On the rise: The Steelers have utilized their rookies heavily this season, with Devin Bush a starter at inside linebacker, Diontae Johnson starting at receiver, Devlin Hodges starting at quarterback and Benny Snell is getting plenty of carries at running back.
While they are getting a lot of work, their snaps are also being thoughtfully managed by Coach Mike Tomlin, making sure they don't hit the rookie wall and burn out at a time when they are needed most as the playoff push is in full swing and every healthy body is needed.
"I think exposure is good," said Tomlin of the work they have been getting. "There are a couple caveats to that. There is too much exposure. Too much exposure can be negative in young guys. That's why we have been thoughtful about exposure for these young people. That's why we don't play Devin Bush in all packages, although he has the talent level to play in all packages. That's why we're thoughtful about the things we ask Diontae to do. He doesn't play 60 snaps a game, and has not, although he has been available to us because we wanted to manage that exposure, because too much exposure is negative.
"Also, we realize as we push into Game 14, most of these guys unless they played at Alabama or somewhere, they are in uncharted territory. We're thoughtful about that exposure. We want them to be young people on the rise as we get to this portion of the season. Sometimes that is not within your control. Sometimes availability, or lack of availability of others dictates that. When given an opportunity we like to be thoughtful about the long-range growth and development in these guys, so we have these types of discussions in December. And we're talking about those guys being young men on the rise instead of guys hanging on by a thread."
My job is to win: It's something that happens every week. Following practice on Fridays, the defense backs and linebackers gather together in a meeting room at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and meet with Tomlin. It's been going on for years, a ritual to go over film one more time, tie down any loose ends as the team prepares for the upcoming game. The only thing that changes in the routine, is when the team plays on a Thursday or Monday night and the day the meeting happens changes.
For many players, it's something that they expect, something commonplace. But for others who have played elsewhere, like Joe Haden, it's something new to have the head coach meet with a position group in that type of setting.
Tomlin said it's just what he does, and he does it because he loves it.
"If I'm awake and I am in the building and they are in the building, I am meeting with somebody," said Tomlin. "I think it's important. I live by a creed that no job is too small. We all have to roll up our sleeves and be prepared to ante up and kick in.
"Those are just words. The actions are more important. I like to display that. I have a bunch of these little personal relationships that I have. I meet with the DBs, I meet with the linebackers, I meet with the quarterbacks on Wednesday morning at 7:30. You can go on and on. It's not anything new or unique in that regard. We are not paid by the hour. My job is to win, and I enjoy what I do."
Critical contributions: If you take a look at the defensive stat sheet, Joe Haden's stats jump out at you. A total of 58 tackles, but add on to that four interceptions, 15 pass defenses, and a forced fumble. If you look a little further down, Steven Nelson's stats might not jump out as much, with 50 tackles, five pass defenses and a fumble recovery, but it's not just about the numbers game.
Tomlin said both players contribute in ways beyond the stat sheet, and their value can be felt on and off the field.
"It's critical," said Tomlin when first asked about Haden's impact, but then he mentioned Nelson. "You can also attribute those comments to Steven Nelson, who has less splash plays but has been equally as consistent from a performance standpoint and equally as consistent from a systematic preparation standpoint. I just can't say enough about those two guys and how their professionalism and maturity permeate throughout not only their position group, but the unit."