Q. You said this at some point a few months ago: "We need to be a better team at the end of the thing than we are at the beginning of the thing, because that's just how it goes." Where on the team have there been the kind of significant improvements that result in 11-5 and a division championship?
A. There are examples of that throughout, and such is always the case. Just the natural attrition of football, the adversity that the game presents provides opportunities for guys to ascend and rise up, whether it's an individual battling through something, or whether it's an individual replacing someone else who's battling through something. Look at the depth displayed at the wideout position. It seems like every week we have another young guy who's being a positive contributor to our efforts. Whether that's Eli Rogers, and then it became Landry Jones and now it's Demarcus Ayers being guys who step up, and really you can count Sammie Coates as being the first guy at the early portion of the season providing splash plays for us.
You've seen similar things at the tight end position. The availability or the lack of availability of Ladarius Green at various times has created opportunity for others. Guys like Xavier Grimble have emerged. Attrition in the offensive line allowed us to see position flexibility in a guy like B.J. Finney, a guy like Chris Hubbard and what he's done. Hubbard went for a stretch for us playing tackle, and he's been a tight end for us. That stretch at tackle has aided him in terms of some of the concept things we're doing with him at tight end.
The same thing can said for the defense. When you're talking about growth and evolution on defense, you're talking about the evolution of the three young guys and the fact they're very different players now than they were in September and October. That's just the nature of this thing. Very few guys come in and are instantly ready. They evolve over the course of the journey, and those guys have done a nice job in doing so, and I really think the fact there are three of them really aided all of them in terms of walking that course. They've had people to lean on, they have people in similar circumstances, and they haven't to wear the responsibility of being the young guy in the huddle solely.
Q. You were 5-1 in your division this season. Can playing AFC North football, whatever that might be, win for you in the postseason?
A. No question, because there's an edge to AFC North football, there's a physicality to AFC North football. The familiarity within the division that's created by the continuity of the programs – in Baltimore, in Cincinnati, here – and when you have that type of continuity, they know us and we know them, then it boils down to detailed execution and energy and physicality, and that's what January football is about. The people who make the tournament, they make the tournament because they don't beat themselves, so from that perspective it's going to boil down to execution and not trickery. So we have to be ready to play physical, we have to be ready to play with emotion, we have to be ready to win detailed, combative battles. I think AFC North football prepares you for those things.
Q. Based on what some of the players in this league earn per regular season game, they're taking a pay cut to play in the postseason. Playoff money as a motivator like it was in the old days is pretty much a myth now. What's it about for these guys these days?
A. It is very simple: these guys are chasing dreams when you get into January football. This is the stuff they were thinking about when they were 12 years old and laying in their bed awake at night staring at the ceiling. They're searching for a little football immortality. They're trying to search for greatness, and greatness is hoisting that Lombardi and having that confetti rain down on you. That's the significance of that, and some things are more important than money. I address it like the elephant in the room, because sometimes it's beneath the surface and they don't know why they feel the way they feel. That's what it is. When you're a kid and playing football on your knees in the living room, you're pretending it's the Super Bowl, it's the playoffs. Everybody understands what that means. Everybody understands what it means to be on that podium and have a guy like Jim Nantz hand that trophy to you. That's what they're hunting.
The Steelers prepare for the Wild Card matchup against the Miami Dolphins.
Q. What about for coaches, guys like you? What about this quest gets your juices flowing?**
A. It's very much the same for us. Our roles in it are different. When I was 12 and laying in my bed, I had a helmet on in my dreams and not a headset. But the feelings are the same. The being involved in something that has the potential to be special, the living out of dreams, the search for sporting immortality that championships bring is no different if you are a player or a coach or a trainer or an equipment man. Anyone who's a part of us, who's in our travel party, I'm sure has similar feelings.
Q. As one of the elements that can impact a football game played outdoors, has cold been pretty much negated by the developments in clothing, gloves, shoes, etc.?
A. I believe the conditions are a lot less of a factor than they used to be, and you can add the fact that most outdoor stadiums have heated playing surfaces. When you look at old film of the Steel Curtain in the 1970s, they were playing on frozen fields. There's a heating system under fields in the National Football League these days, so every element of it has changed. Whether it's the clothes that are manufactured or the artificial things that can aid players in dealing with weather conditions. Benches are heated. The heating systems along the bench and the bench area, all the way to the field itself. There are no issues in terms of footing and getting your cleats in the ground in today's NFL on a cold day, where 30-40 years ago the shoe selection was a big element when the ground was frozen, as just one example.
Q. Two days this week, the Steelers practiced indoors, but I use that term loosely. You were in the indoor facility with all of the big bay doors open, and the windows ringing the top of the structure were all open. In fact, because the roof blocked out the sun, it may have been colder inside. What was the idea behind that?
A. We don't want to run away from the elements, in fact we want to prepare for it. We want to go through our normal routine – running the ball, possessing the ball, throwing and catching the ball – but our practice fields do not have the heating system underneath them. Those field surfaces out in the back of our facility are frozen, and so I don't want footing to become an issue. I don't want to have a hazardous environment, I don't want anybody to get hurt in training, so we take it inside where the footing is more secure, more stable, more consistent, but we still get the atmosphere we're looking for because we open the doors and turn the fans on backwards to suck the cold air in.
Q. When you're into the playoffs – this deep into a season – what is a practice like?
A. It's very similar structurally to a practice at any point during a season, but there's a pace and an edge to it that you cannot simulate. And it's because of the urgency of the moment. Guys respect the urgency of the moment by pace, and it's funny, you can do the same things you were doing two months ago and you're off the field 11, 12 minutes sooner. It's just the pace of the process, it's the repetition of the process. I think that we perfect the practicing process over the course of the season. I always look at my watch when we walk off the field, and it's reflected there. In September it's a certain time. In October, it's a couple of minutes off that time. In November, in December, over the course of the season we do the same things, but we do them in a quicker, more efficient fashion.
Q. When you talked to the team about the regular season game against the Dolphins, what did you tell them?
A. The tape tells the story. We're not going to bury our heads or wish it away or pretend that it was a lightning strike. Like all of our other video, we own it, we're responsible for it. It's not video that's pleasant to re-visit, but given a week like this and who we're playing it gives us an opportunity to do that. I think that's good for teams, it's good for men. We have to be a legitimately humble, hard-working blue-collar group. Failures provide memories of what you don't want to be and where you've been, and what you've been through to get to where we are. It's been a good week from that perspective, but we measure the quality of weeks based on performance. So check back with me next week, and I'll let you know how the week was.
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