Tomlin on culture-building, death march, cut-down day

Q. After the preseason game against Tennessee, Cam Heyward described the defense’s performance as an “appropriate response.” You’ve used that phrase often yourself. What does it mean?
A. It’s not what happens to you in the National Football League, and it’s really not what happens to you in life. It’s more important how you respond to it. Those are defining things for us as men, and we talk openly about it. It’s kind of funny to hear him specifically use those words, because I thoughtfully use those words all the time because I want them to respond to adversity, not react to it. And responding to adversity is action with thought. And so, message being received.

Q. As a coach, is it a good sign when players start repeating things you say?
A. It’s not something that you celebrate. It’s something that is very necessary. It’s a box that you better check if the team is growing in the right ways, and that’s how I view it. We’re culture-building here. That’s a part of this process, not only teaching and evaluating, but also culture-building and messaging, and things that we value in our approaches to winning, and that’s a big-time part of that.

Q. Are those guys – your veteran leaders, the captains of the team – the ones you have to convince first?
A. I don’t know that I approach it with the thought that I have to convince them first, or really convince anyone. I think these guys come open to these things. These guys have done a lot in preparing for this opportunity, individually and collectively. There’s not a lot of convincing; these guys are ready to receive what the messaging is, what the branding is, what that approach to our brand of ball is going to be for 2018.

Q. There are position players who play special teams, and there are special teams players who are able to line up at a position. Which of those describes Ryan Switzer right now?
A. I think he’d be described as a special teamer at this juncture. But not that we have him in a box. The guy will have an opportunity to grow. The first couple of years for Antonio Brown, I think we described him as a kick returner who was wideout capable. I don’t think anyone is having that discussion with him any longer, and that’s what special teams does for guys. It’s an opportunity to earn a living, it’s an opportunity to live out your dreams, but it’s also an opportunity to buy time in some instances for development as an offensive or defensive player. And I’ve seen many guys ascend and develop over the years into first and second-down football players.

Q. When you make a trade this late in the process – so close to cut-down day, and with so little time to evaluate him – are you committed to keeping Switzer on the 53-man roster?
A. It really just depends on the trade and what you were willing to spend for the trade. Each one is different, to be quite honest with you. It wasn’t a big investment on our part to acquire Ryan Switzer, not that we do not value his presence. He will be given an opportunity. Some of the decision-making is based on the body of work that they have, either in the National Football League or in college. For the purposes of Joe Haden, a player we acquired at this time a year ago, we competed against Joe two times a year for seven-eight years. We know a lot about him as a professional. Ryan Switzer, we analyzed and evaluated him big-time when he came out for the draft just two years ago. He caught 96 passes from Mitchell Trubisky at North Carolina. There’s a level of comfort in terms of what you know about the guy based on past research done.

Q. For the third preseason game, you said there would be more game-planning and some other things generally related to regular season football. Now in this fourth preseason game, do you go back to purely evaluating individuals in advance of cut-down day?
A. Absolutely. Coupled with the fact we see these guys during the regular season, and I’m sure they share the same mentality, you’re going to see Football 101 in the stadium tonight. Not that it won’t be impactful, urgent, and entertaining, because it will be, but just from a game-planning standpoint you won’t see some of the nuances or division of labor that you saw in the third game.

Q. Does doing it that way make the evaluation process easier?
A. I don’t look to make the evaluation process easier or more difficult. It’s just something that needs to get done. I look for things you can’t coach. Does the guy think fluidly on his feet? Does he adapt? Does he improvise? Is he detailed in the work that he does? None of that really has anything to do with game-planning, to be quite honest with you.

Q. What have you learned about this group of 90 players during this training camp/preseason process?
A. I think the largest thing, the thing that allows me to say this has been a good process even though you haven’t seen the result of this process is that they’re a highly competitive bunch. When we roll the ball out, they compete. They like to compete. Formally, informally. You see that about them, and I just think that aids in the team development process. This game, particularly at this level, is about those who are strong-willed competitors, and I think collectively this group has shown that.

Q. Now that you’ve been through it once, do you like the single cut-down from 90 to 53?
A. It doesn’t matter to me. There are arguments for both ways. You like to give every man an opportunity to ride the journey until the end. The rule change might provide an opportunity for a man who hadn’t had it in the past to put good play on tape. That might not be enough to get him employed with his current team, but maybe that draws the attention of the other 31 teams, and so from that aspect it’s very good. There’s another perspective, and it’s that there are some men who have had enough and they’re ready to go. And this is another week of a death march of some kind. It depends on your perspective. I don’t over-analyze it. I just simply follow the rules, and that’s the rule today. I just tend to focus on the bright side and focus on the opportunity it’s presenting the guys that they wouldn’t get if the rule hadn’t been changed.

Q. What do those players look like, the ones who are on the death march?
A. It’s emotionless. It’s less than natural emotion to normal things that occur. They see the writing on the wall. They’ve accepted their fate, if you will. That’s unfortunate, but it does happen.

Q. It’s long been a football tradition that the players who get cut are notified, but the ones who make the team hear nothing. Why is there actually no notification to those who made it, and I’m not referring to guys like Ben and Maurkice Pouncey and Cam Heyward?
A. Quite simply, you’re more concerned with the guys you’re letting go, and you’re providing insight and guidance for them. Maybe direction, evaluation, and a critique. I think the day belongs to those guys, to be quite honest with you. Everyone has given a substantial effort, and put their best foot forward, so I think it’s just appropriate to give those a conversation if they so desire, to provide some direction for them. These are very young people, some are 20, 21, 22 years old. They’re being fired from a job. It’s not a good day for them. Often times, they’re transitioning in terms of figuring out what’s next. I tend to focus on those men.

Q. Would you have a quarterback on the practice squad?
A. Yes. I think Brian St. Pierre was on the practice squad from time to time in 2007, my first year.

Q. When it comes to keeping a quarterback on the practice squad – is that something you’d only do if you only had two of them on the active roster?
A. I’m open to all of those things. I know I have been asked all week about numbers and things of that nature. I’ve never subscribed to numbers positionally. You really shorten the possibilities of maximizing the best 53. Some teams in the NFL keep two quarterbacks, some keep three. Very rarely, but people have kept four. I’m open to what gives us the best opportunity to build a world championship caliber team. And so I don’t have a lot of preconceived notions. I’ll start first positionally with the guys who are above the line, meaning the guys I think are NFL players. That number might be 57-58-59 and then work from there, whatever. I don’t try to put square pegs in round holes, or even round pegs in round holes for that matter.

Q. Once upon a time, it was called the developmental squad, and now it’s called the practice squad. Is that how you view the practice squad, as almost a minor league system for the Steelers?
A. It serves multiple purposes. Sometimes it’s a developmental squad. Sometimes there’s guy with upside but he’s not even close to being ready to play, and so he’s camped there for a season. Some guys are just on the outside looking in for whatever reason. They didn’t pan out within their group, and that’s a means of continuing to do business with them. And if something happens positionally or within the team that would give them an opportunity to be elevated and play, then they’re viewed in that way. Different people have different statuses. People are on that list for a variety of reasons. The big thing is you’ve done enough things and you’ve got enough traits that we want to continue with you. That’s what’s important.

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