Labriola On

Tomlin on play calls, awards, Jaylen and James

Q. Late in the game against the Patriots, you sent Chris Boswell out to attempt a 48-yard field goal with a 14-10 lead even though he had missed a 32-yard attempt earlier in the game. Why was that the right thing to do in your mind?
A. I decided much earlier in the week that the kicker I went into that game with was our kicker, and I wasn't going to blink or have any second-guessing regarding it. That guy was going to be our kicker for that day, and regardless of what transpired once we got in that stadium we were going to have complete confidence in his ability to do the job. That was decided earlier in the week before even the kicker was decided. I just think sometimes that when the ground is unstable, you need clarity in terms of a plan. And you need to have the ability to stay married to that plan, because emotions are a part of this thing and you can't allow your emotions to win. Boz needed an opportunity to redeem himself. Obviously, we needed those three points. And really it was born out of a commitment to the plan prior to even stepping into the stadium.

Q. Do you ever make in-game decisions, such as that one, based on a feeling that a particular player, or a particular unit, cannot execute it successfully, even though it seemingly would be the right thing to do in that given situation?
A. Many decisions are made based on a sequence of events that have transpired over the course of a game, and I am open to that. This decision regarding Boswell was just one I was not open to. If you're talking about short-yardage play selection, for example, and you have had some short-yardage failures, you may change your mentality based on what has transpired in-game. You have other plays to go to, or you have other personnel groups to go to, but there is no depth chart at kicker. You walk into a stadium, and you have one kicker on your team, and that's why I made the decision that there would be no second-guessing regarding that.

Q. When a defensive call is sent in from the sideline, what all is included in that call in terms of who's supposed to do what?
A. It's all-inclusive. It speaks to all 11 men. Sometimes you're able to do that in one word, and sometimes it gets wordy. How you communicate, the football language of which you communicate is a big component of play. Anytime you can use one word that speaks to the entire unit, it's advantageous, particularly when time is of the essence. So often times, things that are time specific are one word type things that will trigger something for all 11 men. It tells them alignment, assignment, keys. Very rarely are you able to do that, particularly down in and down out, and so there's nomenclature for the front, adjustment, coverage, in terms of how you word things. But some of the most significant moments defensively, particularly those that are situational or where time is of the essence, you use these one-word catch phrases that speak to everyone and tell everyone everything.

Q. For example, the defensive call would tell the players what the coverage is supposed to be, whether there's a blitz and who is blitzing. But would it include something like a twist for the defensive linemen in their pass rush?
A. Certainly, and so you can build a call of the week, and you could call it by using the opponent's nickname. You could say, the call of the week is "saint," and it means this front, this (pass-rush) game, this coverage, this disguise. You could say, run "saint," and it means all of the above. It could mean front, it could mean leverage, it could mean depth, it could mean pre-snap disguise. It's a great teach-tool, particularly for short-term assignment game-specific like things. We're running this concept vs. the Saints, and so we're going to call it "saint." We're running this concept vs. the Saints, but we're going to call this "Brees." So you use Saints-related tag words as a frame of reference for all parties involved to reduce the amount of communication.

Q. What might the offense do during the pre-snap period to change the call?
A. They could change anything but personnel group, really. They could change alignment, structure, number of backs in the backfield, whether the quarterback is under center or in the shotgun. All of those things change the climate of a particular down.

Q. Is it an automatic change, or would it be something one player would decide, like the quarterback does on an offensive audible?
A. Not everyone is responsible. The guy who is your defensive signal-caller in a particular personnel group is that defensive quarterback, if you will, for that moment, and he's the guy who makes the calls and the others on the field know it. He makes the decision, they respond and support it, and then you play. That's one of the reasons why a guy like Ryan Shazier is so significant. Not only is he a quality player, but he's an all-situations player. So he is a defensive quarterback-like guy, and so that voice is consistent. When you're dealing with things such as not having Ryan Shazier, and you're running through a multitude of defensive personnel packages sometimes there's more than one voice. One of the significant things we did against New England was we made Vince Williams an all-situations football player last week so that voice did not change. And even though it might not have been the most advantageous thing from a matchup standpoint, maybe there were some matchups we didn't feel real comfortable about Vince being in, the consistency of that one voice, because of Tom Brady and the fact of the consistency of their voice, we deemed it very necessary.

Q. Football is the ultimate team sport and you're in the midst of a fight for a division championship and a playoff spot, but this is also the time of year for individual recognition for players – Pro Bowl, Steelers MVP, All-Pro. How do you balance the two?
A. Really, it's easy. We appreciate the honor of individual awards, but we understand that it's a component of team play, and really a representation of team play. And when individuals get recognized, they get recognized appropriately so because we win, but we also understand that individual efforts collectively produce those wins. We don't try to compartmentalize it. We don't try to act like it doesn't exist. We don't place too much of an emphasis on it. We just acknowledge that when we're winning, there's enough recognition for everyone. So we focus on what's important, which is doing what's required to win, and we know that those who are worthy will be recognized.

Q. How do you view the Steelers MVP award?
A. I respect the heck out of it, because it's voted on by the teammates. I think that says it all. I think within the bounds of a team concept, guys really have an understanding of who's performing well, and who's valued, and they don't place too much of an emphasis on certain positions the way the outside world is capable of doing. You can elect the quarterback as the MVP of every football team. But when you're within the group and it's voted on by the group, they weigh those things and understand the importance of the position and they understand the importance of contributions relative to those positions. And often, they do so and they recognize the guy appropriately. One year, for instance, Heath Miller was our team MVP. And we had guys go to the Pro Bowl and had guys put up ridiculous numbers and Ben had an awesome season and all of that, but every man on our team knew what Heath Miller did. They knew what he was in terms of a contributor to our run game, and I think maybe our running back was a Pro Bowl selection that year. They knew what a contributor Heath was to the passing game, and I'm sure that Hines Ward and others were putting up big numbers, but they understood the way Heath controlled the interior element of the field in the passing game and made significant combat catches on possession downs and so forth. The guys within the group, the guys who understand the significance of every contribution recognized him appropriately so. We respect and appreciate the support and the opinions of fans and media types, people who make decisions like that, but when you're within a group, you're able to recognize the contributions of a tight end, a guy like Heath Miller who goes above and beyond, and that's what makes that recognition a special one.

Q. Last Sunday, you got important contributions from two of your rookies – Jaylen Samuels and James Washington – and it really was the first time for both of them to come through for the team in that way. Is that something you can see coming from a rookie, and what is it you might be seeing in practice that would lead you to that conclusion?
A. Very much so, you see it coming. As a matter of fact, we were in a setting like this one and talking about both guys being on the upswing, about James specifically having good practices and Jaylen being a guy on the rise regardless of James Conner's circumstance. As a matter of fact, we were talking about how Jaylen was getting increased opportunities for reps in practice even prior to James Conner going down with an injury. So what happens on the practice field – the consistency of performance, the ability to produce splash, is really an indication of what's going to happen in a stadium. So none of us are surprised by their contributions. We appreciate it, but none of us are surprised by it. We saw it building throughout the process. I often think back to 2010 and we had a young guy from Central Michigan who was dominating practices in November and December, and dominating practices to the annoyance of the defense. That guy was Antonio Brown, and several weeks later he was running down the field in the AFC Championship Game with the ball stuck to his head. That guy went on to be known as AB, but it was happening in practice in November and December of 2010. We saw it, and we saw it very clearly.

Q. James Washington, though, started making big plays in practice all the way back to Latrobe, and yet it really didn't come together for him until December.
A. That's because Latrobe is Latrobe, and stadiums are stadiums. You can't simulate what happens in stadiums in Latrobe. We work our tails off to simulate it. We have an awesome environment and continuity and fan support. We have big crowds. We do a lot of things to put an emphasis and create an environment that's reflective of in-stadium play. But it's just reflective of in-stadium play. You don't know what you're working with until you step inside that bowl. It's just something beautiful about it. Those of us who have been in this game for some time, we love that element of it. We embrace that element of it because we know there's no hiding from it. It's real.

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