Tomlin on penalties, rotating CBs, Ravens rivalry

Q. I’d like to start by addressing a couple of issues you brought up during your news conference last Tuesday. The first has to do with penalties. You acknowledged the team has to play cleaner and smarter, so how was that handled during this week of preparation?
A. It’s just bringing a light to what produces the penalties, and usually it’s poor technique and/or lack of awareness, specifically a lack of situational awareness. So not only do we work at the fundamental elements of ball that produce the penalty, for example we had a facemask penalty from the kickoff coverage unit and really it was just poor tackling technique, a situation of not coming to balance in terms of keeping your feet underneath you, for example. Some of the things are very fundamental, some of them are awareness and situationally related, and so you just bring those points up as you prepare for situations while you’re rolling through situations as you prepare throughout the week.

Q. You mentioned a lack of situational awareness as being a cause of penalties. What does that mean?
A. If you get a pre-snap penalty on a third-down play, and you know that people work the cadence in an effort either to improve their third-down positioning or gain a free set of downs, you lack situational awareness. If you have knowledge of where a kick is going in the return game, but you can’t keep your hands inside the framework of the body in regards to that block even though you know where the ball is going, then you lack certain awareness that produces some penalties. And so some penalties are very fundamental, in terms of the techniques that are employed, and some penalties are produced because a lack of awareness puts people in harms way fundamentally.

Q. Let me identify a couple of kinds of penalties: offensive holding and defensive pass interference. What are the typical causes of those?
A. Most of the time it’s technical, but sometimes it’s a lack of situational awareness. What I mean is an offensive lineman could get a holding call on a stunt and he could’ve had some physical indication the stunt is coming, but if he lacks situational awareness the stunt surprises him, and it’s a hold. Same thing in the secondary – it’s usually very fundamental but sometimes it’s a lack of awareness if people are running double moves in certain situations and you’ve identified that structure that produces a double move but the cornerback can’t anticipate it, then it’s a lack of awareness that produces potentially that penalty.

Q. Does it tell you anything that very few of the penalties are of the pre-snap or the post-whistle variety?
A. That’s where you want to be. It has to be that. If you’re talking about penalties that happen in-play, you have something to talk about. It’s more skill development. It’s more learning the unwritten rules of situational football to keep yourself out of harms way. You have to quickly get to the point where you’re dealing with zero pre-snap and post-play penalties.

Q. Is there such a situation where it’s good or smart for a player to commit a penalty?
A. Certainly, and some of that is situational awareness. If a guy gets beat on a double-move and he’s aware and he can reach out and prevent a big play from happening that’s utilization of poor technique in an effort to prevent a big play based on situational awareness. So the awareness, or lack thereof, can be positive or negative as it pertains to penalties.

Q. The other thing you talked about during your news conference were the plays being given up by the cornerbacks opposite Joe Haden. You’ve gone to a rotation system, with Artie Burns, Coty Sensabaugh, and Cam Sutton all getting playing time in games. Is this an expanded version of the two-dogs, one-bone theme you used in 2010 with Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown?
A. There’s no question. Without a doubt it is. We’re going to play all of those guys. All of those guys have done enough to be in consideration, but at the same time no one has distinguished themselves, no one is preventing those one-on-one challenge balls at a rate that makes me comfortable to stop the rotation. So until that time, we’ll keep all of those guys in play. All of those guys have worked extremely hard, but we’re looking for a certain level of performance that we’re not getting.

Q. Since Artie Burns began as the starter at that spot, what did he do to open the door to this rotation system?
A. He’s not making enough of those combat one-on-one plays down the grass. He’s losing too many of them, as are the others, and that’s why we are where we are.

Q. Is the act of winning those one-on-one combat situations down the field what you will want to see before you end the rotation system and choose a winner?
A. We’re going to continue to play those guys, and I’ll let you know when I get there. I think we’ll all know when we get there. Until then, we’re going to play all those guys.

Q. Tonight is Round 1 of the annual heavyweight championship bout between the Steelers and the Ravens. You often refer to this game as AFC North football. What does that mean to you?
A. Combative, competitive. I’ve learned that the scheduling, the record, the makeup of the rosters, the current state of the teams, all of that is irrelevant. It’s going to be a competitive game, it’s going to be an emotional game, it’s probably going to be a close game. Those are the things that the history of this series has taught me.

Q. What was your introduction to this series like? Were you aware of this, or was it something you really didn’t understand until you experienced it for the first time?
A. I had a pretty good sense coming in. Just the makeup of the two teams at that time, their leadership, guys like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed pitted against Hines Ward and James Farrior, you knew it was combustible. And it was, from the very first time we played them. And just from the scheduling standpoint – just the times in which the games are played – Monday night or Sunday night or Thursday night speaks to what the game of football thinks about this series.

Q. You’ve been involved with other NFL teams. Are there other rivalries that compare to this? I know there are bitter rivalries in the NFL, but in terms of the way this game is played and how it typically ends, is there anything else like it in the league?
A. Nothing that I’ve been a part of. I’m sure others probably feel similarly about their rivalries. I know the Oakland-Kansas City rivalry historically is one that carries that reputation, but without a doubt Steelers-Ravens is the most intense rivalry I’ve ever been a part of.

Q. I have talked to national media, former players, people like that, and they often say that the three games the Steelers and Ravens played in the 2008 season were three of the most compelling, physical football games they ever saw. And they loved them. Can those kinds of games be played under the 2018 rules?
A. No. I think that's part of the reason why the game is played the way it’s played in 2018 is because of those three games in 2008. Without a doubt, those three games are probably what birthed the player safety initiative. Though entertaining, there were some things those in power believed needed to be cleaned up about the game of football in an effort to make it safer for the players. I have a lot of respect for that. But I do remember those moments back in 2008, and I do remember how those games were played and how entertaining it was. Legendary. Legendary contests.

Q. Were those clean games?
A. At the time, most definitely. But not by today’s standards.

Q. Let’s stick with that era for a bit. How do you get players excited for that brand of football, or is that something that comes easily?
A. I think when people get to this level, and when they’ve gotten to this level of play, they get to this level of play because of their attitudes regarding games such as that. It’s really just like breathing to those guys. You don’t have to talk anybody into getting up for those types of games. They want it. It’s exciting.

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