Q. When a team is successful on third downs and in the red zone, fans usually are quick to praise the play-calling. Is that how you see it?
A. I think play-calling sets up, or gives you an environment that’s conducive to success, but the execution is what finishes it. You can have great plays called, but if they’re not executed they’re not going to be successful. It’s just how it goes. On successful plays, play-calling is an element of it, but just an element of it. The secondary element of it is the execution of the play, and obviously that’s the most significant. We did some really good things a week ago in Baltimore, but it was because of the execution. We had good concepts drawn up to defeat man-to-man on possession downs, but the consistency with which guys won their matchups and recognized open spaces after is what created the third down percentage.
Q. In a lot of different ways and in different areas, this team has grown and gotten better, but for that to happen you had to be patient enough to allow the growth to take place without making changes, either to personnel or scheme, or both. Is patience a critical attribute for a coach?
A. It is at times. By nature not many of us are patient. It’s a learned skill, and I think that’s one of the things I’m capable or willing to acknowledge is that the longer I’m on the job the better perspective I have of the big picture. And it allows that patience to rise, which allows that development to happen.
Q. Was there anyone in your past who showed you the value of patience as a coach?
A. We’re all products of our football experiences, and whether it’s something that happened to me in terms of gleaning that information directly from a coach, or whether it’s just from things that have happened to me in my football life, you get good guys and you work them and stay singularly focused and generally you’ll end up on the highway. That’s globally our approach here in Pittsburgh. We want to get good quality young men who happen to be good at football and who love it. We’re going to work them, and if we do that chances are we’ll have a chance to be game for any challenges our journey presents us.
Q. You often refer to an NFL season as a moving train. Is it difficult to be patient when the train that is an NFL regular season starts rolling down the track?
A. Sometimes I don’t have a choice. Sometimes you might not like what you’re looking at, but there are no other feasible options. It’s not like my patience is so virtuous. Sometimes it’s just the lack of options that create the patience.
Q. Chris Boswell missed another extra point in Baltimore, and we’re talking about a guy who has won a lot of games for this team with his clutch kicking. Do you view his struggles this season as being just a slump?
A. I do, and I expect him to work his way through it. But along the lines of the discussion we just had – who are the potential replacements for Boz? Anybody who’s out there who is unemployed right now is unemployed for a reason. That guy has put a bunch a balls through uprights and gotten us out of significant stadiums, and recently. I don’t forget that.
Q. Do you deal with kickers differently than other players?
A. I personally don’t. Maybe I should, but I personally don’t. I want everybody on our football team to understand that they have certain obligations to perform, and it’s OK to expect the very best from those in the room. But at the same time, you better be prepared to give your very best, and so from that standpoint, a kicker is no different than a linebacker.
Q. In the game against the Ravens, as Ben Roethlisberger was being attended by the trainers after having the wind knocked out of him, what were the factors you were weighing as you made the decision about whether to be aggressive with Josh Dobbs or to be conservative with Josh Dobbs in that situation?
A. To me it was an easy decision because conventional football tells you we’re going to run a base play, and so I anticipated Baltimore being in a base structural defense and that would allow Dobbs to get a good, clean look at a vertical pass. He will never have a cleaner opportunity to survey a field vertically over the rest of his career than he did on that play. Seemingly it looked like a high-risk endeavor, but when you really think about it, it wasn’t. That was as clean a look as he’ll ever have in his career, because young guys who haven’t thrown an NFL regular season pass, they come into the game and they hand the ball off. That’s the calculated risk you take when you’re in Baltimore, Maryland, and you’re trying to win a football game.
Q. Is that kind of a decision made right then, or is it something you’d already thought through?
A. No, given enough time, you’d probably have him hand that ball off.
Q. We’ve talked about RPOs before – run-pass option plays. Is that what Carolina does, or is it zone-read?
A. It’s some RPO football, and some of it is zone-read. Some of it is run-run option zone-read, and some of it is run-pass option zone read, and that’s what makes them so difficult to defend. Cam Newton will kill you with his arm, he’ll kill you with his legs. He’s an all-situation type athlete, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re 6-2. That’s one of the reasons why they’re ringing up the scoreboard on people in the manner in which they’re ringing it up. You have to pick your poison with him, and the reality of it is you’re not going to be able to stop all elements of play regarding him, but you can prioritize the elements of play and situationally minimize certain aspects of it. That’s the chess match for us as we step into the stadium tonight. We can’t stop all elements of his game at all times, but we can minimize certain elements, and we better be good at deciphering when that’s appropriate.
Q. For fans watching the game, what’s the difference between RPO football and zone-read?
A. The receivers. Are the receivers running routes, or are the receivers blocking. Essentially, if they’re blocking, it’s run-run option; if they’re running routes, then it’s run-pass option.
Q. Back in the day when college teams ran the wishbone, one of the ways to stop it was supposedly to make the quarterback keep the ball. Is that similar to the strategy here?
A. The Panthers have a dangerous running back in Christian McCaffrey, and so that is an element of the cat-and-mouse game. In certain situations, your preference would be that you want McCaffrey to handle the ball if you have a choice, and in other situations you may want Cam Newton to handle the ball. When you’re trying to work to minimize their impacts on the game you have to weigh those things and weigh who you want to minimize in certain situations. It is very much the same discussion that you had 30-40 years ago in defending the triple option. Who do you want running the ball that day?
Q. Once you decide who you want running the ball, who are your key guys in making that happen?
A. That’s one of the beautiful things about a 3-4 defense – the flexibility in it, the number of people on their feet, and the number of guys you can move around. The critical guys in terms of deciding who is handling the ball for them are those four linebackers. Those edge linebackers in Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt, and those interior linebackers in Vince Williams and Jon Bostic. And then as we morph into sub-package football, those perimeter players like Mike Hilton and Terrell Edmunds.
Q. On designed runs by Newton on those kinds of plays, is he afforded any protection under the rules for making contact with quarterbacks?
A. He is not protected by the rules from a pocket passer standpoint. He’s a runner, and so he’s afforded the normal protection any runner is afforded. No special consideration because of the position he plays.