Q. On Friday, you made a change at kicker. Chris Boswell was placed on the injured reserve list and Matt McCrane was signed to take his place. Can you provide some insight as to what happened to make that move necessary?
A. Last Sunday, Chris Boswell experienced pain and discomfort just prior to the game against the Saints. He got some treatment, and we were able to get him through the game. His next scheduled extended work day in any given week is on a Thursday. Thursday is a heavy kick day for him, and he was able to complete his work in totality on Thursday but he experienced similar discomfort. Because we had already explored Matt and brought him in a few weeks ago, it was something as simple as a phone call. We came off the field, we came to that determination, and so we called Matt and put Boz on IR.
Q. Where was McCrane when you called him?
A. He was in a small town in Central Texas, which is where he’s from. He was on the 18th green, I think, when we called. He said he went home and packed a bag, and then he was off to the airport in 15 minutes.
Q. Because you have never been in a stadium with Matt McCrane, how might you operate in terms of having some level of confidence in sending him out to attempt a field goal as opposed to maybe punting or going for the first down?
A. I have a lot of confidence in him as a professional, but I will glean information in terms of how pregame warmups go in terms of formulating a strategy or plan. I’m getting to know him – what hash he likes the ball to be on for a game-winner, and so forth; what’s a reasonable expectation in terms of range within the facility. Some of those things will be revealed to us through the pregame warmups, so it will be a little more significant than other times. And we’ll go from there.
Q. In a situation such as this one, with a new player, do you believe what he says, or do you believe what you see?
A. It’s both. I’m careful with the questions that I ask, because I understand this guy is trying to make a positive first impression. He’s going to be open to a lot of things. I do more watching in terms of his mechanics and things that are important to him. I have information provided to me by the scouting department in terms of his body of work and things leading up to his coming to us. I’m very thoughtful about the things that I ask of him because I understand he’s trying to make a good impression and I don’t want to put him in less than advantageous positions for him. The key is to make him as comfortable as we can, to have a knowledge of what he’s capable of, to put him in situations where he can execute. And that’s what we intend to do.
Q. On Thursday, JuJu Smith-Schuster was voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. What do you think were some of the things he displayed to his teammates over the course of this season to earn their votes?
A. I think it starts with the playmaking. When you talk about MVP, that’ s the substantial element of it – consistently showing up and delivering for your teammates and playing big for your position, however that’s defined. We’ve talked in these settings about some of the things he does when he’s not catching the ball – his willingness to block and be a complete player. I imagine that him being awarded MVP by his teammates is also a function of that, and it’s also a function of his everyday can-do attitude and demeanor. He’s an upbeat kind of guy, he’s a positive energy guy, he’s a guy who adds to our equation all the time, not only with his play but with his presence and personality. I think all of that was why he was honored in that way.
Q. Once the votes for that award are cast and counted, how and in what setting is the winner announced to the team?
A. We always do it at a walkthrough or at the end of a walkthrough. Media availability is big part of today’s game and so we want to make the winner available to the media after our walkthrough. We vote on it in the morning, we tabulate the votes, we tell the team at the walkthrough, and that will allow that person an opportunity to address the media.
Q. This is your 12th season as the coach here. Are you ever surprised by the outcome of one of these votes for MVP?
A. I think I’m always a little bit surprised by the winner. I just am. We don’t talk a lot about what defines an MVP. I purposely don’t try to frame for the guys. I just tell the guys to vote on who they think is most valuable, and I leave it at that. Over the years, you’ve seen some winners maybe not be reflected in statistics but in contributions. One that sticks out is that one year when Heath Miller won it. Heath Miller had never been a numbers guy in terms of his stats, blowing up the stats sheet, but that year he played really good ball, he made significant plays for us. He was significant in the running game and in the passing game. He played his position at an extremely high level. I’m always ready to be pleasantly surprised by the perceptions of our football team.
Q. This past week was a very important one for the team in that it’s facing a must-win game today against the Bengals, but it also was a week that contained Christmas Day. With many of the players having wives and young children, how do you balance that?
A. There really wasn’t anything for us to balance this year, because Christmas fell on a Tuesday, and that’s a normally scheduled day off for our guys. My perception of it was that I was at work, our staff was at work formulating the game plan, but I also saw routine actions from our players. There’s a Tuesday workout group, and so forth. Guys do what they need to do. They understand the gravity of the moment. We’re thankful for the blessings that we have, and we want to observe Christmas and celebrate with our families and loved ones, but this is a big week, this is a big game. They’ll be duly prepared.
Q. James Conner is back now after missing a few games with an ankle injury, and in his absence Jaylen Samuels did some good things. How do you view that situation today in terms of division of labor at running back?
A. A very fluid one. We’re excited to get James back. He’s a big-time component of our play. If he’s capable and healthy, we’re going to use him, but we also have been pleased by the presence and the contributions of No. 38. We’re going to utilize both guys. James hasn’t played in a while, so football conditioning and things of that nature are a factor. Jaylen also has showed us some things in that time period that make us very comfortable in terms of aspects of his game. So we’re going to utilize both guys, we’re going to let the flow of the game dictate it. It’s a good issue to have. We’re excited about the potential of working out and hardening the division of labor there. Hopefully, it goes into additional weeks.
Q. You mentioned the conditioning of James Conner. In the situation of a running back missing three games with an ankle injury, can that amount of time away impact his conditioning, his ability to handle a normal workload?
A. I’m not talking about conditioning that the naked eye would recognize, or conditioning that the layperson would recognize. He’s a highly conditioned athlete, but the demands of running back in the National Football League are extremely high. So when I talk about conditioning, I’m talking about the way that fatigue sets in that would allow him to be effective in the ways that he’s effective. James is one of those guys who gets increasingly effective as the game wears on. He imposes his will on defenses and tacklers as the game goes on. When you haven’t played in a month, that might not be as effective a component of his play as it usually is. It doesn’t mean that he’s going to be panting and you’re going to see his chest expanding and decompressing. I don’t mean conditioning in that way. I mean the top-notch level of conditioning that defines performance at an extremely high level.
Q. Geno Atkins leads the Bengals in sacks with 10 and he will line up along the interior of the line throughout the game. Whose responsibility will he be today primarily, and are there ways to get that player some help dealing with Atkins?
A. Those are legendary matchups. David DeCastro vs. Geno Atkins. Anybody who has been within our division the last half-a-decade realizes the significance of that matchup. I know that we do. There are components in play that really minimize your ability to help, particularly an interior rusher the quality of Geno, because of the quality of their perimeter rushers. They’re a 4-3 team, they generate a lot of their pressure with a four-man front, and they have quality guys on the perimeter that you didn’t mention like Carlos Dunlap, who’s their No. 2 sacker and has been a mainstay along with Geno for a number of years. They’ve had a number of young talented guys, the most recent guy is Sam Hubbard, a rookie out of Ohio State who has six sacks. They commit to the acquisition of talent along the defensive line. They have quality people on the outside who minimize things you can do inside in terms of help, but that’s why you acquire a guy with the talents of David DeCastro. And that’s one of the reasons why David DeCastro is recognized as one of the best in the business, if not the best in the business at the guard position. Because he gets opportunities to go against guys like Geno Atkins and show his abilities in terms of neutralizing Geno’s impact on a game.