Labriola On

Tomlin on Minkah, identity, Mr. Donald

Q. One of the decisions you had to make this week involved what to do with two players who had been on injured reserve – Diontae Johnson and Anthony McFarland – and who had their 21-day clocks started because they returned to practice. One of the things you said you would weigh in deciding whether they would play today would be their conditioning. What were you looking to see in the area of their conditioning?
A. There's health and then there's football readiness, and sometimes we can think that they're one and the same, but they're not. The start of the 21-day window indicates that they're healthy, and that is the reason the 21-day window exists – so that there is an allotted amount of time between what we designate as health and then football readiness. Some guys as soon as they gain their health, they're ready. If you have an upper body injury for example, you might have spent the entire time that you were on the injured reserve list running, and so it's less of an issue. But particularly for guys with lower-body issues, sometimes health and football readiness are not the same discussion. That's why the 21-day window exists. That's why we make decisions within that 21-day window in a differing fashion. Sometimes guys are ready, and sometimes guys aren't.

Q. One of the things you said you and your staff did during the bye was study trends in the game. How can what you learned help you moving forward?
A. A level of anticipation. You can see around corners when you step outside yourself for a while, and you just see things that are going on in the game. Then you can ponder them, you can take an extended period of time to think about them. What would we do to combat this? Or do we want to participate in this in some form or fashion, whatever the trend may be, before it ends up at your front door and you've got to make a timely decision. And so I love to stay connected to the game. Each and every week I try to watch the touchdowns, the turnovers, the defensive touchdowns, the special teams blocks (from around the league). And just with technology and things being at our fingertips today from a video perspective, I try to stay really connected with interesting and ongoing things in our game in an effort to decide if we want to partake or accelerate our readiness.

Q. How does a receiver who can get himself open with his route-running help his quarterback?
A. Separation. The more separation you have the less pinpoint accuracy is a variable in the completion. So the significant route-runners, the guys who can create space at breakpoints, guys who can get open both vertically and non-vertically, they're a big assist to the quarterback because the accuracy component of it is lessened.

Q. What can that kind of receiver provide for the offense schematically that other receivers cannot?
A. You know, I don't know that they provide anything schematically different. You tell somebody to run a curl, they run the curl. But I think the significant difference in high end route-runners is the space created and thus the potential for the big play after the catch, or the less emphasis or requirement on quarterback accuracy.

Q. Whenever you're asked about Kenny Pickett's attributes for the quarterback position, you mention that's he's a competitor. How and where does that reveal itself in non-game situations?
A. I don't know that it reveals itself in non-game circumstances to the naked eye, anything that's worth mentioning. But when you see it, you know it. I didn't have to wait until he got here to see it. The close proximity to Pitt allowed me to see it in instances when he did what he needed to do over there. It's just a guy who continually and consistently rises up in weighty moments when things get thick, as opposed to shrinking.

Q. When the subject of team identity comes up, what does that term mean to you?
A. It just means boxing yourself in. I don't know why in today's game would you talk openly in detail about your identity. All you're doing is teeing up your intentions for your opponent. I understand the traditional component of the question, but it is somewhat of a misnomer in today's game. Guys like me are hesitant to answer in that truth, because it seems like I'm avoiding the question, but the reality is when people openly talk about their identity in 2023 it's really making the sledding difficult for themselves. You better be multiple, you better be willing to take what structurally is given to you, or what matchups provide you. I think that's the component of today's game. The myriad of personnel changes on both sides of the ball, the specialization in our game, and the matchup components trying to get significant players in ideal circumstances really permeate the strategic component of our game today. And it's less about "this is how we do business."

Q. So OK, whether you talk about it openly or not, is it important for a team to have an identity?
A. Certainly. There are identities. This is what we do in this circumstance. This is what we do in that circumstance. But it's not the global identity that I think is meant when the question is asked by today's media.

Q. Today's opponent is the Los Angeles Rams. What are the characteristics of a Sean McVay-coached team?
A. They're going to be multiple. They will work to stay a step ahead. They're going to have great balance in terms of their schematics, meaning run game married with play-action pass and misdirection game. They're going to have a rhythm passing game that's going to work to keep your rush off-balance. I think their screens complement that agenda. And they're also capable of stretching the vertical field. Sean does a good job of establishing balance in those areas, and making you defend all aspects of the field both vertically and horizontally.

Q. Raheem Morris is the Rams defensive coordinator, you worked with him on the Tampa Bay staff from 2002-05, and he was the assistant defensive backs coach in 2004-05 there when you were the defensive backs coach. What was he like back then?
A. I claimed him on my taxes. (Laughs) No, man, I have had the pleasure of working with some quality guys. He was an assistant who worked with me in the secondary. Joe Woods, who's now in New Orleans as a defensive coordinator, formerly with the Cleveland Browns (was another). We were young guys. We worked hard. We challenged one another, and we challenged the players. We were fortunate enough to be around some great players, Hall of Fame guys like John Lynch and Ronde Barber, and when you're a young coach and you're in environments like that, it's just a great platform for growth, of understanding what excellence is, what dominant play and players look like. Obviously, we all won a Super Bowl together down there, and so that changes you forever in terms of your outlook and perspective on what it is that you do. He's a quality coach. He was a quality coach then. We had a lot of fun, and we grew and grew together.

Q. In talking about his Rams defense, you said he utilizes fire zones and bogus pressures. What are bogus pressures?
A. Seemingly like you're bringing more than four people, but you're not. And so it might be three down linemen and a DB, and you drop a D-lineman into coverage. So instead of a traditional 4-man rush, it is a bogus 4-man rush. It has the appearance of a blitz, but it's still only four people. It's a nice, awesome wrinkle. We do it. A lot of people do it, but the quality and detail in which they do it is really challenging.

Q. In the 4 of his 6 NFL seasons that weren't ruined by injuries, Cooper Kupp averaged 98 catches for 1,238 yards and 9 touchdowns. What makes him so effective?
A. It's that route-running component that we were talking about earlier. His ability to full-speed cut and create separation at break-points and thus lessen the importance of accuracy, and create opportunities for run-after-catch. He is a full-speed cutter. He is an elite route-runner, and he creates space when he sticks his foot in the ground, and that's why he produces the consistent level of production that you mentioned.

Q. We don't see the Rams that often during the regular season. Who would you compare Cooper Kupp to as a receiver?
A. I don't know that there is anybody right now who kind of jumps out at me. You know, he might be the quintessential interior dude who's creating space right now, to be quite honest with you, who are doing it at that level of consistency and production. But when I think about him, that's what I think about him. I think about a guy who creates space when he sticks his foot in the ground. It's quarterback friendly.

Q. When you were asked about Minkah Fitzpatrick earlier in the week, one of the things you said was, "We expect him to be Minkah no matter where we utilize him." What does being Minkah look like?
A. I think you know what that means – like a first-team All-Pro. He's been here, whatever 4 or 5 years, and I think all but one year he's been first-team All-Pro. So that's what I'm talking about. A dominant player who's capable of impacting the game in a big way. You know, I don't run away from expectations that we place on great players. It is a big-time responsibility to be a big-time player. It's also a big-time responsibility to coach a big-time player. Sometimes we think we're coaching when we get a "C" player to play at a "B" level. No, sir. You're coaching when "A" players show up consistently playing at an "A" level. You've got to coach those guys, and that's what I mean when I talk about it. There's an expectation there. There's an expectation that he doesn't run away from. There's an expectation that I don't run away from as someone who coaches him. I expect him to be Minkah.

Q. OK, for somebody like me who's watching him as an observer, besides looking at the statistics – interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, those kinds of numbers – what else makes him special? How else can a player at his position impact the game?
A. The fluidity in his movement in play. You know, the great players, particularly the ones who play in space, they close distances, and so there's an intuition there that is on display. There's an anticipation that's on display. There are physical skills in terms of closing space that are on display. Oftentimes, they appear to be moving faster than others, or they see things before others do. That's the feel that you get from a naked eye perspective. Sometimes they've just got unbelievable athletic talent, and the burst is what you see. Sometimes they've got really good vision and feel in anticipation for the game. A guy like Troy had both, and that's why oftentimes when you watched Polamalu, man, he appeared to be the fastest guy on the field. He was (the fastest guy on the field), but there also was the anticipation component, the courage of his convictions in terms of anticipation, and the willingness to act on it. There's a lot of people who can anticipate a quarterback sneak and watch a play-clock run down, but who can run at the line of scrimmage from 12 yards away and go airborne right before the snap and do things like that? That's what I'm talking about.

Q. What is the No. 1 thing an offense has to know or do in the effort to deal with Aaron Donald?
A. You've got to put four hands on him as much as possible. Guys like him, and we're talking about great players, if you put together a highlight reel of Aaron Donald's career sacks, I guarantee you on 75 percent of them he's double-teamed. And so don't act like putting two people on him is some unique strategy that's going to be the winning edge this week. No, you put two people on him as much as you absolutely can, and you remain urgent, because he sees two (blockers) every week. They all do. Von Miller does. T.J. Watt does. The Bosa brothers. The elite rushers, the dominant players. I think that's a mistake oftentimes that's made by strategy people and by those who play, thinking that four hands is enough, or that that is getting the job done. You know, T.J. gets four hands on him down in and down out, and just about every other week, he's gonna end up with multiple sacks and make significant plays that determine the outcome of the game. That's what makes those guys who they are, and obviously Aaron Donald needs no endorsement from me. He's a 3-time Defensive Player of the Year, a 7-time first-team All-Pro. You better put four hands on him. And those four hands on him better have a high degree of urgency.

Q. Mr. Donald?
A. Mr. Donald!