Fri, 29 Jan 2021

Tomlin on JuJu, play-calling, RG3, Hines

The Steelers
03 Dec 2020, 05:30 GMT+10

Bob Labriola

Q. It was an unusual situation this past week or so, to say the least. It began with your team preparing for a Thursday night game, but then COVID intervened and the game was postponed but not until Wednesday afternoon. In terms of preparing the team, is extra time an asset or is it a disruption at that late date?

A. I'm never opposed to extra time. I think we utilized it in an appropriate way. We gave our guys some days off - they had Thanksgiving off, and they had Friday and Saturday off - so they had a three-day block of time where they could rest and recuperate and take care of their bodies. But also, just continue to study tape and prepare themselves above the neck. I know that from a staffing standpoint, we were prepared to play on Thursday night, and the additional time wasn't a negative for us. It gave us additional time to really critique our menu, and usually in those circumstances I'm always of the mentality of subtracting as opposed to adding. So I thought we had an opportunity to make some appropriate subtractions from the things we were trying to do schematically. You don't get a chance to measure it until you step into a stadium, but I feel good about where we are and how we utilized the extra time.

Q. The Ravens were dealing with COVID issues over the last week or so, and it was all over the news which of their players wouldn't be playing today as a result of positive tests or close contact. Is that kind of thing, even though it's the opponent's problem, a potential distraction for your team?

A. Potentially, and that's why we talk openly about it. And we have very recent past experience to draw from, and a lot of the guys who were here a year ago we openly talk about how it was a mistake for people to underestimate us because of the circumstances we were in. And those who did probably lost to us. We don't underestimate anybody particularly because of circumstances. Competitors, professionals bow up and smile in the face of adversity. And so we're expecting some competition and the very best of the Baltimore Ravens.

Q. When you were a coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings, what was it like calling the defensive plays? Is that fun?

A. It is. It is, particularly when you feel a certain level of preparedness and you like the physical matchups of yours vs. theirs. It is really, really rewarding.

Q. Do you remember what it was like the first time, because it doesn't seem as though you can practice for that assignment?

A. I was fortunate. I've always had leadership that was thoughtful about my growth and development as a coach. When I was a position coach down in Tampa and working for (defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin, every time he got an opportunity to allow me call a game he would allow me to call a game, because he knew my goals and he just wanted to help me prepare. I had an opportunity to call halves of some preseason games. I called a Senior Bowl. And so by the time I actually got on the job it didn't feel like the first time for me and I'm thankful for that.

Q. What challenges does the play-caller face?

A. Just the paralysis by analysis challenge, as I like to call it. Particularly in young play-callers, they're looking for the perfect call, and very rarely does that exist, particularly when it takes too long. The call that you make is important, but the speed in which you come to the decision to make the call is probably just as important, particularly on the defensive end. The quicker you get the call in, the quicker the defense gets the necessary information they need and then they can spend the remainder of the pre-snap time diagnosing what they see from the offense and pondering the possibilities. That's something people don't talk about often enough. That's one of the main reasons why offenses utilize hurry-up: you stress the defense to the point where they're just focused on what it is they need to have and do, and it doesn't give them the opportunity to digest what you're doing.

Q. What's the offensive play-caller generally trying to accomplish with his play-calls?

A. It's quite simple: the offensive play-calling is a simpler process than the defensive play-calling. The only focus of the offensive play-caller is how to stay ahead of the sticks and how to utilize the people at his disposal. So there's a lot of latitude there. You can throw it, you can run it, you can change personnel groups. You better highlight the strengths of the people you employ, and you better be thoughtfully non-rhythmic. But really the only guideline is to work your tail off to keep your group ahead of the sticks, utilizing all the people at your disposal.

Q. Is it similar at all to playing chess, where you're trying to think two, three moves ahead?

A. Very much so. As a chess enthusiast, very much so.

Q. JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrated his 24th birthday the Sunday before last. Would you say that he's mature for his age?

A. JuJu is forever young (laughs). Don't get me wrong, he doesn't lack maturity, but he has a perspective on life and there's a certain energy that he brings to the room when he walks in it that's youthful. And I don't think he'll ever lose that. He's the type of guy who draws energy from human interaction. He's an extrovert. He's fun to be around, but there is a maturing process that has gone on with him. He is a mature professional and football player. He's just a guy who has a lot of love for life and expresses it.

Q. You called him "forever youthful." Is that a compliment.

A. Heck yeah. I wish I was.

Q. What does that add to the group?

A. I just think he brings a can-do attitude always. He doesn't look at a problem and ponder the problem. He ponders the possibilities, and there's an outlook there that's contagious and is helpful, particularly to the inexperienced. We have some young guys in the huddle with you or on the team with you who lack a little certainty, who lack a little experience as they smile in the face of adversity, and to have a guy with that mentality who shares it so freely as he does is helpful.

Q. What are some of his special attributes as a player?

A. He is physically and mentally tough. He has a base about him that makes him tough to deal with in the space in which he plays. He's bigger and stronger than most of the people he competes against in the space in which he works, and that's why he has been particularly effective on possession downs making plays at the sticks and working the interior portions of the field. He's just a guy who's really comfortable in traffic.

Q. People see the on-field celebrations, his presence on social media and maybe perceive him as an immature me-first guy. Is that a misconception?

A. That is so far from the truth. Anybody who knows him, his teammates know he is an energy-bringer, he is a team player first. In celebration of his 24th birthday on that Sunday, they had a celebration and it was on a Chase Claypool touchdown. And that just speaks to the type of guy he is, and if people miss that, then that's a shame.

Q. You know the dynamics of your locker room. How does JuJu fit into that social structure?

A. He's an integral part of it from a young player perspective. If you will, he is the leader of the young guns. He's probably the most experienced of the young guns, but they gravitate toward him. You see it in outside-the-facility-like things. The young guys want to know where JuJu lives, so they can live close to JuJu, and things of that nature. He has become that guy, and usually that guy is a future team leader, a future captain, but he's just probably still a little young right now.

Q. Late in your game in Jacksonville, the Jaguars got the ball with 3:30 left in the fourth quarter, and you had replaced a bunch of your defensive starters. But even with that, there was still an energy about the play of your defense, guys were flying around, hustling, even though the outcome of the game had been decided. I'm assuming you noticed that, and so was that impressive or what you expect?

A. It's expected and required. The guys who are on the field, the 11 who represent us are us, and circumstances are less relevant. They embrace that. They make the cliche, the standard is the standard, real. And so they own that. They realize the tape that is out there is their walking, talking, breathing resume. And that's all we have professionally - them and us as coaches. You want to know what type of player you are, what type of coach you are, turn on the tape. We talk about that openly, and so that's why you feel the urgency that you feel regardless of circumstance.

Q. You faced Robert Griffin III quarterbacking this Ravens offense last season in the finale. How is he different than Lamar Jackson?

A. He is very different. There is a twitch to Lamar Jackson that no one has at the quarterback position. His top-end speed is one thing, but the speed at which he gets to his top-end speed is also something to be reckoned with. RG3 is mobile, but that is a different conversation when you're talking about Lamar Jackson in terms of what he brings from a running standpoint. So there is a significant difference there. There is an experience difference there with RG3 that comes from being in the league the length of time he has been in the league, so they might have some things they're capable of doing in the passing game that they weren't able to do with Lamar. I think we're going to discover their mentality as it pertains to RG3 and the differences as the game unfolds.

Q. Hines Ward made the list of 25 semifinalists to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2021, and there are three other receivers in that group as well - Torry Holt, Calvin Johnson, and Reggie Wayne. Why does Hines belong in the Hall of Fame?

A. He's a winner. I think winning is a component of it. It has to be. He had the confetti rain down on him, and not only that, he was not in a support capacity, he was in a central capacity in doing so. And also, his game is not defined by numbers, although his numbers are very comparable to the people you mentioned in terms of being Hall of Fame worthy. If you just look at Hines from a numbers standpoint he is Hall of Fame worthy, but those of us who witnessed him play, those of us who have been in stadiums with him, we realize his impact on the game is beyond the numbers. There was a physicality in his play that created a collective personality that was the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was a calling card, and it was probably one of the central things that made him a generational player. Defensive backs, when they stepped into stadiums, there was a certain urgency in them because they knew Hines Ward was in uniform and it had nothing to do with whether or not he had the ball in his hands. I think that's really relevant in this conversation.

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