. And so, hard coaching is prodding in an effort to get attention, but the bottom line is what you seek is a behavioral change.
Q. Over the last two games, there has been outside noise about Minkah Fitzpatrick's hit on Nick Chubb and a penalty for roughing the passer. Has it been your experience that things such as that, coming in such a short period of time, can impact a guy in the way he plays?
A. Not Minkah because he's mentally tough. But let's be honest, OK, the last two weeks, the two weeks you mentioned, we've been on primetime television. And when you're the only show in town, there's a certain attention that comes with that. And so let's be honest, the whole scuttlebutt, the whole narrative is a component of that. We don't run away from primetime. As a matter of fact, we run to primetime. We'd play on primetime every week if we if we were allowed to, but we also understand there's some things that come with it. And that's an example of it. Minkah is far from a dirty player. It's laughable for me when that is even close to a topic of discussion. But again, people who don't know him don't know him. They speculate, and it's low-hanging fruit because there were no other games to watch at that time when we played over the last two weeks. We're three weeks into the season and we were in everybody's living room, on primetime, two out of those three weeks. And so there are consequences, positive and negative, that come with that.
Q. Have you had that conversation with Minkah?
A. No need because we've been in primetime before, he and I. I might have that conversation with a newer, younger guy who is under the microscope like Jaylen Warren, for example, because I don't want it to alter him in a negative way. Does he need to take (using) his head out of the game? Absolutely. He's working extremely hard in an effort to do so. But a component of the attention he has received is that we're the only game in town and we're on primetime television. And that's a shame.
Q. You face C.J. Stroud today, and he has gone from being the second overall pick in April to ranking third on the NFL's all-time list for passing yards by a rookie quarterback in the first three games of his career. At the time of draft prep, you had Kenny Pickett and had re-signed Mitch Trubisky, so was there any draft prep done on him?
A. I did my due diligence. I went to his Pro Day. I interacted with him a little at his Pro Day. It's just important for a guy in my position to have some knowledge of those who are coming into the league, particularly at that position and the significant ones like him, but I don't know that I was viewing it in terms of a shopper. I was viewing it for weeks such as this. I knew I would see him, and so I better do my homework and prepare myself and gain an understanding of what makes him tick, how he operates and maybe how to best combat him.
Q. You said you had some interaction with him at his Pro Day. Is it safe to assume that interaction was different than you would have had with someone you were interested in drafting?
A. Yes, and probably because there are so many other people who are legitimate shoppers who demand his attention on a day like that. I'm not going to rob that young man of his interactions with DeMeco Ryans and the Houston Texans who are picking second in the draft, or the Carolina Panthers who were picking first, or any team that was in position to do that. As a window shopper, it's just professional courtesy. But during a moment or two we had an opportunity to chat, I congratulated him on his college career and things of that nature. But just as a professional courtesy I stay in the background because there were so many people, particularly at his Pro Day, who were legitimate shoppers.
Q. Was he an impressive young man, and in what areas did he stand out?
A. Very much so. He was just really comfortable at his Pro Day and comfortable in his shoes. You know, let's be honest, when you're a multi-year starter at a super program like at Ohio State, there's a level of preparedness that's different than maybe a one-year starter at a lesser program. The college resume is not professional football, but there is an asset to experience. I watched Kenny Pickett next door where the responsibility of being the starting quarterback over there for a long time – it felt like 7 or 8 years, you know what I mean? So I think it produced a high floor as they transition into the league. And I would imagine that wearing the responsibility of being the starting quarterback at Ohio State, and the pressures and the attention and all of those things are very similar to the things that come with being the quarterback of the Houston Texans. And everybody can't say that. I imagine Trey Lance's experience as he transitioned to the 49ers or Zach Wilson as he transitioned to the New York Jets, for example, were a different experience.
Q. There are a lot of different metrics used on a weekly basis each week of an NFL season to evaluate/grade cornerbacks. Levi Wallace has played 97 percent of the defensive snaps through the first three games of this season, so what is your evaluation of his play?
A. I think he has been solid and improving, is a way to describe it. In general, he has kept a lid on it, and at the very early stages of the season, there are certain things that are non-negotiable from a secondary standpoint, or from a cornerback standpoint particularly. You play things from the top end down. You keep a lid on it. You give yourself a chance to play another down, and then you build from there. And so when I say he's solid and improving, he has kept a lid on it. With each passing week, he has been more competitive on that which is in front of him, and he's got some statistics that kind of bear that out.
Q. When the division of labor is being determined, what do the young people have to be showing to get playing time or to increase the amount of playing time they've been getting?
A. Sometimes it's not about their capabilities or what they're doing, it's about what's going on around them. And that's just reality. If you've got a really good team, young guys generally wait, and it doesn't matter how talented they are. Case in point: Cam Heyward watched Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel for a couple of years before he got an opportunity to be an every-down player, and it's not that we didn't know that Cam Heyward was Cam Heyward. We did. And so ideally, you want a strong enough team that they're not pressed into action. Then when you're in that scenario, usually it's about opportunity due to someone else's misfortune, injury, inconsistent play, etc., or you just build them from a small menu standpoint. Why do you build them from a small menu? Because you want to narrow their preparation focus. When you narrow their preparation focus, the probability of them playing well gets increased. And so you've got a corner like Joey Porter, you tell him he's playing in one-dimensional passing circumstances – third-down, two-minute, things of that nature. That's all he does all week. That's all he studies all week. Chances are, he's going to play pretty well. If he's getting ready for everything, he may be overwhelmed by the preparation process and thus be more inconsistent in play. And so when you've got a good team, and you're afforded the opportunity to allow them to grow incrementally, then it's prudent to do that. If you don't you put them in, and you cross your fingers.
Q. Same question, but this time about the guys who aren't new to the NFL but are new to the Steelers – what do they have to show?
A. It's a little different, because the acclimation process is so much more accelerated when you're just learning language. If you've been in this league, you might learn one language and you already might know what to do, and you're just learning the translation. When you're coming from college, you're learning the language, you're learning the technique, you're learning all components of it. I'm talking to Elandon Roberts, for example, who played for Brian Flores in Miami. Because I worked with Brian Flores, I know what he called concepts. I can tell Roberts, "Hey, this is that," and he'll go, "Oh, OK," and his acclimation process is over. And so when you're talking about guys with experience, sometimes it's just a language component, as opposed to a learning component.