Q. During your year as the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, was that your first experience with calling plays?
A. I had other pockets of time (calling plays) based on circumstances. We had a veteran coordinator in Tampa by the name of Monte Kiffin, and he was grooming me to be a play-caller. And so, in pockets of time situationally and in circumstances – really whenever the opportunity presented itself – (I got an opportunity), and I was appreciative of the training he gave me in giving me an opportunity to call plays.
Q. What was it like calling plays?
A. All the work is done prior to yourself getting in the environment, and so it's not like you're pulling from the total body of play selections. Really you got it narrowed down to two or three calls you're considering that have been pre-approved or thought about relative to the circumstances, such as down and distance, offensive personnel, and circumstances of the game.
Q. What did you find was the most difficult aspect of calling plays?
A. I would imagine worrying too much about what the offense potentially could do and letting that dictate decision-making. There are a lot of variables that you have to sort through, and some of them don't involve the offense at all. Down-and-distance, field positioning, and so forth, and you can really call games off some of those variables. You can't get paralyzed or too overcome by what (formation/personnel grouping) the offense is in or what they could potentially do. And I think the people who lack experience in play-calling, that's one of the common mistakes that are made.
Q. During your Tuesday news conference, you were asked about play-calling, and you didn't disagree with the notion that there would be a learning curve involved in calling plays at the NFL level. What was your learning curve?
A. It was just what I mentioned. What the offense is capable of, and the personnel groups they're in is a component of it, but you can't make it so big a component that it paralyzes you from a time standpoint, particularly as a defensive play-caller. You can get in the right call, but if you don't deliver it to the guys in a timely enough manner, then it's the wrong call, because defenses have to have an opportunity to absorb the call, digest that information, and then see what it is the offense is doing as they break the huddle or take the line of scrimmage. You want the defense to have an opportunity to communicate, and so if you're wasting a lot of time trying to get into the perfect defense, they might not get an opportunity to digest that perfect defense and make it real anyway. And so, time is of the essence. There's no such thing as a perfect call, oftentimes speed in which they get the call is equally as important as the call itself.
Q. Is play-calling anything like playing chess, where you're always thinking multiple moves ahead?
A. No question, or what has transpired prior to, or what puts you in that present circumstance. No question. And much like chess, I like it on speed. You know, the speed element of it, in terms of being right or wrong, is exciting and challenging as well.
Q. In a game, what percentage of a play's success is the result of the play-call vs. what percentage is the execution of the call?
A. It depends on the play. A play's success can be determined totally by those who are on the field, and their playmaking ability or their execution. You can have somebody in a bad call, and they make a great play and win a down, but at the same time, you could be in such a good call that the down is won before the ball snaps. And so it varies, but oftentimes those in helmets, those on the grass, make the plays. It's our job as coaches to put them in position to do the job. They do the job.
Q. Is play-calling, either on offense or defense, a significant contributor to the outcome of a game?
A. Most definitely.
A. Strategy. Being a step ahead of the other play-caller. Being thoughtfully non-rhythmic. Being willing and capable of stepping out of your personality in moments that works to your advantage without jeopardizing execution from those you work with. There are a lot of variables in terms of determining quality of play-calling but make no mistake those are significant roles in terms of how games unfold.
Q. Who are some of the best play-callers you have worked with or competed against at the NFL level?
A. They're all head coaches. That's why you get head coaching jobs. to be quite honest with you. You excel at the opportunities given, and you advance professionally because of it. In almost all cases, some of the best play-callers in the world are head football coaches.
Q. You have been on this job for 15 years, and over that time you have hired a number of coaches to your staff, both position coaches and coordinators. Some of those hires have been promotions within your own staff and some of the hires have been guys from the outside. In your mind, what are the pros and cons of hiring from within, and then also the pros and cons of hiring guys from the outside?
A. The pros of hiring someone with from within is the potential continuity of relationships already established. The pros of hiring somebody from the outside is the new idea component or the new perspective component, and then that somebody has an opportunity to add to the whole with a different perspective and a different experience. The negative of hiring from within is that transition is not always a bad thing. That uncomfortable feeling as you build relationships and get to know new people and are challenged by things that new people bring isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's a good thing. And oftentimes you lose that when you're promoting from within. The negative of hiring from the outside is the unknown. You know, the mesh, the relationship component of it, and so anytime we've got a job open I consider interior candidates, I consider exterior candidates and oftentimes I interview people from both pools in an effort to make the very best decision.
More than anything when you're in my position, you need to be open. You need to be open to people getting an opportunity to elevate and rising above their present circumstance and being capable of doing the job. But you also need to be open to getting to know somebody new, who's bringing the skill-set to the profession that could add value to the group, and so I find the process for me informational. I grow in the midst of it. I never move in a hurry in terms of those things, because it's an opportunity for me to grow as a coach schematically and learn some things, but also it's an opportunity for me to gain some exposure to coaches, new coaches, coaches I don't get an opportunity to interact with. When you become a head coach, you get kind of isolated. You don't socialize and things that you do when you're an assistant at league functions, the Scouting Combine, etc. So it's always a fun process for me to gain exposure, particularly to those I've heard about from a reputation standpoint.
Q. Based on your belief of what constitutes a No. 1 receiver, is Diontae Johnson to that level?
A. I think that he is. A guy you can see coming, you can anticipate he's going to be a significant component of an offensive personality, particularly in situations and circumstances, such as possession downs, red zone, two-minute, etc. You know it, but there's still production that's a barometer, and I think through 2021 he has shown consistent signs of that. It is reasonable to expect that to continue. I know that we've always had a vision of those being his capabilities, and it was just about the maturation process. I think he took a took a significant step toward that from a maturation standpoint in 2021. And I think that's a serious conversation.
Q. What skills has he developed to deserve to be seen as that?
A. I don't think physical skills have ever been a component of the discussion. He had the skills to be (a No. 1 receiver) the day he walked in here, but he came from a group-of-five program (Toledo), he had know-how to gain an understanding of, he had to get adjusted to some of the rigors of the consistent competition, etc. It was a matter of some personal growth and development as a human being, as a man. All of those things were a much more significant part of his story than the skill-set to be honest with you. He had the skills of a No. 1, the ability to create separation at break-points, the body control, the hand-eye coordination, the snatch. What I mean by snatch is the strong and fluid hands. He checks all those boxes and has since Day 0.
Q. During the preseason, I asked you whether Zach Gentry was your best blocking tight end, and you said he is. What is your assessment of his blocking at this point?
A. I think he's solidified that opinion. He's been highly consistent and improving in that area over the course of the year and more importantly than him being "our best blocker," he fits a job description. You play some teams that use a 3-4 defense, and the people playing on the edge for those teams roughly weigh 250 pounds. And when you play a team that uses a 4-3 defense, those teams have 280-pound people who play on the end of the line of scrimmage, and so you better have a 280-pound-like tight end on your roster for those weeks when you're trying to wage that battle of the end of the line of scrimmage in the run game. Tight end vs. edge player is less significant when you play 3-4 teams and you know you got a guy like Pat (Freiermuth) who's 255 pounds and capable of matching up against the 255-pounds guys like Alex Highsmith. But when you play those 4-3 teams, that 30 pounds is a significant difference, and that's why Zach Gentry's role is significant. We anticipate and we expect him to be our best blocker. He's 25 to 30 pounds bigger than the other tight ends on our roster. He's got a specific function. He's got to match up vs. those 4-3 ends, and he better represent himself well in those matchups.
Q. The Browns are tonight's opponent. How are Browns-Steelers games different from Bengals-Steelers or Ravens-Steelers?
A. I think all AFC North matchups have a texture to them, and they all have a texture to them because of the men involved. The relationships, the nature of the matchups. When we play Cleveland, it's Diontae vs. Denzel Ward. When we play Baltimore, it's Diontae vs. Marlon Humphrey. There's a physical matchup component to that, but there are also the schematics within the two cities that kind of dictate the nature of the matchup when we play. Cleveland is our defense vs. Nick Chubb. When we play Cincinnati, it's our defense vs. Joe Mixon, but the nature in which the Cleveland Browns run the ball is dramatically different than how the Cincinnati Bengals do it, so the matchups all have a texture to him. They're all a little bit different, but they're all extremely intimate. And I can talk about them in the ways that I just described, because knowledge of division opponents and familiarity with division opponents are really the things that describe the nature of these matchups. It is really intimate when we're playing the Cincinnati Bengals, for example. They had an opportunity to look at Mike Hilton vs. Tyler Boyd for a number of years and how significant that matchup was, and they thought so much of the matchup that they went out and secured the services of Mike Hilton in free agency. And I just think that describes the intimacy and the knowledge associated with division play. They're all very different. They're all very intimate. And it creates an awesome sense of urgency that I happen to enjoy. And I enjoy educating our guys, the young guys, the new guys about the nature of these matchups, so that they can better understand the urgency when they step into a stadium, and they're not surprised by it.
Q. In an issue of GRAVE importance to Steelers Nation, who determines whether it's the offense or defense that is introduced before games at Heinz Field?
A. It's a small, select group, and I'll acknowledge that I'm in it (laughs).
Q. So, I've got to ask: Which unit will get introduced tonight, and can you provide any insight as to which player might be the last one to come out of the tunnel during those pregame introductions?
A. It is No. 7 and 10 others, and he will be last.