Q. Over the course of a game, there are positions on the team where players are rotated in and out to keep guys fresh. When doing that, who decides when one guy comes off the field and another guy goes on?
A. You know it's a myriad of people based on the circumstances. We as coaches control it on a series-by-series basis. Within a series, often times it is controlled by the starter himself. What I mean is if a defensive drive gets long, and we're not getting stops, and we're not getting off the field, from time to time you might see a guy like Cam Heyward, tap his helmet and communicate with the sideline that he needs a play or two. We do things from a pre-prescribed standpoint in terms of coaches in terms of planning, but the starters know that it's better for us to have a fresh backup in there if they need a blow than to have them in if they're not at their best. It's two-pronged: it's situational, it's reactionary based on circumstance, and it's also pre-planned.
Q. What's a run game coordinator?
A. It depends on who you're talking to. In some organizations in the National Football League, it's a means of getting a quality assistant some additional money and to be competitive in a market where there's scarcity in terms of quality people. Sometimes it comes with responsibility, a guy who's a central prong, if you will, or a central assistant to the coordinator, and to developing the run aspect of a game plan. And so, there are a lot of guys who carry the title, but depending on where you are in the circumstances is whether or not it means something or not, to be quite honest with you.
Q. Let's just pretend it's somebody who's not just carrying a title. What does he do over the course of the week?
A. He helps coordinate the run game element of the plan. The selection of run plays, the identifying of schematic opportunities and issues relative to the run game in all elements of situational play: first and second downs, short-yardage, goal-line, utilization of personnel in the formulation of that plan, acknowledgement of significant matchups, meaning our Jimmys and Joes vs. their Jimmys and Joes. Coordination is what that word means – all aspects of run game development.
Q. Is it my imagination, or is it actually the case that most run game coordinators are offensive line coaches?
A. Without question. What they are in most instances, like I mentioned earlier, are the high-end or reputable or experienced offensive line coaches in a competitive market where organizations do what they have to do to acquire their services.
Q. Why is the run game coordinator job conducive to being the offensive line coach?
A. There are five guys involved in the schematics and that element of play, and so it's a natural thing. It's no different than acknowledging that usually the pass game coordinator is also the secondary coach, because on third down you've got five or six defensive backs on the grass, and they comprise the majority of the men doing the work in those circumstances. You know, Teryl Austin has a cute title of some description here in Pittsburgh (senior defensive assistant/secondary), because he is elite and experienced at what he does and a central component to the development of plans as it relates to the passing game defense.
Q. From a schematic standpoint, how does a fullback impact the running game?
A. He carries an additional gap. And what I mean is there are a finite number of gaps in the front, and if you insert a man into one of those gaps, it creates two gaps. And so he carries a gap, but it's the same function that the second tight end carries, because he also carries an additional gap. If you put the second tight end on the line of scrimmage, that gap doesn't have the ability to move. If you back him off the line of scrimmage and you do some of the things that tight ends in the off position do or in the backfield, then he carries the same flexibility as a fullback. He carries an additional gap, and that gap has the ability to move depending on where you insert him into the front. That's the function of a fullback. That's the function of the second tight end. It's also the function of the third wide out. When you got a big third wide out, often times you can have them at the point of attack in the run game. Those guys who play inside, guys like JuJu Smith-Schuster for us now, or going back a guy like Hines Ward, because physical wide receivers carry an additional gap with them. And that's why when you think about Hines Ward, you think about him going in motion in short yardage and stopping inside of Heath Miller on third down and creating an additional gap inside of Heath Miller by leading up in there and digging out strong safeties and so forth. Whoever that flex offensive player is – a third wide receiver, a second tight end, or a fullback, they carry an additional gap in the run game.
Q. When the offense has a fullback on the field, does that make it easier for the defense to know where the play is going?
A. By scheme, some plays the fullback is at the point of attack, like isolation plays, and sometimes he's not at the point of attack, like split flow isolation plays, and it's the same thing for that second tight end. So sometimes the fullback will carry you to the action, and sometimes they don't by schematics. As an offensive game plan developer and offensive coach, you've got to be cognizant of that and manage how often that player carries you to the action or does not.
Q. You're a football historian. Jim Brown, Franco Harris, Larry Csonka, John Riggins, Earl Campbell all were fullbacks by position and their teams' primary ballcarriers during their careers. When and why did fullbacks become glorified offensive linemen instead of runners of the football?
A. If you remember, in those days the split-back formation and things of that nature was a significant aspect of offensive play as well. And so, fullback didn't necessarily mean you played in front of the tailback. It just meant you were the fullback. Often times, in split-back running plays, the fullback was simply aligned to the tight end side and the tailback was aligned to the open side, and you could run either way. The tailback could be a significant blocker on open-side runs for the fullback, and so over the course of time it's not a de-emphasis on the fullback position as much as it's a de-emphasis on the number of people in the backfield. People want to utilize more of the space on the football field in today's game, the 53-and-a-third yards of width of the field. The players have grown, their speed has increased over the last 50-75 years. These dudes are big and fast, so you better employ schematics that make them measure and cover greater portions of the field than 50 years ago. Today's game is played in a closet, and you've got to make them defend all spaces in that closet, both vertically and horizontally.
Q. A typical thing a defense will do to make it difficult to run the football is stack the box. What can be done to influence a defense to align fewer players in the box?
A. Spread them out. You got to spread them out and make them defend people, but obviously the more you spread them out the less effective or potentially potent your run game is. And so, there's a cat-and-mouse element of it. Defenses are going to stack the box to defend the run, you need a certain number of people in the core of the offensive structure to effectively run the football. And so, there's a cat-and-mouse element at play. And that's just where the game is.
Q. On Tuesday during your weekly news conference, you said, "We've got a hot kitchen this weekend in Pittsburgh. AFC North ball. We've got some challenges along the way. Those challenges don't bring us down; those challenges inspire us. This is a coaches' week." What do you mean by "This is a coaches' week?"
A. I love the adversity that the journey presents, that the game presents, and so when you are without significant pieces you have to adjust, you have to formulate plans to play to your strengths and to minimize your weaknesses. Those are the weeks that if you're a competitor like I am and you coach for a living, you own those responsibilities and you embrace those responsibilities. It's an exciting thing. You know, I likened it this week to a couple of years ago when we were playing with Devlin Hodges at quarterback. And those are coaches' weeks. Those are weeks that fire you up, those are weeks that you have to craft a good plan and the margin of error is slim. And so, you formulate a plan, you make sure everybody understands the plan, you plot a course of preparation in an effort to execute that plan, and you step into the stadium. That's what we were about this week.
Q. Also on Tuesday, you were asked about your offense only having 35 running plays combined during the first two games and whether that had to do with playing from behind. And you said, "And things that our opponents do." What have your opponents been doing to minimize the number of times you attempt to run the football?
A. The Cincinnati Bengals, for example, when you go ace personnel, which is one back and two tight ends, sometimes they play with five defensive linemen against that, which is essentially a short-yardage and goal-line defense. If you run into that, you're stupid. That's what I mean. If they over-commit themselves to an element of play, you have to acknowledge that. Often, I get frustrated when I deal with the media, because I get questions about why we didn't do certain things, and I just don't have the time or the energy to explain that element of it. They put five defensive linemen in the game you throw the ball every snap until they put four defensive linemen in the game. And it's as simple as that.
Q. During a week like this past one, Ben Roethlisberger entered it with an injury that limited his participation in practice. Over the course of the process, what do you need to see from him or hear from him to allow you to believe he can start and be effective in the game?
A. You're talking about something that's a process born out of 15 years of shared space and time and relationship. What I need to see from him is different than what I need to see from Diontae Johnson, for example. I just have a sense of Ben's preparedness and his readiness. First and foremost is his health, because we never compromise that. Then it's his general readiness and whether or not he can execute the things we need him to do. And we've been down this road a million times, he and I. So there's comfort in that seemingly uncomfortable development.
Q. In situations such as this, can you ever go by what the player says about his readiness?
A. You have to read between the lines, and that's what I mean when I say it's a product of your shared experiences. He and I have been in the circumstance so many times I'm capable of reading between the lines, whether I'm talking to the doctors as it relates to him, or whether I'm talking to him, and just the more times you're in those circumstances, the better clarity you have. It is more difficult when you have less experience in terms of shared space and time, just because there's not a history to call upon in that discussion.