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Tomlin on Hines, 'next man up,' quitting

Q. There is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL, but you did take a couple of opportunities to praise your players for the fight they showed in coming back from a 27-10 deficit against the Chargers. Why did you believe it was important to point that out?
A. Because that's just part of an analysis of performance. We talk openly and honestly about things that need to be corrected, areas where we fall short. I think it's also appropriate to talk about things that are done to an acceptable level, or things that are done well. Our ability to smile in the face of adversity and compete and remain unwavered and not be overwhelmed by some of the negativity that transpired in the early portions of the game is a sign that we're capable of doing those things. And that's important, because we're going to be challenged again throughout the course of this journey. Adversity is a part of this game. It is a part of this journey, and our ability to smile in the face of it is a big component of overcoming it.

Q. What you just described, is that unique?
A. I don't know if it's unique, but it's not a constant. It's not something that you can take for granted or assume that's going to transpire. And that's another important reason why you acknowledge it when you see it.

Q. Did your offense take a step forward, or show you something, during that comeback against the Chargers?
A. They did, but I'm not seeking comfort in that regard. We took care of the ball. We weren't highly penalized, and when you do those things, you have an opportunity to move in and ring up the scoreboard, and that has and will continue to be our focus. We got put on some short fields. We had a turnover in the red zone, we had a blocked punt that was well into the red zone. And so you know, the point total might not be reflective of what we were able to do offensively. But I just like the mode in which we're working in terms of not turning the ball over, minimizing penalties, staying on schedule. That's the key component for us.

Q. Two things Steelers fans absolutely love are the use of a jumbo package plus a fullback, and the use of tempo, or hurry-up. You used both of those things last Sunday, and both were successful. Are they contradictory in any way?
A. You know, it's personality related. It's about where you spend or allocate your time, and so they can be contradictory if we're talking about a large volume of plays. But if we're talking about situational play, particularly in today's game, you've got to be versatile, you've got to have both things as aspects of your personality. Because today's game dictates that there are going to be moments where you need to gore them, and you need to run over them and through them. and there are going to be moments where you need to operate at pace, whether you're trying to catch up, or whether you're trying to use pace as a weapon to minimize some of the things that defenses present to you.

Q. You mentioned personality. Does your offense have an identity?
A. We're still developing in that area. But when I say identity, I'm talking about a specialized division of labor, where you know how to allocate your talent in certain circumstances. Najee is a quality short yardage and goal line runner, and we know and understand that. The division of labor at the tight end position: Zach Gentry is a point of attack blocker; Pat Freiermuth is a guy who's capable of winning interior portions of the field in zone and man concepts vs. linebackers. Diontae Johnson is a route runner. Chase Claypool is a deep ball guy. The same thing could be said about the Cincinnati Bengals as their personality gets revealed through a large volume of tape. Ja'Marr Chase is a down the field guy. Tyler Boyd is a chain mover who works inside as an option-route runner, etc. It really is about a specialization or division of labor, about who does what particularly in the big moments.

Q. You've talked about staying in the fight, being resilient, smiling in the face of adversity. The flip side of that would be having players give up the fight, or to use the ultimate four-letter word in team sports: quit. What does that look like?
A. I think that term is overused, particularly at the professional level. There are times obviously when it becomes obvious that victory is not attainable. And there's an air out of the tires, if you will, regarding that, but in the ways that is used in common chitchat and language, guys don't get to this level with that approach to business. Guys don't get to this level with a quitter's mentality. These guys are fighters and competitors, and not just our guys, but the guys we compete against. This is the very best of the best, and you don't backdoor your way into the National Football League. These guys are here and compete at this level because they have that DNA in them. That makes them the fighters they are.

Q. Is it true that guys will play hard if for no other reason than to make sure there is good video out there on them for the future of their own careers?
A. Without question. This is precious, these opportunities. We had a lot of young guys who got an opportunity to play last week due to the misfortune of others, forget the big component of winning and losing the game. Those are critical downs for Delontae Scott in the development of his career as an outside linebacker, for example, or Steven Sims as a wide receiver a couple of weeks ago when he had an opportunity to get a helmet because Chase Claypool was unavailable. These are big opportunities. Robert Spillane a year ago had an opportunity to elevate due to unfortunate circumstances of others at his position. He rose up in a few moments, had a nice hit on Derrick Henry, did some things, and it elevated him particularly in the eyes of people who watch from a casual perspective. So, none of these downs are empty downs. They're all significant, particularly in terms of the development of careers.

Q. One of the phrases you often use is "next man up." What does that mean to you? Because I believe the perception of that to some people is that you actually expect, as an example, Tre Norwood to play like Minkah Fitzpatrick.
A. No, I expect Tre Norwood to be able to play winning football, and I think that's the distinction. "Next man up" is a phrase I use when I talk about just how fragile this game is. One man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. And I acknowledge there's a fine line between being a starter and a starter-in-waiting in this game. Steelers Nation is familiar with some of the stories over the years – a guy like James Harrison gets to play because Joey Porter gets kicked out of the game because of a pregame dustup, and then he gets an opportunity to become James Harrison. We were just talking about Robert Spillane getting an opportunity to elevate, and that's how I view all of those opportunities. I respect all of these guys who are professionals, and oftentimes it's just a man and his moment and his level of preparedness that defines him. And so, I sell it and frame it that way for our guys. I want them to know that everybody starts in some way due to some misfortune of others or some opportunity that may be outside of their control. But when they step on the field inside the white lines, what happens there is totally up to them in terms of the quality of their play, their level of preparedness and professionalism. And so, I'm always optimistic about these opportunities, because you never know when you're going to get an opportunity to see the next James Harrison drop a stake down and claim a space as his own, for example.

Q. Your special teams blocked another punt last weekend – it was the second this season for Miles Killebrew. What goes into being successful at blocking punts at the NFL level?
A. The schematics of it, your plan in terms of how you're going to attack their protection, is one component of it. But then there's also the skill element of it relative to the positions that they play. And that's being able to get your hands to the block point. I think a lot of people take that for granted. It is not something that everybody is good at or capable of, to be quite honest with you. We drill it so we get a sense of the aptitude of the people we employ in that area, and the people who show an aptitude are the guys who play in that phase of the game. And then we hone those skills to a fine edge in an effort to prepare them to get to that block point and deliver. You'd be shocked watching football tape how often, week in and week out, guys are at the block point and lack the skill and detail. Fundamentals prevent blocks from happening, when the ball goes underneath them, or they miss the block point (because) their hands are over their head and the block point is waist high. Just the lack of detail in that space is really shocking when you really study it.

Q. You mentioned schematics. Is part of that confusing the protection for the punter?
A. No question. Some of it is simply structural, meaning there's something we do that we like vs. something they do from a protection standpoint. And so that requires no tricking or deception, and then some of it is pre-snap disguise oriented. You'll go from a six-man side to a four-man side, and that's why oftentimes you see a number of guys crossing the ball just prior to a punt snap. You'll show a four-four look in terms of the potential rush before you go to a six-two look right before the snap. And so, there's communication and coordination that has to happen from a protection standpoint that allows blocks to happen. Like last week, a four-by-four look went to a five-by-three look just prior to the snap, and that was one of the components that allowed Miles to get home and get his hands on the ball.

Q. Hines Ward made it to the list of 26 semifinalists for induction into the HOF as part of the Class of 2022. He is one of eight WRs among the semifinalists, with the others being Anquan Boldin, Devin Hester, Torry Holt, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Steve Tasker, and Reggie Wayne. You coached Hines and competed against all of the others. What makes Hines worthy of the Hall of Fame in your mind?
A. He's got the hardware on his finger. He's a multiple time world champion. That's a component of it, I think, but also everybody who witnessed him play understand the style of play is above and beyond the statistical analysis, the nature in which he played and the way he redefined the position. He did things differently than others. His point of attack blocking was a weapon. He was a true weapon in that space, and there's not a lot of stats that really measured that. I make that argument all the time. Several years ago when I was stumping for John Lynch, who I coached down in Tampa, stats didn't really give an indication of John Lynch's impact on the game because of the physicality with which he played. Hines is the offense's counterpart to that. You can ask John Lynch about Hines Ward, and I'm sure the first thing that's coming out of his mouth won't be stat related. It will be the nature in which Hines played the game, and I think that's something that always has to be quantified. And while it's debatable, those of us who were close to it, those of us who saw it, it is not debatable. It is crystal clear. It was unique. It was different. It was position defining, and those are the characteristics that exemplify a gold jacket guy.

Q. When you were a defensive backs coach in the NFL and coached against Hines Ward, what did you tell your guys about him?
A. The reason I mentioned John Lynch is because John Lynch was that box safety that I'd be telling to watch out for No. 86, because that's what he did. He went in there and mixed it up against the likes of John Lynch and Donovin Darious and the other box safeties who were really physical in his generation, and Hines should be recognized for that. And so, stats are a component of it, but let's be real – Hines' stats tell a Hall of Fame worthy story as well. But relative to some of the others that you mentioned who have comparable stats, I just wanted to draw a distinction.