Q. At your news conference last Tuesday, about the fans at Heinz Field, you said, "But more than anything, they inspire us." Can a crowd really inspire grown men who are professionals?
A. There's no question. It's about their relationship with the game of football and with the people who love football. Often, people will ask me, "What's it like instructing those rich professional athletes?" They've had a player-coach relationship all their lives. They play, we instruct. They understand the nature of that relationship, and it's a very natural thing. The same thing goes for the fans. The players come out of that tunnel, and they're inspired by the presence and the enthusiasm and the love they get from their fans, just like they were at their universities or their high schools when they broke through the paper banner that they put back together every week. There are just certain things in terms of your relationship with the game that don't change no matter what the level of football, and gaining inspiration from those who appreciate football is one of them.
Q. How does that manifest itself, the players being inspired by the crowd?
A. Just in genuine enthusiasm. And gasoline. It requires a lot of energy to play this game and to play it for 60-plus minutes at times, and you need that gas, you need that energy, and it has to be summoned up from somewhere. No question the players get assistance from the support of onlookers.
Q. Along the lines of inspiration, Steelers fans go crazy over the color rush uniforms. Does something like that excite the players at all?
A. Are you kidding me? The skill guys are very much into the fashion of it. The all-black uniforms, they love it. They would wear it every week if they'd allow it.
Q. Do you tell the big guys that black is slimming?
A. I don't have a lot of conversation along the fashion lines with the 350s, but with the skill guys it is very much at the center of discussions.
Q. Another thing you said that was interesting was that good defenses can control the outcome of significant games, and that that's an axiom of football. With the way the game at the NFL level is played, with the way the rules generally fall in favor of the offense, why do you believe that's true?
A. I think last year's Super Bowl is an example of that. Leading up to the game everyone talked about how explosive those offenses were and how the game might unfold, and both defenses showed up in that stadium and had something to do with it. I just think that's football. If you have a dominant defense, particularly big men up front, there is nobody who controls a game other than the quarterback position the way elite pass-rushers are capable of controlling a game. That's because every time you drop back to throw the ball, a bomb could go off. You could get sack-fumbled, they could create a disruption that provides the defense the ball, and those plays are significant. That's why pass-rushing defensive linemen are compensated the way they're compensated in our game. There is a lot of significance in that. I just have always had that belief, but I came up in this league as a young secondary coach working with a front that included Warren Sapp, a gold jacket guy, and Simeon Rice. And I saw weekly what that provided.
Q. Can a good defense control a significant game psychologically as well as physically, or it is always physical?
A. I felt that as a young coach as well. When we faced St. Louis' 'the greatest show on turf,' we always slowed them down a little bit with physicality. The rules of the game have changed some of that with player safety and the way that safeties roam the middle of the field and so forth, but I think intimidation and physicality will always be an element of play.
Q. I want to take you back to the 2017 NFL Draft. Why T.J. Watt in the first round?
A. He was a really good football player. We were picking extremely late in the first round, and I just feel when you're picking that late in the round you look at who can play the game. It's the same thought process we went through when we picked Cam Heyward late in the first round of the 2011 draft. When you're that late in the round, you better trust your eyes, and by trust your eyes I mean what you see on tape. What we saw on tape were the same things that we see here. Maybe he's not 265 pounds like Bud Dupree or runs as fast as Khalil Mack and guys like that, but that's probably why he was available. But his tape spoke volumes, and it has continued to speak volumes.
Q. A lot of times when you're at a college pro day, you'll ask one of the significant players from that year who will be the significant player from that school the next year. Did anyone recommend Watt?
A. I didn't go to the Wisconsin Pro Day the year before. But it was interesting because sometimes you play these games about who you're interested in. So I didn't spend a lot of time with T.J. (at his pro day), but I spent a lot of time watching him. I learned a lot about him. He's not a rah-rah guy, he's very much into his preparedness and his performance, and it was displayed just watching him over a 24-hour period. We went to dinner the night before, we sat across from each other. We were polite but there wasn't a lot of talking going on, and I appreciate that about him as well.
Q. When you talk about young players, you often mention wanting to limit their exposure, because too much exposure can be negative. How can some exposure be good, but more of that become a negative?
A. Exposure is good because you gain experience. But let's use a football game as an example: it takes a guy who knows what he's doing and has some experience to play through fatigue as fatigue sets in over the course of a large number of snaps. But if you lack experience, that downside element of fatigue is going to be more dramatic. That's just an example when I talk about a young guy having too much exposure is not a good thing. The drop-off in a veteran player in terms of production, in terms of attention to detail, in terms of performance is going to be less dramatic than somebody who lacks experience. The level of mental mistakes, etc., etc., because experience is an asset to you when negativity sets in in a number of ways, and fatigue is probably the most dramatic when it comes to exposure.
Q. But wouldn't young players have to be exposed to that in some way to understand that and to learn how to play through it?
A. Yes, but you grow incrementally. That's probably the best avenue to do that. You give them 10-12 offensive snaps in a football game and he handles that well, then you give him 18-24 snaps and he handles that well, you give him 32-36 snaps etc., etc., as opposed to just throwing him to the wolves and having someone play 65 snaps of football.
Q. NFL coaches and coaches at the major college level often will preach the importance of attention to detail. When it comes to preparation for an upcoming opponent, what might be an example of the kind of details that are important?
A. The minor adjustments that go along with things we do on a regular basis that are catered toward a specific opponent. We run this play every week, but we're blocking it this way because of the way they play their right defensive end. And so, we know this play, but the attention to detail is the adjustment that makes it go this week because of how they play their personnel or special traits that their personnel might have, for instance. So, week in and week out there are a bulk of calls – offense, defense, and special teams – that make up what it is we do, and those calls are unchanging. We have a personality, particularly as you get to this portion of the season. But you doctor those things, you cater those things, you craft those things for certain specific matchups relative to the opponent, and that's what we're talking about when we're talking as coaches about "being on the details." And that's why in one week you can be on the details and do similar things the next week but not be on the details because that other animal, that other variable, that unknown, the opponent and its schematics are what's changing.
Q. If you look at the Bills, they're 9-4 and very much in the hunt for a playoff spot, but their offense is 20th in the league in scoring and their defense has only 16 takeaways, which is tied-for-17th in the league. How are they getting the job done?
A. They're scoring one more point than their opponent. I imagine people are saying similar things about us. Our offensive rankings are not very pretty. I looked at the stats this week, and we are 32nd in the NFL in red zone offense. How are we 8-5 and 32nd in the NFL in red zone offense? We're finding alternate ways to supplement that. We're challenging our defense to provide the short field for our offense and to score themselves. We're challenging our special teams units to do the same. We were able to have a punt return for a touchdown a week ago. Good teams find a way to complement themselves and lean on their strengths and work to minimize their weaknesses, and to me that's the catalyst to getting out of the stadium with the necessary win of the week. At the end of the day, we all have warts. You have a chance to advance and stay on the road that gets increasingly narrow if you're aware of your warts, and you work to minimize them.
Q. What have you learned about this group of Steelers over the course of this season so far?
A. That they're the type of group who are willing fighters. It's always good when you feel that, when you see that. It's not the Swiss Army Knife in that it doesn't solve all the problems, but largely we have a group that runs toward the fight. And when you have that, you have a chance.