Q. You often have talked about the importance of a team entering the playoffs with its arrow pointed up. Is your team's arrow pointed up entering these playoffs?
A. I feel really good about the trajectory of our group and the fact our arrow is pointing up although our record may not reflect it. There have been some significant re-acquisitions here in recent weeks in terms of the guys available to us. I'm excited about guys like Matt Feiler back in the lineup, guys like Robert Spillane back in the lineup, and that's what makes me optimistic about the general trajectory of our group.
Q. Besides the single-elimination element that comes into play, what is different about January football?
A. I think it's just that. That's enough – the win-or-go-home atmosphere associated with the moments, the weight of the moments because of it, the level playing field in terms of teams experiencing some success and knowing how to fight. The intensity of it. The speed of it. The consequences of a singular down is an awesome thing to be a part of.
Q. In your interactions with the whole team this week, how many times did you deliver the message that this is the playoffs, and the importance of the playoffs, and the opportunity presented by the playoffs? Is that a message you hammer home over and over, or is it something you believe the players inherently understand?
A. The thing I talk about is having guys being themselves, but being their best selves. Everyone is aware that this is the playoffs, the fight associated with getting here, the scarcity of the opportunities, and that stuff. We've already been through a 17-week journey to be at this juncture. I spend time when I'm talking to the group collectively about not putting too much weight on these moments, to trust our preparation and the values that we hold and the things we've been talking about since July. I make a conscious effort to make sure that I am constantly repeating core values and repeating messaging that they have heard throughout the journey, because I think that's the biggest indicator in terms of being your best selves. I don't present new things to them. I don't present new challenges. I talk about the same things routinely that I've been talking about all year.
Q. Do you depend on your veteran players who have been through the playoffs to get the message across about the importance and scarcity of these opportunities to the younger guys who haven't been through this before?
A. It doesn't matter where it comes from. It needs to come from all areas, because the bottom line is either you have been in these circumstances and you've won enough that you know, and so you know you know, or you haven't. So one of the messages I've talked to the guys about over the course of the week is: if you've been in enough winning circumstances then you know what these moments require, so you need to display that; and if you haven't been in these moments enough to know what is required, then be man enough to acknowledge that and be man enough to follow those who have. That's been the overall general messaging about the circumstances of where we are and things of that nature. Either you've been there, and if you have then you need to display that experience and we need to call on it and draw from it. And if you haven't, then you need to be man enough to realize it and not talk too much and follow those who have.
Q. Are turnovers less impactful to a team if it also has takeaways in the same game?
A. It depends on what happens after the turnovers. What field position is being presented to the opposing team? How much grass do you have to defend? Turnovers are often defined by what transpires after. If we turn the ball over and the defense comes out and gets a stop, then life goes on and all you've lost is field position. Last week, we turned the ball over and Cleveland went in and scored a touchdown – that's significantly different. Regardless of whether you're losing a possession or gaining a possession, often times a turnover is defined by what happens after it.
Q. If a team's head coach is in the COVID-19 protocol, what are the rules regarding what he's allowed and not allowed to do during the week of preparation and then on game day?
A. The week of preparation, he can do anything but be physically present. I would imagine he's highly involved from a preparation standpoint, be it with players and/or coaches remotely. It's no different than when we're all working remotely. Zoom and things of that nature, all of the technology is at your disposal, it's afforded to him, and I'm sure they called upon it and used it. On game day, due to the rules and regulations governing competitive fairness, there's no use of technology in terms of in-stadium, and so he will have no impact or involvement with game day activities.
Q. What's the league's reasoning behind preventing a coach from communicating with his players during a game via Zoom during this COVID-19 environment?
A. The use of technology is a critical discussion with regard to competitive fairness, and with the growth of technology you have to be more vigilant about protecting that competitive environment in the bowl. When you're not in-stadium, and you have the ability to communicate with people in-stadium, you get the perspective of replay and television and commentary that create an unfair playing field. Not only that, it's your ability to process information in-game. If you have people working outside the bowl, you're capable of doing analytical studies of things that are transpiring in the game, and altering your game plan in that way. It becomes an arms race, and that's something the NFL wants to stay away from in terms of preserving the integrity of the game.
Q. Steelers Nation is in love with how you used Josh Dobbs last weekend in Cleveland as a short-yardage, change-of-pace quarterback. Now with Ben Roethlisberger back, doing that again would require having three quarterbacks on the game day active list. Do you consider three quarterbacks on the game day roster an unnecessary luxury?
A. I wouldn't necessarily call it an unnecessary luxury, but there are some tough decisions you have to make in terms of allocation of helmets, and it goes beyond offense and defense. And really, a lot of the decisions that are made on the fortification of special teams. There are awesome opportunities to sway field position in the special teams phase of the game. Those transitional plays in open grass … over the years I have just found it has been more desirable to allocate people who have an opportunity to swing the field in that space, whether it's designated return men or guys who are capable of absorbing multiple blocks and if you don't block them with multiple people they make the tackle. Those guys have just as much or more of an impact on the game as a third quarterback who may get utilized three or four times. Although those three or four moments may be weighty, chances are you're going to cover a punt or a kickoff more than three or four times in a game, and the value of that unique coverage guy is a difference-maker. And if you have a quality return man, he's going to get more than three or four opportunities to impact the game and get significant chunks of yardage. Over the years, I think that helmet has been better allocated to specialists in that area.
Q. When you're putting together the game day roster, how many players are on it primarily for special teams, besides the specialists themselves – the punter, placekicker, and long-snapper?
A. It depends on the makeup and depth of your group, the versatility of your group. There are always a handful of guys you identify as core special teamers, and their contributions are in that area first and they're offensive and defensive players second. Over the years, the core special teams players are usually defensive guys, but we've had some offensive guys who fit that bill. Arnaz Battle, years ago, a wide receiver. More recently, Darrius Heyward-Bey. Core special teams defenders who are position-capable and provide value on offense or defense, but make no mistake they understand how they feed their families, and that's by what they do on the coverage units.
Q. Is having two placekickers active where one is coming off an injury something you would consider?
A. No. The helmets are too precious. If Chris Boswell is healthy enough to play, he plays. If he's not healthy enough to play, then Matt (Wright) plays, and it's as simple as that.
Q. Looking back on last weekend's game in Cleveland, did your defense hit and harass Baker Mayfield enough?
A. No. As a matter of fact, we let him get out too much. Our rush has to be consistently varsity. We were playing some young guys in there at times, but I don't think we kept him contained enough, particularly on possession downs. There were some third-and-3s where he got out and escaped, and we just have do a good job of not only rushing him but containing him. Not allowing him to extend and create, particularly in those moments.
Q. It's going to be Cam Sutton in the starting lineup today in place of Joe Haden at cornerback. What does Sutton have that lends you to believe he can get that job done?
A. His above-the-neck game is excellent. His attention to detail is excellent. His communication is excellent. And all of those things are helpful in this environment. Forget the plays he makes, just functioning within the collective and bringing something other than play to the collective. There's an awareness there. There's an understanding there. His presence is valued. He's going to make his necessary plays, but he's going to bring some intangible things to the group as well that are comforting as well to those with whom he plays.
Q. How would you evaluate the play of Avery Williamson over the last few weeks of the regular season? And with Robert Spillane back, does Williamson return to the backup role he had before Spillane's injury, or do you see the situation at inside linebacker as more of a three-man rotational thing now?
Q. We've been really appreciative of the contributions of Avery. It has been really spectacular what he has been able to do and bring to us. You just don't run into a guy who has that type of playing experience and productivity in the manner in which we did, and he brought that productivity to us. But we have good issues to deal with now that Robert is back. We have three guys available to us. We'll go into the game with an eye toward playing them all. Avery will be the third. How much he plays and how we divvy those snaps will really be determined as we get into the game, and things such as Robert's effectiveness and level of conditioning and the flow of the game all will be factors in determining that.