Tomlin on Diontae, Ahkello, game balls

Q. In the win over the Ravens, you got meaningful contributions from three players largely unknown to Steelers fans until last Sunday – Ahkello Witherspoon, John Leglue, and Montravius Adams. Witherspoon had the most NFL experience prior to arriving in Pittsburgh. What made him interesting to the team as someone to acquire via trade?
A. He's always been interesting to us. That's why we acquired him. He's a guy who's capable of playing outside corner and playing man-to-man and standing up in those one-on-one matchups that really kind of signify possession downs. He's bounced around some because he doesn't have a distinguished special teams resume, and really that's why he's been inactive for us. But Joe Haden being unavailable really created a very good void for him in terms of being able to step in and show what he can do, which is play corner and cover people and do those things. When he's in a backup competition for playing time, it gets more difficult for him because some others are more accomplished in the special teams area of play.

Q. Earlier in the week when asked about Montravius, you mentioned that defensive line is one of the easier positions for a player in terms of jumping on a moving train. Where does cornerback rank on that list?
A. It's probably second, and sometimes when pressed in difficult situations you do unique things. I've been known to put a new cornerback on the side of the field, close to our bench, so you can talk to him, and you can help him, and so that's the advantage of the cornerback position. Don't be surprised sometimes if you see an inexperienced cornerback on our team or on any team being close to his team's sideline so that people and coaches can communicate with him and help him with the information that he needs in an effort to play.

Q. To get a new cornerback on the field, as you had to do with Witherspoon, is there a lot of compromising that has to be done when it comes to the kinds of coverages you can use?
A. In his case, absolutely not. You know he's been here now for some time, and he really has just been working in the shadows to prepare himself. He asks good questions. He's always engaged in the adjustment component of things. He's had a ringside seat for a lot of this season, and I think it really set him up and had him prepared to play, and couple that with the fact, as you mentioned, he has more playing experience than some of the others. He's been in these battles before in other cities, and really it was just about being in it with us.

Q. In talking about John Leglue earlier in the week, you said his position flexibility became a calling card. When it comes to position flexibility for an offensive lineman, playing both the left side and the right side is one level of that, playing both guard and tackle is another level, but adding the ability to play center along with another position at the NFL level seems pretty rare. Is it being in charge of the football to start every play that makes playing guard or tackle and also center so rare?
A. And also, it's the responsibility of declaration and identification that comes with the center position. And it's not only because of the snapping of the ball component, but just where they're centrally located within the battle. They're able to see things on both sides of the ball and they're a hub of communication in the same ways that a free safety is, as Minkah is, in the secondary for us. And so there are just things that come with the center position, not only physical but intellectual that makes versatility in that area a unique thing.

Q. Leglue is 6-foot-7. Is that too tall for a center?
A. In most cases, yes. But again, we were pressed into action back in August, and so sometimes you get in where you fit in.

Q. These three guys – a cornerback with size, an offensive lineman with position flexibility, and a big and athletic defensive lineman – are exactly the kinds of guys at their positions who are coveted throughout the NFL. Is it possible to explain how, and maybe why, they were available?
A. You know, one man's treasure is another man's non-treasure. We never spend any time worrying about other people's perceptions of guys, whether it's that component of it or whether it's draft prep. Kevin (Colbert) and I get an opportunity to travel shoulder-to-shoulder, and we develop a perspective, and we have our likes and dislikes, and we really don't care what other people like and dislike. We realize that there are 32 organizations so there are probably 32 different perspectives. We focus on developing ours, and the "why" relative to ours. You can waste a lot of time wondering why somebody else doesn't like someone. It's just whether or not you do.

Q. So it's not a red flag to you, for example, when you look at a guy on video and he seems pretty interesting, but he's been with five teams over the previous four years?
A. You know, we weren't the only team that cut James Harrison, for example. Experience tells me not to waste a whole lot of time pondering that. And sometimes guys grow and develop because of experience. You get cut in one city, it might hit you like a lightning bolt. It might change your approach to business in some way. Or you might learn something through the experience of not being successful in one environment. It might change your perspective or approach when you get your next opportunity, and so it's probably a little bit of both. It's beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but also I think these guys grow and develop in different ways through their experiences. Adams has talked a lot about just how appreciative he is of the opportunity, and it probably leads me to believe that maybe he was a little bit less than appreciative of other opportunities. But that's growth. These are young men. They're growing and learning in the midst of all of this.

Q. I asked you earlier about acquiring Ahkello Witherspoon in a trade, and another guy you acquired via trade is Chris Wormley, who had a big game last Sunday with two sacks. What made him attractive to you to make that deal back in 2020?
A. It's simple for us. We liked him in the draft process. We went to Ann Arbor, we took him out to dinner, we researched, and we worked him out. We just didn't get an opportunity to get him in the draft, and that (can drive) our interest in the free agent market or in the trade market. We believe that much in our draft process, the opinions we develop regarding players, and so when we're looking at them in free agency or later on in their careers when they're trade targets and so forth, it's just an update. It's, "Worm you're married now? How many kids you got? How's your mom doing?" Because we met his mom at his Pro Day. We just believe in our draft process and the opinions that we form on guys in the draft process and that is the basis for our comfort in terms of making what are sometimes quick decisions in the trade market or in the free agency market.

Q. After the game, you said you told Wormley when he first got here that "When a team trades you within the division, they're telling you what they think of you." Was that just another example of you pushing a player's buttons to get the most out of him, or is that a real thing?
A. No, that's the truth. Just look around the National Football League. There's not a lot of trades within a division. If somebody is willing to send a player off their team to a team in their division, they're telling him what they think of him, and so I hope it was motivational. Sometimes motivation is wrapped in the form of harsh reality. And I think that's my job as well – to inform and educate these guys in an effort to get the best out of them so they can make decisions and perform with their eyes wide open. I believe if you give a capable man information, he'll do the rest, and I wanted him to have that global information regarding our business.

Q. During the postgame following the win over the Ravens, it came out that Cam Heyward gave the game ball to Ben Roethlisberger. How does the process of awarding a game ball happen, in terms of making the decision, the presentation, etc.?
A. It's a pretty complex deal. (Laughs) It's myself, Ben or Cam (making the decision), and that's it. We know when we're there. We're a group that doesn't do a lot of that, and we thoughtfully do that by design because we don't want to hand game balls out like tic tacs. We want it to mean something. And so, we thought it was deserving under the circumstances, and it's a teaching tool for the young guys as well. They need to understand what smiling in the face of adversity is about, about relishing an opportunity to deliver for your teammates and doing it in a hot environment against a worthy adversary. There are lessons to be learned on a lot of levels.

Q. The presentation is done in front of the team?
A. Absolutely, and it's done in front of the team for those reasons just mentioned. It's not only about the recognition of the man receiving the game ball, but it's about the education, particularly of the young guys in the room, in terms of the standard of expectation relative to that level of performance.

Q. During the 2019 NFL Draft after you picked Diontae Johnson in the third round, Darryl Drake, the wide receivers coach at the time, was brought to the media room and he spoke glowingly of the pick. One of the things he said was, "He was a guy that I wanted, and I appreciate Kevin [Colbert] and Mike [Tomlin] seeing the same things that I saw in this young man." What do you remember about the evaluation process of Diontae Johnson in the run-up to that draft and Darryl Drake's involvement in it?
A. It really was universal. We all loved him, his ability to separate at breakpoints. Defenders would be close to him, he would stick his foot in the ground and then be 2 yards away from them. And quarterback-friendly is a way to describe his route-running. He creates space. The first tape I watched of him when he was at Toledo, they were playing the Hurricanes at Toledo. Now why the University of Miami went to Toledo, I do not know. But they were playing Miami at Toledo, and he was doing the same thing to those guys that he was doing to the MAC opponents. It was very evident that element of his game would translate (to the NFL), and it has. He creates space. It's very difficult to stay close to him at the breakpoints. The subtlety of his movement, the burst, his body control, all make him a tough task (for defensive backs).

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