Mon, 11 Dec 2023

Tomlin on challenges, mojo, T.J.

The Steelers
25 Sep 2023, 06:30 GMT+10

Bob Labriola

Q. I'd like to start with a couple of things you said during your news conference on Tuesday. When you were asked about Kenny Pickett, you said "Procedurally I like what I see from him and usually when a guy procedurally is in the right spot, the performance soon follows." What procedure were you referring to?

A. The process of readiness. His commitment to work, what he does in the classroom, what he does on the grass, what happens on the days of the week that we're not in stadiums playing. He has a very mature and professional approach. He's willing to do more than most, and that's always an asset for those who do. That always turns up in play. I've just been in the business long enough to have an extreme level of comfort in seeing that. I've seen it repeatedly over a long period of time. Those who put in, get out. There's no secrets in our business.

Q. Another thing you said last Tuesday was, "Offensively ... we have to get our mojo back." You've never been someone who believes there's anything mystical about what happens or doesn't happen in a stadium, good or bad. When I looked up the meaning of mojo, Oxford defined it as a "magic charm, talisman, or spell; a magic power." What did you mean by mojo?

A. It was a means of avoiding the question for me. Some things you just can't talk about. We're not performing as well as we would like, and it just simply requires more work. But when you get in press conference settings, I always think of something that you can talk about or something that's tangible, and they want to hear what's new and different and shiny and appealing. And sometimes (to the players) it's just, shut your mouth and keep working. And so sometimes I provide a little color in an effort to help the media do their jobs, but I meant absolutely nothing by it. We've got to play better. So that means we have to coach better, we've got to prepare better. We've got to step into a stadium with confidence and we've got to produce the plays that are born out of that process. Sometimes you don't have the success that you want, and if you don't believe in your process or the people you're working with, you're subject to change and you're continually in transition. We're comfortable with the pieces in place. We don't like the end result. We're going to keep our mouths shut. We're going to absorb the questions, the criticisms, etc., and we're going to work harder and wait for our next opportunity.

Q. As the head coach, you are the guy with the red challenge flag in your pocket. What are you seeing, or looking for to start thinking about whether to challenge a play?

A. A lot of things. I have in-stadium information that comes via jumbotrons. I have my eye because some of the things, particularly those that happen on our sideline, I see. And then I have coaches in the booth who have a different perspective coupled with technology up there. But sometimes all of those variables are moot, and sometimes, particularly when people are working at pace, a play is so significant that you want confirmation that they earned it. And particularly in the first half of a game, a timeout might be worth that. If time is of the essence, you don't have enough information, there's a lack of clarity if they're working at pace, and you simply don't want to let that moment pass. Field positioning, points, what have you, those are the variables that come into the decision-making process.

Q. Do you find over the course of this procedure that you get talked into things or talked out of things, or does it usually just come down to what you think?

A. You know, you can perceive it as talked into and out of, because I'm not in the booth, and so they're providing me information. I'm not in control the jumbotron so what I see on the jumbotron might influence me. I'm absorbing a lot of information in a short period of time and making decisions based upon that.

Q. When you make the decision to drop the challenge flag, the referee will come over to you. What is that conversation about?

A. It's really informal and doesn't mean much because once you throw the challenge flag, you're essentially challenging all components of the play. I'm just trying to help them from a timing standpoint and tell them the component of the play that I think is faulty. But it requires no discussion. Once you throw the challenge flag, all components to the play are up for review. And so it really requires no discussion. I'm just trying to help them do their job in a timely manner.

Q. Are there certain kinds of plays - forward progress, spotting of the ball as one example - that are unlikely to be won with a challenge?

A. Let's be honest, they're all unlikely to be won. There's a posture within the ranks that you better be pretty sure. But the unwritten rules in our space - line to gain and things of that nature, forward progress - you better have some clear evidence, and most of the time those things happen in piles of players, and so you're running a risk. But again, sometimes a line to gain or a moment might be worth that risk, particularly in the first half of the game. Oftentimes you go into a first half of the game with timeouts in your hip pocket and so, those are kind of the variables along the discussion.

Q. T.J. Watt is now the franchise's all-time sack leader with 81.5 after replacing James Harrison, and he got to the top of the list in his 89th NFL game. Going back to the prep for the 2017 NFL Draft, what do you remember about that process and what set T.J. Watt apart from some of the other edge players available that year?

A. First of all, it was an unbelievable edge player draft in terms of the talent available, and we went around and we looked at a lot of them. We traveled around, like Kevin (Colbert) and I used to do, and the thing that really stood out about T.J. is there was no guesswork. Schematically the defensive structure that he was in at Wisconsin was very similar to what we do here. There was no projection. In the past we had taken defensive ends who played in a four-man front in college and transitioned them into stand-up people, with LaMarr Woodley being an example. T.J. was doing the exact job in Madison, Wisconsin, that we would ask him to do in Pittsburgh, the schematically similar things and even playing on the left side of the defense. Plus he had the DNA component, the lineage, and we're just firm believers in the mind-set of people who have that exposure. They're not dreaming about the National Football League in the way that others who have farther proximity to it do. No, it's more of a plan and an agenda for them, and so there were a lot of things about him and his profile that made us really comfortable in terms of a high floor, and then we met the guy. OK, we take him out to dinner the night before his Pro Day, and he is somewhat annoyed by the whole process. He doesn't say much the whole meal. He chews with his mouth closed. He's polite. And really that's all I needed to know about T.J. Watt. He's a football lover, he doesn't like the pomp and circumstance. Just tell him what it is you need him to do. He's a lunch-pail-type of a dude. And that was extremely attractive to us. Kevin and I are talking to his coach in the parking lot after the meal, and we said to him, "Man, we don't feel like we get got to know him." And the coach was like, "You probably did." And that was our introduction to that flatliner, committed, just low profile personality type that's really conducive to chasing greatness.

Q. In terms of how they perform their specialty on the field, how are Watt and James Harrison similar, and also how are they different?

A. They're very similar in their commitment, what they're willing to do, the things that they do off the field in preparation for what you see on the field. How are they different? James is a power player. Everything was born out of bully-ball. He was a technician no doubt, not disrespecting his commitment to technique, but there was a fear component of his power that produced a lot of his opportunity that you could not deny. And so there's a difference there. Very few people played the way that James played. The bully component of it, but that's what made him unique.

Q. What makes Alex Highsmith a good partner for T.J. Watt?

A. You know, I don't necessarily view it as a partnership. I just think what makes Alex Highsmith good is he's a guy who's doing very similar things that he did in college at Charlotte. He played on the right side of his defense at Charlotte, and so he's in a similar space. That's one of the reasons why his spin move is so perfected and there's so much maturity in that technique. He didn't just start working on that spin when he got here. We saw that spin on his senior tape when he had 15 sacks at Charlotte. He has a skill-set. He has a commitment to the process. He's learned a lot from T.J. just in terms of watching T.J. go through his process of preparation. He has displayed some expertise, and he has developed some expertise that allows the plays that you see happen. It is not a lightning strike. This guy is a hard worker. He's got experience beyond his NFL years on that side of the ball in that perspective, and he is honing that craft.

Q. Both T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith take occasional breaks or breathers during a game, and so do you see it as a good thing if they're off the field together because that means when they come back on the field for weighty downs they're rested together? Or would you always rather have one of them on the field at all times?

A. It's week-to-week based on circumstances, to be quite honest with you. Markus Golden is a veteran player, he's heavy-handed, he's strong, he's experienced. He is a running-down substitute, if you will. Nick Herbig is a guy who's a flame-thrower. He's a young and talented guy, but he lacks experience. We maybe don't necessarily want him playing a lot of running-down football, and so he's maybe more of a passing-down substitute. Maybe it has something to do with the number of plays played in the previous drive, by either T.J. or Alex, or by both. And so there are a lot of variables in that discussion. If you're talking ideally, sure, you want one of those guys on the field at all times. But you don't necessarily have control over that at all times. Maybe the previous drive was a 13-play drive, and both guys played a substantial number of snaps. It might warrant that you start the next drive with Golden and Herbig, for example. And then you send both T.J. and Alex out there on the first possession down of that drive. There are a lot of variables, there are circumstantial variables, there's a snap-count component to it. But in a blanket sort of way just answering your question on a surface level, ideally, you want one of those guys on the field at all times.

Q. Tonight it's the Las Vegas Raiders, a team you faced last Christmas Eve. The big change in their lineup is Derek Carr is gone and Jimmy Garoppolo is now the starting quarterback. How are they different offensively because of that change?

A. I would imagine they're able to play more to the vision of Coach Josh McDaniels. Garoppolo was drafted by New England and grew up in that space. Coach McDaniels grew up in that space as a coach, and there are some values and approaches to business that were probably learned by both there that they commonly share. And so I would imagine the change probably produces more play that's aligned with the vision of the play-caller. And so, what is that? Risk management or minimizing risk, and that can be displayed in the fact that they haven't been sacked in their first two football games, for example. And so that's what it's about. Derek Carr is a proven, good player, as is Jimmy Garoppolo. Sometimes there's a relationship component to this thing that's a component of decision making. And from the outside looking in, I'm just speculating, I would imagine the component of the change had to do with relationships and perspective, and perspective based on shared experience in New England for both that play-caller and that quarterback.

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