Q. I’d like to start today by talking about L.J. Fort. You often use the phrase “football justice” to describe certain events. Explain what that means, and is Fort an example of that?
A. Football justice is a description of guys seemingly rising up or coming out of nowhere and making quality plays, or making a splash, seizing the moment. It appears that way to the fan, but the reality of it is these guys work long and hard, and in many cases they work long and hard for years for those kinds of opportunities. So we’re never surprised when they play really well when given an opportunity, and Fort is an example of that. We were down at linebacker a week ago, and he was given an opportunity. This guy has played good football for us. He has been a core special teams contributor here. So he has been here a number of years, he has been working and waiting for that opportunity, and when it came he delivered big, quality plays for us.
Q. Fort has been with six teams over a seven-year span that started in 2012 when he entered the league as an undrafted rookie, and he’s listed as a fourth-year pro. All of that means this guy has bounced around a lot. What does he have that has had so many teams take a flyer on him, and what does he lack that has prevented him from sticking with a team?
A. He has been a consistent, above the line special teams contributor since he has been with us, and I think that’s what is attractive to people. He’s somewhat undersized. We utilized him in a sub-package specifically a week ago, and that’s probably his home. But when you start talking about his linebacker abilities, he’s probably a scheme specific player, like a lot of players. Some linebackers are run-down players because they’re 255 pounds and that makes them very scheme specific. Some guys are pass-down or sub-package linebackers and core special-teamers, because they weigh in the low 220s. That probably has got a lot to do with it, but I know his special teams abilities and contributions have consistently been above the line.
Q. If I would say that last Sunday was the defense’s best performance of the season, would you agree with that?
A. I thought the game in Cleveland was really solid from a defensive standpoint. We turned the ball over six times in Cleveland and tied that football game. Often times you measure the quality of play by result, as you should. And we tied that football game, and so there’s not a lot to be excited about, but we were minus-5 in that game in the turnover margin and tied that football game. Those of us within this space understand that’s usually a pretty solid defensive performance.
Q. The defense currently leads the NFL with 19 sacks, and you’re often asked whether the team blitzed more in a certain game. What constitutes a blitz?
A. More than four is the general definition of a blitz. There’s generally, in NFL terms or in football terms, four people designated on any down as a usual pass rush. Anybody employed to give you more than four, you start getting into the pressure world.
Q. You also hear sometimes that a blitz can be defined by the positions played by the players who rush the passer. Is that not considered a blitz?
A. In today’s NFL, there’s a world that we call bogus pressure. You can bring a linebacker and drop a defensive lineman into coverage, and that can still be a four-man rush. Some people describe that as pressure, some people describe that as bogus pressure. It’s debatable how that’s described. I’m talking in universal terms. When you employ more than four rush-men, everybody will agree that’s a pressure.
Q. Last week, you matched Joe Haden against Julio Jones, and the strategy was very effective. What makes Haden good at that?
A. He’s a competitor. It’s not an assignment that’s exciting. Julio is a big-time player, but it is exciting to the ultra-competitive person. Joe is that. He has been that. I have watched it on the opposing sideline over the years, whether it was him matching up with the likes of Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, he’s always been a guy who has been game for that, and that was one of the reasons why we were really excited about acquiring him.
Q. Are there certain physical skills you’re looking for from a cornerback you want to do that with?
A. It’s mentality more than anything else. His physical skills are his physical skills. A cornerback who is 5-foot-9 has an advantage when matching up with shorter guys who are quick. He realizes he has issues when he’s playing against some receiver who is 6-4, because he has been 5-9 all his professional life, whomever that hypothetical cornerback may be. So it’s not anything relative to his physical skills. Whatever his skills are, he’s used to adapting those to the challenges of the day, whatever the skill-set of the guy he’s going against has. The defining thing is mentality.
Q. When you’re making up the list of inactive players for a particular game, and you decide one of the six defensive linemen, or one of the six wide receivers is going to be inactive. If everyone is healthy, what goes into deciding which guy at a particular position is inactive?
A. The guy who is least useful, but it’s never a positional decision. It’s really the global decisions based on who are the least useful guys to our football team. Week in and week out, some of it is decided for you. Who’s available or unavailable because of injury. And then you add additional names to that list based on who is least useful in terms of us winning a football game. Different weeks it might be different things. Some weeks I might be comfortable dressing seven offensive linemen. Some weeks I might feel like I need eight offensive linemen. Some weeks I may dress five defensive linemen, and some weeks I may feel like I need six because of game circumstances – weather, temperature, potential injury of guys who are scheduled to play. There are myriad examples of reasons why, but it all boils down to usefulness. The most useful guys play. The least useful guys don’t.
Q. Last season, Daniel McCullers typically was the defensive lineman who was inactive on game days. Recently it has been L.T. Walton. What has McCullers done to elevate himself onto the game day roster?
A. He’s been more useful. He’s been more effective since preseason play, and his position within the group has changed because of it. He has ascended within the group. It’s very black-and-white.
Q. Speaking of McCullers specifically, what does “useful” entail?
A. He has found a way to utilize his skill-sets in more than one area. When we drafted him, he was primarily a nose tackle who was a run player only. A phone booth player, if you will. He has found a way to make himself more useful in the passing game. He has added a little flexibility to his game in terms of the amount of space he can play in, in terms of improving his level of conditioning. And he has been an impact player in the special teams game because of his kick-blocking abilities. He has done a lot of things to add to his usefulness that has changed his position within the group.
Q. On the blocked punt by Rosie Nix: is that something that was a called play right before that punt, or is it a situation of a veteran guy seeing something from the opponent that he believed could be taken advantage of and then just reacting and making a play?
A. It’s a called play before the punt, always. Based on what they do, what we do, and the physical matchups within that discussion. Sometimes it might be something that a team does schematically that gives us an inclination that we’re capable of blocking a punt. Sometimes it just may be something as simple as we want to get Rosie Nix on that particular person. And sometimes, usually when they’re successful, it’s a combination of the discussion we just had.
Q. When you send the punt return team out onto the field, do the same guys rush all of the time?
A. No. It’s situational. We may choose to rush, we may choose to rush off an edge, we may choose to rush off the interior, we may choose to rush off both edges. We may choose to set up a return. That element of the game is structured just like an offensive football play in that we have a number of choices in the ways that we can choose to attack them. And we do. And rush and return is no different than the decisions an offensive play-caller makes in terms of whether he chooses to attack you via the run or the pass. There are a lot of variables there, a number of options: situationally, personnel, game circumstances weigh into all of those things. Those special teams plays are called no differently than offensive or defensive structured plays.
Q. That’s the second blocked kick already this season, with T.J. Watt getting a hand on that field goal attempt in Cleveland to preserve the tie. Can blocking kicks be practiced?
A. Most certainly. We pride ourselves in it. We have a desire to be the No. 1 kick blocking unit in football, but that is not a new agenda for us. I believe we led the league in blocks last year, both field goals and punts. And that stable special teams group I’ve been talking about – Rosie Nix, Tyler Matakevich, and others have been central to that. And that’s why we have that level of expectation, because we have that type of continuity in our core special teams guys and they’ve shown attributes in that area.
Q. Can you create in practice what the potential kick-blockers are going to see during the game?
A. Absolutely. We do it every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday in game preparation. It’s done off cards, just like the opponents’ offensive or defensive plays. Exactly the same.
Q. Ryan Shazier made the trip to Cincinnati with the team, and he actually visited the hospital where he was treated after he injured his spine last December to talk to and thank the staff there for everything they did for him. Coming back to the site of his injury, is that a part of his recovery, too?
A. I think there are so many things that happen in his daily life that are part of his recovery. Things that either remind him of where he is or remind him of the ground that he has covered. So, it will be emotional in some ways, but we have had a lot of those moments. I happened to be walking up the hallway inside Heinz Field the first time we played a home game there this season. For him to be able to walk that hallway was special for him, but also for him to be walking that hallway and not walking into that locker room to put on his equipment to play for us was an issue for him. There is a lot of that. Ryan is a special guy. We don’t hide from it. We walk that journey with him. We appreciate him allowing us to do so.