Labriola On

Tomlin on returning, covering, MNF

Q. After the win over the Colts on Monday night, your record on Monday Night Football is 19-3. In talking about that game in general, you said "I respect Monday Night Football and make sure our team does, too." What is it that you respect about Monday Night Football, and what is your message to the team about it?
A. The scarcity of it. All of these games are special. It's not an NBA schedule, where you've got 82 games to state your case for playoff positioning. And so, I don't want to devalue the other games because they're all special, but the scarcity of Monday Night opportunities for those of us who love football and grew up on the Americana, if you will, of Monday Night Football, we appreciate special opportunities. I've been on my job 16 years, and you mentioned my record is 19-3, so there's some scarcity there, and I sell that to our guys. But beyond that, the appreciation of it from a football-lovers standpoint, there's an additional day, day-and-a half, 36 hours or so of additional preparation. I'm very thoughtful and intentional about how I utilize that additional 36 hours in terms of preparing our group.

Q. Is it a factor at all in the allure of Monday Night Football that everybody is watching, because there are no other games on that day at that time?
A. I love that component of it. There's probably an intangible quality to it, but it's not something I acknowledge that you can measure.

Q. For the second straight week – in the games against the Bengals and then the Colts – your team put together a solid first half and built a halftime lead only to see it evaporate during the third quarter. If this was basketball, a coach might call a timeout or two to try to break the opponent's momentum or to give his team a chance to regroup, but this is football and timeouts are precious. Is there anything a football coach can do when that's happening to his team?
A. You can be aggressive in your schematic play-calling and play design in an effort to produce big plays, because that's what turns the tide in terms of ebb and flow. The minute Indianapolis had that big kickoff return and put 7 points on the board going into the second half, you knew it was game on. And the thing that swings that is significant plays or splash plays, and so what can a coach do? You can get more aggressive in your play-calling, if you will, in an effort to produce the splash plays that change the emotions of the moment and turn the tide of the ebb and flow. But again, when you're talking about doing things that produce splash, it also comes with risk. And if you're unsuccessful in producing splash, then you're adding to their momentum. So if you exercise some patience and stay the course when time isn't a factor, it smooths out over time, which is what happened on Monday night. If time is of the essence, you better get aggressive. But with aggression comes risk.

Q. What are the ingredients to good kickoff coverage in the NFL?
A. Whipping blocks and making tackles, and unblocked guys making tackles. We're not going to make the simple complex. I'm not going to have a long soliloquy and talk about all the things that could transpire schematically. They've got 11, and we've got 11. Good kickoff coverage is guys running down there with their hair on fire whipping blocks and making tackles, and those who are unblocked make tackles. And that's what we haven't been doing a good enough job of. We're not whipping blocks and making tackles. We've got to get off blocks, and we've got to make tackles. Those of us who are unblocked gotta make tackles. And if you turn our tape on, you'll see that it is just that. It is not rocket science.

Q. Correct me if I'm wrong, but based on what you just said, is it more about pure want-to than it is about schemes and technique?
A. Or it might be skill-oriented. Sometimes there is a coach component in it, and if I've got our guys in bad matchups, such as people blocking them that they can't whup, or us blocking people that we can't block, then there's a matchup or personnel matchup component to it. There's some strategy to it. The strategy is in how those 11 individual bodies come together, and who is on who. If you have a linebacker blocking a defensive back, if the linebacker gets his hands on him he might win that battle vs. the defensive back, but it might be difficult for him to get his hands on him if there's a lot of open space involved because of the athleticism component. And that's why I say unblocked guys make tackles. There are unblocked guys on every kickoff because somebody loses battles quickly, and usually the ones who lose battles quickly, it's because it's a poor athletic mismatch.

Q. I don't know the exact percentage, but most kickoffs are touchbacks, so as you're watching video, both of your team and the team you're going to play, do you notice, maybe not a lackadaisical attitude, but maybe an assumption by either side that this ball is going to be a touchback so I'll just coast?
A. Very rarely. In the NFL, I think everybody knows the urgency of the moments and people will come back at you. Very rarely would I attribute kickoff return success to people taking their foot off the gas thinking the ball was gonna be a touchback. I just think that's probably a discussion for a lower level of football.

Q. What do you tell your own returners about kickoffs that go into the end zone?
A. It's situational. It's week to week. It depends on the quality of the coverage unit. Distance of the kickoff is just a component of it. If it's 5 yards deep, but there's no hang-time, we can come back at them, and so that's why you chart a kicker's distance and hang-time. One man's kick at 5 yards deep might have a significantly different hang-time than another man's kick. And so, week in week out it's an individual plan for that week, and there are some layers to the discussion.

Q. Speaking of your own returners, Steven Sims has shown some ability to make things happen as a returner since he took over the job in late October. What are the qualities of a good kickoff returner?
A. Individual one-on-one winners. Guys who are capable of making someone miss. Like I mentioned earlier when we were talking about the flip side of it, there are going to be unblocked people for a variety of reasons, and the quality kickoff return men run over, through, and around unblocked people, and usually multiple people. Those are the dynamic return people, whether it's punts or kickoffs. There are two or three guys by schematic design or by assignment failure who are unblocked on just about every kick in the NFL, and the ones that get returned to the house are usually because the return man stepped around, or made someone miss, or utilized his individual skill-set to neutralize that component of the confrontation.

Q. You have said on more than a few occasions that you're not used to playing a rookie quarterback. This season, you've been playing a rookie quarterback. Has that been an adjustment for you?
A. You know, probably not in terms of mentality. I don't think it's something that dominates my thoughts all the time. But just in terms of the things that I can do as a head football coach to assist him in prep, and to communicate with him in-game, and utilize the things that occurred in-game as a short-term learning experience in terms of doing what it is that we need to do in the immediate timeframe but also as a long term learning experience in an effort to grow and establish a great base for his game and his career. And so, you know, those are the things that kind of capture my attention. But just in terms of putting together a plan and beating somebody and getting this group to be at its best, it doesn't dominate my thoughts.

Q. After Monday's game against the Colts, it was learned that Kenny Pickett requested the play that resulted in Benny Snell's 2-yard touchdown run. I don't imagine that is the kind of request you would grant to anyone …
A. It really is though. At the quarterback position in today's game, they are a component of prep. Kenny's in the building every Monday and Tuesday, he sees the ingredients that go into the hot dog, if you will. He knows what we're intending to get done schematically from a game planning standpoint, because he is very much a part of the process. And anyone who's very much a part of a process is entitled to an opinion. When we get stoppages in play, we bounce things around. We're talking to coaches on the sideline, coaches in the booth, players on the field. It's very fluid, and it happens extremely fast. And I think sometimes discussions like that get overblown and people want to make a story out of something that is very routine and very natural, and I'm just being bluntly honest with you.

Q. So, a play is suggested, and it works. Great. But if it doesn't work, then what?
A. When I stand in front of the media, it's mine. In the back of my mind, his opinion weighs less if it's unsuccessful, certainly.

Q. Before coming to Pittsburgh, you were the defensive coordinator in Minnesota, and the Vikings always played a home-and-home series vs. the Chicago Bears. Even though you were not directly involved with special teams, do you have any horror stories to tell about Devin Hester?
A. Are you kidding me? Yes. In 2006, man, all week we talked about kicking the ball out of bounds even if it was at a 30-to-35-yard net. We just weren't going to let him be the difference in the game. We lost that game to the Bears, 17-14, and probably about midway through the fourth quarter we were punting, and we put the ball in the middle of the field like we talked about all week that we wouldn't do. And then in a great-player-sort-of-way he delivered, and I just think that's a measuring stick of a legendary player, of a generational player, of a guy who's gold jacket worthy. You talk about him all week, you see him coming, you put together a schematic plan to minimize his impact on the game. You check all of those boxes, but if you're in any way negligent, those kinds of players make you pay, and that guy made us pay that day. We were playing those guys, and Ricky Manning returned an interception for a score, and Devin Hester ran that puck back for a score. As a defensive coordinator, when you got pick-sixed for a score and had a punt returned for a score, and you lose, 17-14, you remember those days.

Q. Today, the special teams challenge for your team comes from Cordarelle Patterson. In his 10 NFL seasons, he has at least one 100-yard-plus kickoff return in six of them. What makes him so consistently dynamic as a kickoff returner?
A. He's Josh Cribbs. He's very similar. Those of us who have been in the AFC North remember Josh Cribbs. He's fearless. He's big. He's strong. He long strides to the point of confrontation. He bumper-cars off tackles, and then he has the finisher's talent, meaning that if he bumper-cars off something, he could quickly get back to speed and finish over the course of long distances. Some guys are quick but may not be fast. Those guys are quality punt returners. The quality, dynamic kickoff returners, they have long speed, and I think that's something Cordarelle Patterson has that's very similar to Cribbs and Devin Hester. You know, there have been some great punt returners who don't necessarily translate to kickoff return, and it's usually because of long speed or finishing speed. And that's a trait that Patterson has that I'd be remiss if I didn't mention. He can get into traffic, he can bounce off a tackle, but when he comes out of it, he's getting back to speed and that's scary.

Q. Being in the AFC North, you have to deal with Lamar Jackson twice a year, and lately there have been regular games vs. Buffalo, which means dealing with Josh Allen. In terms of running quarterbacks, how does Atlanta's Marcus Mariota compare to those guys?
A. You know, and now there's Justin Fields, too. I just think the conversation about quarterback mobility is becoming more routine. Even in the last number of years, think about how much has changed since Lamar Jackson has been in the league. Just a short period ago when Lamar was young and first started playing, it was a unique thing, but there's a lot of quarterback mobility now. Jalen Hurts, I mean, it's probably any quarterback in his mid-20s or younger, it's probably half of them who have the type of mobility that merits schematic adjustment, and so it's becoming more routine in today's game.

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