Q. When questions have arisen this season about your third-down defense and then more recently about the running game, you mentioned getting in the lab and getting to work. What does the process of getting in the lab mean?
A. There are a lot of components of play that need to be managed and kept up, and from time to time you see areas of your play in any phase of the game – offense, defense, or special teams – that's lagging. First of all you better work hard to ward those things off in any area, but when they do occur you better identify it quickly and then map out a course of action to correct it. Identifying is just part of it. What are the day-to-day things, what are the drill things we're going to do, how are we going to awaken our players to the circumstance and formulate a potential schematic solution. And then the players make the solution a reality. That's what I was talking about earlier in the week. The run game has been the subject of discussion of late. Third-down defense prior to that. It's always something, and maybe that's just the perspective that being 14 years on the job provides to me, but there's always something that we're going to be in the lab tooling, problems to be addressing, weaknesses to minimize, etc. That's just the process of team development, and it's a good thing to do that in the midst of winning.
Q. So it starts with meetings with you and your staff?
A. No question. The game analysis element of it – the Monday morning work, or the Sunday night work that occurs after we play is the first component of it.
Q. So then by Wednesday, your first meeting with the players, you have mapped out what you want to do?
A. Yes. Sometimes Wednesday morning is the first time gathering those guys, so we're identifying the problem and the solution in the same setting. And that's OK, too. It can be: This is a glaring weakness in our play right now, and these are the reasons why, and these are some of the potential things we're going to do in an effort to shore up that potential area.
Q. Does a team have to run the football differently from a formation where the quarterback is under center vs. having the quarterback in the shotgun?
A. There can be schematic differences in the run game. They also can be exactly the same based on some run concepts. In some instances with some teams specifically, it is a very different personality. Some teams make a real effort to make sure it is the same. So you see it running the gamut, really.
Q. Would it be an oversimplification to say: If the quarterback is under center, it's a power running attack; if the quarterback is in the shotgun, it's a finesse running attack?
A. Oversimplified in today's game. People make a concerted effort in today's game to make sure that is an untruth. And we're a part of that.
Q. You were asked about your team's identity, and you said, "Hopefully our identity is winning." Once upon a time in the NFL, the recipe for winning was "run the ball and stop the run." What's the recipe for winning in today's NFL?
A. Score one more point than your opponent. And it's challenging week in and week out because of the diversity in our game. The different styles of play. Quarterback mobility has made that a very different discussion from time to time. You just can't have any glaring weaknesses. You have to have a well-balanced team, not only in terms of talent, but also schematics. That's the reality of it. If you have a glaring weakness, people are going to exploit it. That old notion of run the ball and stop the run being the key to winning football games is probably true in a lot of ways, but if you're really weak in defending the pass you're going to lose. That's just the reality of it. You better not have any glaring weaknesses in today's game, because somebody is going to be capable of exploiting it and you're going to get out of the stadium with an "L."
Q. What one trait do all teams have to have to be winning teams?
A. Players who are capable of rising up in those moments, and we all know what those moments are. We don't have to describe them, we know when we're there. Significant players deliver significant plays in weighty moments, and that generally comprises the general makeup of really good football teams
Q. It's often said that Mike Hilton has a "good feel for blitzing." What does that mean, and what goes into having a "good feel for blitzing?"
A. He is awesome at anticipating the snap of the ball, and he's almost never flat-footed when that occurs. He's always generally moving toward the line of scrimmage and thus he's playing at a different speed than everyone else. Defensive linemen are stationary, offensive linemen are stationary. The distance he comes from and his feel for the game allows him a winning edge in that regard, and it makes him effective. Often when the ball is snapped, he is moving at a different rate and a different speed than others, and it's problematic for the offense.
Q. Is your defense still having communication issues in the secondary?
A. No question. That's going to be a continuing problem as long as you see the jersey numbers changing. And that's just a component of play in today's game. You benefit from continual cohesion, and not having Mike Hilton available to us and the different jersey numbers we have chosen week to week to address that based on game matchups are a factor. Sometimes it has been Justin Layne, and he has done an adequate job for us. Some weeks, like last week it has been Antoine Brooks, and he has done an adequate job for us. As long as those jersey numbers are changing, usually you better be having a heightened awareness regarding communication.
Q. What are some examples of what communication issues are?
A. There are coverage adjustments based on what we see. There is verbal and non-verbal communication. There is a benefit to non-verbal communication because the offense doesn't hear it, but it requires cohesion and a relationship to lean on that element of play. When it is verbal, then you may know it but so may the offense, and there are issues associated with that as well. The only time you really have a chance to have that grade-A cohesion is when the jersey numbers aren't changing.
Q. When it breaks down, is it usually the fault of the guy who should be doing the listening or the guy who should be doing the talking?
A. Most of the time, it's the listeners.
Q. Late in the game against the Bengals, you decided that the margin on the scoreboard was sufficient to pull some starters, including Ben Roethlisberger, Maurkice Pouncey and some others. When is the right time to do that in a game?
A. I don't know that there is a cookie-cutter answer to that, but I know that when we're there we feel it and we know it. Often it's the mentality of your opponent as well in terms of the types of plays they're calling. Are they calling plays to play catch-up, or are they calling plays to play out the game? When the defense is no longer pressuring, then they're probably conceding the outcome. When the offense is running the ball and they're down by multiple scores, then they're probably conceding the outcome. Often times I respond to what I see from the opponent from that play-calling perspective, and that gives me an indication of where we are.
Q. Back in 2010, you introduced two dogs, one bone method of two receivers competing for one game day roster spot. At the same position this year, receivers may not be competing for game day roster spots but there do seem to be receivers vying for playing time, for targets, for catches. Is the decision of who gets the playing time opponent-specific, or is it all about the top guys in the receiver room?
A. Often times, we let the opponent decide, and that's just part of being a well-balanced group and that's why it's important we have a collection of guys with talent. What I mean is, from week to week it could change. If we're playing a group that has a split-safety approach to defense, which means they play a lot of two-high-safety football and roll cornerbacks up and so forth, then that's going to be a game that JuJu (Smith-Schuster) has a chance to dominate because he's going to be working the interior portions of the field against people. When you look at a bunch of single-high groups and the cornerbacks are playing single-high defense, then you look for guys like Chase Claypool, for example, to potentially have a good game because he plays outside. We just want to have a well-balanced group with a varied skill-set, and often the schematics and the personnel matchups of the particular opponent will determine who "has a hot hand."
Q. Why was Ray-Ray McCloud not on a roster when you added him to the your team back in August?
A. You could ask that question about a lot of circumstances. You could ask that question about why was Robert Spillane available to us. People used to ask us why did we cut James Harrison three times. Sometimes, it's just a man's time. Sometimes it's the right place, right time, right environment. Sometimes, they take a hard look at themselves when they get let go, and they make necessary adjustments in terms of their approach or their preparedness that produces the outcome that leads us to ask those questions. I've just learned over the years not to ask why. I just appreciate the opportunity and make sure they appreciate the opportunity and understand the scarcity of it. And all we better be here every day and working our tails off to get better.
Q. When you're putting together the game day active roster, how do you factor in special teams as to which guys get helmets? How do the numbers break down?
A. I really try to keep it as simple as I can, not to over-complicate it. I ask myself, "Who is necessary?" And then, "Who is useful?" Who's necessary on offense and who's necessary on defense and who's necessary on special teams. And then, who's useful? And that's always a determining factor in terms of who gets a helmet and who doesn't. A guy like Jordan Dangerfield is not a necessary defender, but he is a necessary special-teamer because he is our personal protector on our punt team, for example. There are certain special teams players who are necessary – the kicker, the punter, the long-snapper, the personal protector, the designated return man or return men. Those people are necessary. Others are useful. And so I always proceed with that understanding first on an effort to keep things simple for myself. When I take that approach and I look at all of the people who are necessary in all three phases generally it comes down to three or four names week to week that I'm discussing, and that provides clarity for me.