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Tomlin on Vannett, run blitz, crossing routes

Q. Last Tuesday, the Steelers sent a fifth-round draft pick to Seattle for tight end Nick Vannett. How would you describe him as a player?
A. He’s got a well-rounded game. He’s above-the-line in both the running game and in the passing game. A lot of tight ends in the NFL today are either receivers or blockers. He’s one of those dual guys. We evaluated him when he came out of Ohio State, we liked that aspect of his game, and so it’s going to provide a lot of versatility for us in terms of the ways we can utilize him.

Q. Why are tight ends important to the offense’s ability to run the football?
A. The end of the line. A lot of combat goes on at the end of the line. The war is waged there. With your pull schemes, when you get on the perimeter if a tight end is getting knocked back, then the pullers can’t get around. The defensive end vs. tight end matchup is a critical element of running-down football, and it’s going to be a critical element in this game when the Bengals have people like Carlos Dunlap over there. That’s why you need big-bodied tight ends. That’s why we always will have some guys who have a bigger stature, to be able to match up with some of those 4-3 ends. It’s a very different matchup when you’re blocking a 3-4 outside linebacker who could be 240 pounds as opposed to blocking a 295-pound 4-3 defensive end. So, that’s why tight ends look a little bit different in today’s game. Some are 245 pounds, some of them are 6-foot-8 and weigh in the 260s, like young Zach Gentry who we have here. He’s one of those guys who has the stature and the build to match up against 4-3 defensive ends.

Q. What does a tight end give the offense that cannot be replaced just by adding another offensive lineman at the end of the formation?
A. The threat of pass. The threat of five eligibles in the passing game, particularly in the vertical element of the passing game. You know what you’re going to get defensively, certainly you gain some advantages in terms of using eligible offensive tackles at the position. We do it. Everybody kind of does it, but you do it in a small sampling size because you lose a lot of versatility particularly in the play-action passing game.

Q. When you’re evaluating young tight ends, is the blocking aspect of the job what takes more time to develop?
A. You’ll see tight ends coming into the league now who never have played in a three-point stance, so there’s some teaching and learning involved. But it’s not exclusive to the tight end position. Every cornerback you ever draft, you have to teach them not to put hands on people past five yards, because in the college game you can contact people all over the field until the ball is in the air. There are little subtle things that come with elevating from the collegiate level to the professional ranks at every position.

Q. In talking about passing offense, you might hear the terms “isolation routes” and “combination routes” used to describe what the wide receivers are doing. What do each of those terms mean?
A. With isolation routes, you’re seeking one-on-one matchups, and those are often defined by spread formations, when guys spread out with great width creating opportunities for guys to win one-on-one battles. The concept element of it is usually done out of bunch, or stacks, or combinations, groups of two or three, where collectively through release or route combinations guys work to get themselves open. It’s really just about a guy’s ability to get himself open by himself, or within the framework of other routes.

Q. Under what conditions might an offense choose to employ one of those as opposed to the other?
A. Usually, you have components of both within each passing play. Some receivers have a skill-set that lends itself to them winning in one-on-one circumstances. Some guys have a skill-set that lends itself to them working in combination with others. That backside receiver in today’s game, those backside X-receivers, the guys who have earned their money over the years being on the backside of three-receiver formations, those are your one-on-one winners. Usually those are the type of guys you’re trying to isolate in one-on-one circumstances. People who play on the strong-side of the formation – the z-receivers who play in conjunction with tight ends and slot receivers – those are the more concept-oriented guys.

Q. When it comes to the utilization of gadget plays, are those something that can jump-start a struggling offense, or does the offense have to have established something first to get the defense to react accordingly before a gadget play can work?
A. Really, it can serve in both capacities and usually does. It can be a catalyst for the offense when you’re stagnant, and it also can be a nice supplement when the offense is going well. Usually when gadget plays are effective, you’re utilizing them in both ways.

Q. What is a run blitz? What does it look like?
A. It’s usually something that’s structurally sound, where you’re firing linebackers who make the double-teams the offensive line usually employs in the running game happen quicker. And that’s what it’s about. It’s not about trickery or an effort to get someone free like you’re trying to do in the blitz game against the pass. It’s usually to make the offensive blocking combination schemes happen at a different rate than the offense would like for it to occur. In its essence, effective run blitzing is just that. When that center and that guard are double-teaming up to that linebacker, and you start firing linebackers, that double-team happens a little bit differently. They have to have their eyes up, they have to be aware, and that provides an opportunity for that defensive lineman who’s being double-teamed to be a player now. That’s the essence of it.

Q. When you employ a run blitz, do the blitzing players pick their own spot to attack, or is it assigned?
A. Absolutely it’s assigned gaps, or a space.

Q. How are those gaps picked?
A. It’s by the structure of the defense. And that’s probably the best Football 101 way of explaining it. The gaps that are hit are based on the structure of the defense, and the naming of the particular blitzes usually is done to supplement some base defensive structure.

Q. Are the players involved in run blitzes always linebackers?
A. Or guys in the secondary. We brought Minkah Fitzpatrick quite a bit against the 49ers. We brought Terrell Edmunds some off the edge. Usually it’s linebackers or safeties, but from time to time you’ll see cornerbacks in the running game as blitzers as well. The Cincinnati Bengals will bring their boundary cornerback quite a bit to minimize some boundary runs, and you might see that in tonight’s game. When the ball is on the hash, and the boundary cornerback is in bump-and-run on first and second downs with the Bengals, there is the potential he could be in a blitz.

Q. When the defense is in man-to-man coverage and the offense has receivers run crossing routes, what are the defensive backs supposed to do in that situation?
A. Quite simply stay with their man.

Q. So the defenders just chase them?
A. There are some very technical ways in which you chase. We defend on different levels, depending on who people are, who we are, and who we are covering. And that’s the first mode of keeping people clean as they track their guys. Some people are pursuing at or around the line of scrimmage. Some are pursuing at linebacker depth. Some are pursuing a little bit deeper than linebacker depth. And those depths of coverage allow you to keep lanes as you cross in traffic to track your people. Another means of doing it is to do what generally is referred to as jet-stream, which means run in the wake of the guy you’re covering and as he looks to track the ball you’re able to close the distance and make the ground up, because quite frankly people slow down when they look to track the ball. So those are the two primary means of staying clean and tracking your people in man-to-man. Most defenses at all levels of football play levels of defense and have people moving in prescribed planes. And another element of it is you can always fall in directly behind the guy you’re covering, and when he tracks the ball he gives you an opportunity to close the distance and be in position to make the play once the ball gets there.

Q. Tonight’s opponent is the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that comes into the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards per game and last in rushing average. In a case like that, where one phase of an opponent’s game has been ineffective, do you still expect them to try to run the ball and prepare accordingly, or do you allocate most of your time working on stopping their passing game, which is what they’ve been doing primarily through the first three games?
A. You have to assume they’re working diligently to improve their running game, and we pay respect to that with our preparation. We’re not assuming anything relative to their running game relative to their present circumstance. We know they’re going to have a desire to run the ball, and they have a quality back in Joe Mixon, and they have another quality back in Gio Bernard. We’re doing our due diligence being prepared for that. We have no control over what it is they call, but we better be prepared to minimize their running game. More importantly than all of that, this can’t be the week they get right in that regard. So that’s our approach.

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