Labriola On

Tomlin on Levi, finger-pointing, 'being blocked'

Q. What is offensive identity, and is it different than an offense being predictable?
A. You know, identity is about the high-volume things. The places you hang your hat, your base core runs, the corresponding play-action passes, the things that you do routinely in situational circumstances. So, it's always high-volume things, and usually it's centered around critical players and their talents and doing things that highlight those skill sets. That's what you mean when you talk about identity, whether it's offensive identity or defensive identity. We're a 3-4 (defensive) team. We value outside linebacker play. Our core blitz is both outside linebackers, just as it has been going back to Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd.

Q. Is it necessary for an offense to have an identity in order to be successful?
A. Obviously, there are some positive components to it. You got good players and the things that they do routinely. The more you do it, the more you understand it, the more consistent it becomes. Forget the splash plays, I'm talking about the floor. You eliminate negativity. There's also advantages of discovering your identity, whether it's new players or new staffing, so you're less predictable. You're more of an open book in terms of the things that people have to minimize down in and down out. So obviously, there's some positive advantages of having an identity. There are also probably some unseen advantages for being in development in that area.

Q. One of the issues in the game against the Browns was their ability to convert on third downs, particularly in the second half, and you described those situations as "third-and-manageable." What does a defense have to do to prevent the opposing offense from consistently being in third-and-manageable?
A. You gotta win first and second downs, and specifically I think for us, an area we've been focusing on is second-and-7-plus or "second-and-long." Too many times in those instances, they got back to third-and-manageable, and when you've got people behind the chains, you have to work hard to keep them behind the chains. First-and-10 gets a lot of attention, and third downs get a lot of attention. Oftentimes your placement on those third downs, or your positioning on those third downs, is dependent upon the quality of your play on second down. And so, we placed a lot of emphasis on that down this week in an effort to better position ourselves to win the possession downs.

Q. Once upon a time, the job of a nose tackle was to occupy blockers, eat up space, be difficult to move. For the Steelers, the guys who did that best were Casey Hampton and before him, Joel Steed. What is the job of a nose tackle these days?
A. You know, they have to be more versatile. They have to be more rush capable. There are fewer opportunities for them to impact the game, and so when they have a skill set outside of what you described, then it adds value to their cause and to ours. If you're talking about today's nose guard, he has to have a versatile skill set to make himself more useful because there are just fewer opportunities. But the same thing can be said for today's offensive fullback. Twenty years ago, they had a certain job description, and we all knew what it was. Well today's offensive fullback has to be a core special teams player and a capable tackler and things of that nature, because there are fewer opportunities for them to impact the game. And so, whether you're talking about a nose guard, or you're talking about a fullback, it's really a very similar discussion in terms of how today's game is evolving. And their roles, their day job roles are being diminished and they have to have additional skill sets to add value to their cause and to the team's cause.

Q. How does a nose tackle eating up space make it difficult to run the ball?
A. You know, everybody once had a fullback, and they ran the ball 35 or 45 times a game and so that guy had opportunities. It's not that what's going on is different, it's just the volume, or the lack of volume, in those circumstances. Two-back runs, when I came into this league, you'd probably get 20-to-25 of them a weekend. In today's game, you get less than five. A lot of teams, like the team we're playing this weekend, don't even have a fullback on the roster. Therein lies the nose guard's ability to affect the game in terms of the traditional things that you talk about when you talk about the position. That's why they've got to have other skill sets and be viable in other components of the game.

Q. Ahkello Witherspoon was ruled out of today's game, and one of the guys in the mix to replace him is Levi Wallace. What attracted you to him during the unrestricted free agency period this past offseason?
A. The same things that attracted me to him in the draft. That's how we play free agency. We're a team that builds our organization primarily through the draft. We do the research there, whether it's measuring players' tangible qualities or their intangible qualities. He had a lot of things that were really attractive about him when he came out of Alabama. Obviously, we were down in Tuscaloosa looking at Minkah Fitzpatrick and others, and so we were highly familiar with him. And so, it's kind of a short meeting when he hit free agency. We played Buffalo quite a bit when he was up there, so we've been able to track and follow his growth and development. Really a very quick discussion and study because of the background that we'd laid in draft prep.

Q. But what did you like about Wallace back during the draft preparation?
A. Great above-the-neck game. Great communicator. He has really good intangible qualities. Good at the ball. He's long. Think about it – he walked-on at Alabama. I mean, you know how tough that is for a walk-on in an environment like that? That guy was a walk-on who became a starter and played in front of five-star recruits at Alabama. It just doesn't happen. I can't think of another Alabama walk-on who ascended like that. Now he's not your normal walk-on obviously. He's playing in the National Football League. But man, you're talking about some tough waters to navigate. Being a walk-on in a program like that? Stepping into a camp situation where you've probably got 125 guys out there. You're probably on the fourth practice field. You're probably so far away from significant reps that you've got to have a tremendous mindset to kind of push through those things. And I think those are the things that made him attractive, not only to us, but to everybody who did their homework.

Q. Heading into today's game, the team is 1-2 and on a two-game losing streak. Why do you think this group has not resorted to finger-pointing, or a passive-aggressive style of criticizing their teammates and maybe even the coaches?
A. I hadn't spent a whole lot of time worrying about that component. I don't coach from that perspective. I talk about the things that we should do, the approaches we should take. You can stand in front of a group and say, "don't do this; don't do that," and talk in that spirit. I tend to instruct and teach and talk about the best ways to handle adversity individually and collectively. I point out quality examples of what we value. I ask guys who have been here to live it and show the new guys what it is we mean, because it's less about what we say and more about what we do or how we conduct ourselves. And so, I know that new players, young players, they're watching guys like me, they're watching guys like Cam Heyward and guys who have been around here. And so, it's important that we say the right things and provide the right perspective, and sometimes that's just talking in a certain way, talking about what to do as opposed to what not to do. And so that's something that I do intentionally. We have to live out the things that come out of our mouths. We don't spend a lot of time worrying and talking about that. We spend our time and energy focusing on doing the job, and the job is winning. But we understand that the approach to the job is important in certain professionalism things from a culture standpoint we value. We've got to educate the new guys, and we don't run away from that either.

Q. But the fact the new guys are willing to be educated must say something good about them, right?
A. I don't know that we give them a choice. We've got some quality leaders, guys like Cam, who lead with a strong hand at times, and appropriately so. A lot of these new guys are young guys, and so we're not necessarily here to provide options. We're here to instruct, to teach, and it's their job to learn and to learn quickly. And we're really transparent about that.

Q. Once after a game, and it was a win, Chuck Noll was asked why he had made an in-game personnel change along the defensive line, and Noll's answer was, "Because he was being blocked." How does a defensive player prevent himself from "being blocked?"
A. I love that, by the way. I love the Coach Noll nuggets. It's like my high school coach said, "Every man get a man, and every good man get two," and what he meant by that was if one guy is blocking you, shed that block and make a tackle in your required space. Quality defenders can't be blocked by one man. And if you're blocked by two, then you hold your ground and you understand that some quality things are going on around you. I just think there are certain components to this game that are really simple, and oftentimes we overcomplicate them, and I try not to. I remember the lessons of guys like Coach Noll and the man who coached me in high school because they resonate, they're timeless. If you're being blocked by one guy, you come off that block and you make appropriate tackles. That is football. If you're blocked by one guy, you're not gonna be on the field long, or you're not gonna be a good defense. And that's just football. And not only at the National Football League level, but at any level.

Q. So is the act of not being blocked more of a physical thing or a mindset thing?
A. Both. Obviously physical talent is a component of it. The ability to create space and separation on contact to get people off you, to have strong hands to shed blocks, to have vision and awareness in terms of ball location and things of that nature. But it's also just some intangible quality. It's a spirit. It's a mindset. And you know it when you see it.

Q. When you were asked about the offense utilizing all areas of the field, you said, "I like to think that we are from an intention standpoint, but it doesn't always play out that way for a myriad of reasons." What are some of the myriads of reasons?
A. Some of the things are determined by us; some of the things are determined by game circumstance; some of the things are determined by schematics that our opponents employ. If you're looking at a two-high safety defense, or umbrella defense – and this defense we play today has a lot of that in passing circumstances – then it's going to be very difficult to throw the ball over top of them, and that's just the reality of it. Schematics play a role in it. Circumstances in terms of the things that you value play a role in it. The key thing is that you're continually as an offense, in my opinion, making sure that the defense defends the vertical components of the field and the horizontal components of the field, and that they respect it. As long as that's happening, then you can do whatever it is that you choose to do. It's just when the defensive unit is disrespecting the vertical field and playing in a closet or disrespecting the horizontal field and playing in a closet, that you better do things to make them respect that space to provide more space for playmaking, for individual one-on-ones and so forth. Oftentimes a back can win vs. an unblocked defender in the hole, but it's the second defender who's close by who makes it a non-factor. When you spread people out and create more space and do things that create more space, it highlights some of those individual matchups within a 22-man field, and that's why it's significant in my opinion.

Q. The Jets made Sauce Gardner the fourth overall pick of the 2022 NFL Draft. What qualities does a cornerback need to be picked that high in an NFL Draft?
A. There's a physical skillset, and he has it, He's long. He's fast. He's got good instincts, and hand-eye and body control. But there's an intangible quality, too, or a spirit. He has a can-do attitude. When the ball is in the air, he thinks it's his, and his natural inclination is to catch it as opposed to knock it down. And usually that's what comes with those top-notch guys – the mentality component along with the physical traits.

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