Labriola On

Tomlin on Minkah, motivation, RPOs

Q. You have made your feelings on the subject of the surprise bye very clear, that being nothing associated with the unexpected weekend off and subsequent rescheduling of the game in Tennessee would be used as an excuse. During this past week, a couple of your players, starting with Ben Roethlisberger, voiced their thoughts and while nothing said was inflammatory or accusatory, the basic point was that the Steelers got the short end of the stick. Could this end up being a motivational tool for your team?
A. I'd rather it be a motivational tool than an excuse or a crutch, so I'm not going to fight or resist that. That is their perspective and opinion, and if properly directed it could be an asset to us. They are right – we are inconvenienced by this through no fault of our own. So it's natural human nature to feel a certain way about it, but we will not allow it to be an excuse, we will not seek comfort in it. Whatever the schedule dictates who we play, where we play, when we play we're game for that because we're competitors and we're professionals.

Q. Are things like that – getting the short end of a decision, disrespect from an opponent, trash talk, things generally described as "bulletin Board material" – capable of motivating a team of professional football players?
A. They're not the substance of motivation, but they're nice little side pieces. We're humans, and we have human emotions. So that's an element of play – you often hear me say that this is an emotional game played by competitive, emotional men, and so you'd be remiss if you didn't acknowledge that's a potential component of it. But it is not the meat of the subject. You have to be motivated intrinsically. It's got to come from within, it's got to be the chase, it's got to be the collective goals we set for ourself at the beginning of this journey.

Q, How would you evaluate the play of Minkah Fitzpatrick so far in his second season with the Steelers?
A. Minkah has been great. He's just as significant as he was a year ago. He's not getting the splash plays, but those come in cycles in this game, particularly when you're working with a good unit of players where several guys are making splash plays. You could say the same thing about Devin Bush, and Devin Bush is playing really good football, but he doesn't have the splash plays, the turnovers and the things he had at the early portion of the season a year ago, which was about the same time Minkah was making those plays. This year we have guys like Vince Williams and Mike Hilton who are two guys to this point who have really ascended and provided some splash for us. We make that point to our group: it is a collective effort, and over the course of 16 games, the cream will rise and the great players will have an opportunity to make splash and prove their greatness and be guys we can count upon. And make no mistake, Minkah and guys like Devin Bush are included in that group, whether or not they have the splash to this point or not.

Q. How has Minkah Fitzpatrick been significant this season?
A. He's a hub of communication. He ties all of our things together. When you pressure the passer as much as we do, that puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on the secondary people. And as the quarterback of the secondary, he ties it all together and keeps a lid on it and does a really good job of it, and he plays the cat-and-mouse game with the quarterback as well in terms of showing him different pre-snap and post-snap looks that aid us in dictating where the ball goes or does not go. And there is no stat for those things I mentioned, but they're very significant in terms of waging the intellectual war with opposing quarterbacks.

Q. One of the critical plays in your victory over Houston was the fourth-and-1 conversion late in the fourth quarter that came on a quick pass to Chase Claypool. The play generally is described as an RPO, which stands for "run pass option." Can you explain what that means?
A. RPOs provide an opportunity for you to get out of a potential bad play if the defense is overplaying the run. That's why it's called RPO: it's run or pass option, but the run element of it is first. Generally you're committed to the run play unless you see a certain look from the defense that puts you in a disadvantage situation, and then you have an outlet via the pass to level the playing field. And usually when the defense overloads the box, it creates certain one-on-ones, and that's what you saw on the play to Chase. They loaded the box, and we threw the ball out to Chase, and he was able to win the one-on-one vs. the cornerback who was in off-coverage.

Q. When is the option exercised – in the huddle, at the line scrimmage before the snap, after the snap – and does everybody know the play was changed?
A. Just the people who need to know. Everyone else is executing the run, and that's why it's a run or pass option. The quarterback has an opportunity based on what he sees prior to the snap or at the snap to make a decision. It's going to happen in one of those two categories. The things that happen after the snap, there's not enough time for judgment.

Q. So it's different than an audible?
A. Very much so. No communication at the line of scrimmage needed.

Q. Today's game against the Eagles will bring your former nose tackle – Javon Hargrave – back to Heinz Field. When he left as an unrestricted free agent last March, did you know what you had in Tyson Alualu as a potential replacement at nose tackle?
A. I knew we had a low maintenance veteran with a high floor. By that I mean, I knew we had a guy who could meet the expectations of the job with very little coaching or effort. He's been in this thing a long time. I am somewhat surprised by the amount of splash and the amount of one-on-one wins he has had to this point, particularly in the passing game in terms of his ability to rush the passer. It has been a pleasant surprise, and it has been helpful to our cause.

Q. How is nose tackle different for Alualu compared to the position he used to play on the defensive line?
A. Today's nose tackle, I don't know that it's tremendously different. That is a position that is continually evolving in today's game, and we're evolving with it in terms of some of the things we're asking the position to do. That's probably one of the reasons why he's having some success. It's not necessarily that he is changing, but maybe the requirements of the job and the things we're asking a nose guard to do are evolving more into his wheelhouse.

Q. The Eagles' starting left tackle is Jordan Mailata, who played Rugby League in Australia and never had played football until invited to try out for the NFL's International Pathway Program. The Steelers had a former rugby player named Christian Scotland-Williamson who also was part of the International Pathway Program. What makes the transition from rugby to football so difficult?
A. Just lack of familiarity with the game, and the little nuances of the game that we all know and have known since we were very young and can't even remember how or when we learned them. It becomes second nature when you grow up around American football and you've grown up in this culture and this country. When you've grown up abroad, American football is foreign, and it's just that: it's foreign. The one thing I'll say about Jordan Mailata is that he's even different among that group. Those guys came through a program, and we all were aware of them and their talents and they documented their pedigree and we all were going to get an opportunity to maybe sign some of those guys, and those guys were going to be allocated the way Christian was allocated to us. This guy proved very early in the process that his skill level, his pedigree was on a different level. We discovered that. We brought him in on a pre-draft visit and spent a day or so with him in an effort to get to know what the learning process might be for him because he was different. Philadelphia proved that because they drafted him, and he's the only one out of that program who was drafted. The prospects of where he is is probably a little bit different than some of those other guys, and it really just speaks to the unique talent he has.

Q. With rugby and football, are the necessary skill-sets different?
A. I think the general combative nature, the willingness to combat others in a physical way, the willingness to have physical contact at uncomfortable speeds and uncomfortable distances – those are characteristics you can draw from and relate to, but the games themselves in terms of the nuances and particularly as it pertains to playing at an acceptable professional level in either of the sports are very different.

Q. What had your team shown you through this whole process and to this point in the regular season?
A. They've shown me they like to play football. They've shown me that they're competitors. And that's a great place to begin, but I don't know that we know much more than that from a global trajectory standpoint. We haven't been in enough circumstances or particularly sticky situations. It was good to be in the kind of game we were in against the Houston Texans with a quarterback as dynamic as Deshaun Watson and be down at halftime and have to make some adjustments and circle the wagons and be challenged and have hardcore conversations with one another. That was growth for us, but we're still evolving very much like everybody else is in the NFL, and it's good to do that while you're undefeated.

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