Audio from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin press conference on Tuesday December 15th. Tomlin addresses the upcoming week 15 Green Bay Packers game on Sunday and takes questions on the past Browns game as well. As far as injuries go, Tomlin said Troy Polamalu (knee) is out this week as he continues to return from his PCL injury. He said Troy had an MRI last Wednesday and it showed there is still not enough healing that has been done yet. Guard Chris Kemoeatu (knee,wrist) will be out this week as well. Tomlin said the injuries have piled up on him and it his hurting his play. Ramon Foster will start at left guard in his place. Center Justin Hartwig (knee) and wide receiver Hines Ward (hamstring) could be limited early in the week of practice. Tomlin went on to say that running back Rashard Mendenhall could see more time on 3rd downs as running back Mewelde Moore has struggled with blitz pick-up. Transcript to follow shortly.
Mike Tomlin: Good Afternoon. I’ll start with a quick review of our Thursday night performance in Cleveland. Of course, it was a losing one, detailing the things that really contributed to that outcome. I think first and foremost, we were ineffective on third down, not only converting on third down but protection of our quarterback. We weren’t able to establish rhythm early because of that, it really put us behind the eight-ball in terms of our plan and what we wanted to do in the game. We didn’t capitalize on that red zone opportunity at the end of the first half. We knew potentially that red zone opportunities would be limited in this game due to weather and game circumstances. When we got those opportunities, we had to cash in on them. I thought we missed one there and it proved to be significant. I thought our tackling was below the line at points in this game, particularly on the perimeter. Joshua Cribbs hurt us in a variety of ways and that big punt return provided field position and a score for those guys early on and it was kind of a field position game in the first half. Our inability to convert first downs, plus with the conditions and that big punt return, I think we played quite a bit of the first half on our side of the field and we weren’t able to overcome that as the game unfolded. We didn’t make significant plays at significant moments and that’s why we lost the game. Moving forward, looking at where we are from an injury standpoint, a few updates. Troy [Polamalu] won’t play this week either. We got an MRI done on him Wednesday before we went to Cleveland and there’s not enough healing there with his PCL. We’re probably going to MRI him again, but just based on last Wednesday’s MRI, he wont be playing. Chris Kemoeatu will not be playing in this football game. I really have studied him quite a bit over the last two weeks and it’s an accumulation of injuries that are really rendering his play ineffective. He’s got the right wrist that’s forcing him to play one-handed at times. He’s got the right knee, which he missed the Baltimore game on. When you really look at his play, this is a guy that’s playing one-sided. You’ve got a great deal of admiration for his willingness to play amidst the circumstances, but just because he’s willing doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. This guy is out there playing one-handed and one-legged at times, we’re going to try to get him at a better physical state before we proceed with him. So at this point, we’re looking at taking him out of the lineup and Ramon Foster being our left guard this week. Justin Hartwig got his knee drained yesterday, it may limit him at the top part of the week but expect him to play. Hines [Ward] will continue to get better with his hamstring injury, which he played with last week. The rest of the injuries are minor and we’ll push forward toward this week. Really, as we sit here today, you’ve got to have a singular focus toward this opportunity. We’ve got a good football team coming in here in the Green Bay Packers. Well-balanced team, seventh in the league offensively, second in the league defensively. If you look at what they do on offense, their featured runner [Ryan] Grant is over 1,000 yards, a slashing, zone-scheme runner. He does a nice job of finishing off runs. They supplement him with Ahman Green and some others. Their quarterback [Aaron] Rodgers is really playing well, and this really where he’s distinguishing himself is on third down. If you watch the tape, it’s obvious that he’s playing well on third down. If you look at the stats, it’s even more evident. This guy’s got a 130-plus quarterback rating on third down. He’s been sacked quite a bit, but it hasn’t forced him into interceptions and bad decisions and so forth. He’s really managed the game well specifically in that instance. He’s got a core of receivers that are seasoned and well-rounded. They’re very good at hand-to-hand combat, they’re very good down the field, after the catch. Talk about Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, [James] Jones, their tight end [Jermichael] Finley, [Jordy] Nelson, their fourth receiver, they’ve got a good receiving core. Defensively, under Dom Capers, they are very similar to some things that we see that we do, but they’ve got some guys that are doing it at a higher level and you can tell that they’ve grown over the course of the season into Coach Capers defense. Up front, they’ve got big time contributions from [Cullen] Jenkins, who’s a very talented high-motor player. A young guy B.J. Raji is a good player that’s playing both nose and tackle for them. The linebacker core when you watch them is very active and productive. [Nick] Barnett inside along with [A.J.] Hawk, they’re very good at the cross-dogs, applying pressure, they’re both active tacklers sideline to sideline. The young first-rounder [Clay] Matthews is really coming on at right outside linebacker. He’s rushing the passer and doing a lot of things well. In their secondary, they’re led by [Charles] Woodson who’s probably having a player of the year caliber-year along with their free safety [Nick] Collins, those two guys are the ring leaders back there for them and they provide a bunch of plays, they’ve got a bunch of turnovers, they’re getting off the field and they provide short fields for their offense. So, needless to say, we’ve got a lot of work cut out for us, we’ve started that process yesterday with our football team, reviewing the Cleveland performance, making corrections and introducing the Green Bay Packers and some of the things that they do and we’ll continue with this process tomorrow starting with the guys.
Question: How would you characterize the state of mind of the team?
Mike Tomlin: I think anger would be one, disappointment definitely, but like we talked about yesterday, it cannot rule us. We’ve got to focus singularly on the opportunity which is in front of us. Excuses and explanations for what has happened particularly recently is really kind of irrelevant. You want to know what kind of team you are, look at your record and turn the tape on. The tape hasn’t been pretty and neither is our record. Our focus is on what’s in front of us this week. Of course it’s natural with having the myriad of emotions that come with failure, particularly in a competitors business, but it has to have it’s place and when it’s time to work, we’ve got to focus on the work. I thought we did that yesterday, I’ll be watching it very closely as we move forward in the week in preparation for this game.
Question: Last week, you called this team, “An average team at best,” does this mean it’s a bad team at this point?
Mike Tomlin: Like I stated, explanations really are irrelevant, we are what we are. We’re a 6-7 team, which is a losing record at this point, so it’s disappointing. It hacks you off, all of those things. I think the team itself of course shares those same feelings because they are extremely competitive and want to do well and want to play winning football, but the reality is we aren’t at this point, so it’s important that we channel those emotions and feelings into productive action, which leads to preparation and ultimately, a change in some of the outcomes of these performances. Particularly this week, we’re singularly focused on Sunday and the Green Bay Packers.
Question: When you were 6-5, you said the players needed to forget how they got here, what’s the balance between forgetting about that but also reminding them that what you’ve done recently is totally unacceptable.
Mike Tomlin: There is a delicate balance there and it’s a tightrope if you would that you have to walk. The reality is and the totalities of all things that have happened here recently, first and foremost, we looked at if have a desire to play dominant football, we haven’t done that. When you don’t play dominant football, you have to be opportunistic and make timely plays, we haven’t done that either. When you’re not dominant and you don’t make timely plays, you lose football games. We’ve lost five in a row to this point. Again, desire to be dominant but not a requirement in terms of winning. We’ve lacked dominance in the past and have found ways to win, because we’ve made significant plays at significant moments. This year, specifically in this run, that has been the case, we haven’t been dominant, we haven’t made the significant plays to close out and win football games. So that’s what we’re working towards, we’re working toward dominance and if we cant have dominance, we definitely have to have timely plays, and we’ve been in position to make those plays, we just haven’t made them to be quite frank. We had an opportunity to win the Baltimore game in regulation, but we didn’t because we gave up a big play on fourth-and-five. We had an opportunity to win the Oakland game, we had a ball hit us in the chest during that last drive, we didn’t make that play. Conversely, at in the past, we have. We didn’t have a dominant Detroit Lions game, but we made a succession of dominant plays at the end of that game to preserve that victory. There’s a delicate balance, we acknowledge that it’s very fragile. In this league, there’s a very line between winning and losing. The line is not so fine when you’re playing dominant, that’s why it’s our goal, but when we’re not playing dominant, we’ve got to find a way to make significant plays at correct moments.
Question: Talk about the challenges that 10 days rest presents during a losing streak.
Mike Tomlin: I really don’t see a negative in 10 days. I know that it’s been helpful to me kind of putting a perspective of where we are in a formulation of this plan for this week and putting us in position to be prepared to play the Green Bay Packers, so I haven’t sensed any negatives of a 10-day layoff to this point.
Question: When you look back at the game on film, besides whether the mistakes were mental or physical, is effort or desire part of the problem?
Mike Tomlin: When you’re making mental mistakes, I put that in the category of effort. Because it’s discipline. We’re not playing well enough to win right now. We’ve got some errors. We’ve got some lack of communication at times. We’re physically being beaten. But again, I think that speaks to what I was referring to earlier in that we’re not playing dominant football. You’re not always going to play dominant football, but you still like to be opportunistic and rise up and make the significant plays to win. I thought about the game that we played up there a year ago, that had really similar adverse weather conditions. That wasn’t a dominant performance, but we had a possession there in the red zone before the half in that game that we connected with Hines Ward on third down-and-11 from the eleven-yard line and scored a touchdown. We tackled a little bit better in that game, and we won that game 10-6. We lost this game 13-6. It’s a fine line. We have to walk on the right side of it this week in preparation for Green Bay. Hopefully we’ll put together a dominant performance. If we don’t, it better be one that’s timely and make significant plays at the correct moments to win the football game.
Question: You made minor adjustments on the short week. Since you have longer to think about it, might you make bigger ones?
Mike Tomlin: We may, and some of the adjustments that we made-and let me say this. I think that it’s important that you guys understand that I don’t have ulterior motives in terms of making moves. I’m not a guy that tries to send messages in terms of making moves, or stir things up, if you will. They’re done with the emphasis of winning football games. The changes I made last week were done with the emphasis of winning the game in Cleveland. Any changes we make this week will be done with the emphasis in winning this opportunity versus Green Bay. Some of the things that we did last week, of course we played quite a few people in the secondary-looking for some guys to make some splash plays in that area. We played several corners, of course-Ike Taylor, William Gay, Joe Burnett, Deshea Townsend-we’ll continue to play those guys until someone reveals themselves or steps outside of the group, if you will, and can show some playmaking ability. If somebody makes a play, they are going to stay on the field. We’re doing the same thing, really, at the safety position. Ryan Mundy’s playing quite a bit, along with Tyrone Carter. We’re playing Deshea some at the safety in a package or two. We’re trying to find a combination of guys who can make a play for us and get us off the field or provide us a short field. Same thing offensively; Rashard [Mendenhall] has played consistently well since the latter part of September or October. We’ll increase his opportunities. He’s playing on third down now, and we’re going to continue with that. Of course, we’ve tried to get Santonio [Holmes] going as a punt returner, and of course, that never really materialized based on the nature of some of the punting situations in that football game due to the weather. So those are some of the changes that we’ve made. We’ll probably continue with some of those, we’ll probably add to some of those as we continue to develop our plan. But again, all of that is done with the emphasis toward finding an edge that will provide a victory for us.
Question: Will you continue with Santonio on the punt returns, and what about the kickoff returns?
Mike Tomlin: Yes, we will continue with him as a situational return man. I like some of the things that we’ve done as a kickoff team. I think that’s been consistently above the line for the better part of the year, so you won’t expect a great deal of changes there.
Question: Did you use Mewelde [Moore] because of the weather and the wind?
Mike Tomlin: Yeah, we wanted to have three returners back-not only in the punt return game, but also in the kick return game. So we put Mewelde back and put him in the middle in kick returns, because he was a central communicator in the punt return game as well. We wanted communication to flow in one direction; Mewelde, of course, is a very reliable guy from a communications standpoint. He wasn’t reliable in terms of fielding the ball in the game, but from a communications standpoint and because of the weather, we deemed it necessary to have multiple return men back there. And he’s a good, consistent judgment guy and communicator.
Question: How does your team get its mental edge back?
Mike Tomlin: By making plays. I think anything else is false enthusiasm or bravado, if you will. So we have to knuckle up and swallow some of the things that we’re swallowing right now in preparation for this game. We have to stay singularly focused on the preparation, and ultimately, we have to step into the stadium and make plays. The more plays we make, the more rhythm we get, the more confidence we’ll get, and hopefully we’ll be able to put enough of those together to win this game.
Question: When you’ve got a pretty clearly defined third down guy like Mewelde Moore, what are you looking for out of a guy like Rashard?
Mike Tomlin: Rashard has done a nice job from a blitz pickup standpoint. He’s, of course, an established runner. Mewelde has not been very consistent from a blitz pickup standpoint, so it’s created an opportunity for Rashard to expand his role.
Question: How did Joe Burnett do the other day?
Mike Tomlin: He did okay, he didn’t distinguish himself. So that’s why, at this point, we’re continuing with the rotation that we have in terms of playing a lot of people. He played four possessions in that game, and probably will have a similar role this week, unless he makes a play or somebody else makes a play. And of course, whoever the playmakers are will be the ones who stay on the field.
Question: Keenan Lewis doesn’t factor in?
Mike Tomlin: Keenan Lewis hasn’t factored in because he hasn’t had a helmet from a special teams matchup standpoint. If he’s able to get a helmet due to a special teams matchup opportunity this week, then of course I’ll put him into that mix as well.
Question: From what you’ve seen of the Packers, has their second-half surge been mostly because they’ve adapted to the new defense?
Mike Tomlin: They’ve adapted to the defense over the course of the year, they’ve gotten a bunch of turnovers defensively-and that speaks to, I guess, their understanding of what they’re doing schematically- but they’ve also improved as a third down offense. The protection of the quarterback has vastly improved. And they’re getting hot at the appropriate times. Aaron Rodgers is getting hot at the appropriate time. I think his third down quarterback rating kind of speaks to that.
Question: With the weather conditions the other night and with the kind of depleted state of your opponent, one play that stood out was that third-and-one early in the game where you guys went into shotgun. Why not do power formation and try to grind out those yards?
Mike Tomlin: No question, in hindsight, we probably should have. But we were preparing for a big third-and-one to two menu from a game standpoint. Our intent was to run the football in that football game, so when you do that, you end up with some ones and twos and threes like we did in the first two possessions of that game. In that particular instance in the first quarter, we were going with the wind, so we had an opportunity (in our estimation) to pass the football. We didn’t expect to get sacked, of course. So with how the game potentially was going to unfold in mind, the fact that we could be in a bunch of third-and-one, two, and three situations, at that point, we deemed it appropriate to maybe hold on to the run down calls for the second quarters when we were going against the wind. Maybe later in the game, we’d have an opportunity to protect the lead, to keep the clock running, to run the ball on third down. So in those instances, we passed the ball. And really, it was ineffective, and really not a good way to start a football game.
Question: Ben has had responsibilities with the changing of the protection. Did he have an off night, doing that on Thursday?
Mike Tomlin: I think that we all had an off night. And I know I say that often, and maybe it becomes a cliché. But it’s true. You look at the third down of the football game. As the primary receiver, Hines Ward trips over one of the interior nickel guys and falls coming out of his break, or else he’s going to be open for an out-route. The secondary receiver Heath Miller got taken on inside position and really did a nice job of covering him. And then our center, Justin Hartwig, got beat pretty cleanly by Corey Williams. So a combination of Hines falling down, Heath getting covered, and Justin getting beat by Corey Williams produced an ineffective play, and not only that but a negative play-a sack. If you look at the second third down of the game, of course we were down there, backed up in the dog pound-so communication is very difficult. We were working on the silent count; Ben was standing in the secondary. The snap came before he was ready to receive it. They brought a guy off of the open side. It’s a catch and throw- you move the ball versus a hot in that situation on a first down. But because the snap came before he was prepared to get it, it surprised him- he spun out versus the edge pressure guy and we got sacked again. So, a lot of explanation, a lot of excuses- really, it’s irrelevant. The protection of our quarterback and the conversion of third downs is an eleven-man job, and it’s a staff job. And we all failed. And I can go down the list of third down plays just in that fashion. But really, when you think about it, it’s irrelevant-isn’t it? We have to be more functional in those situations. We have to operate at a higher level. We can’t have the popcorn of breakdowns, be it physical-someone tripping out of a cut, falling down, someone losing a one-on-one battle, getting covered, someone losing a protection battle, getting beat by an interior lineman. Collectively, it all produces negative plays. We have to win more of those battles than we lose. And until we do that, we’ll continue to struggle. It’s not our intention to continue to struggle. We’re going to work our tail off this week to make sure we win more than we lose.
Question: Is there a value in saying “We’re going to impose our will on you, here we come, we’re going to run the ball”, and does throwing on third-and-one represent any lack of confidence in your offensive line’s ability to get movement?
Mike Tomlin: I think it does, particularly when you throw on third-and-one and you don’t move the chains. It does, and I can understand that assessment of it. And we haven’t been as dominant as we’d like to be, running the football on third-and-one or third-and-two. I think Rashard is 6-of-12 on the season in less than two on third down. 50% is not good enough. It’s not. So we’re not running away from that assessment of the situation either.
Question: Yesterday, James Farrior spoke in terms of playing for the team with pride and things of that sort. Regardless of wherever the next three games go, is that as important of a starting point as any other in trying to get out of this?
Mike Tomlin: I’ll agree with that, but again, to me, it’s about this opportunity. And for this team, it’s going to be about this opportunity. I’m not concerned about the final three games, collectively. I’m not concerned about how we push through the adversity we face as we sit here right now. It is what it is. We need to swallow that, we need to show our mental fortitude, and we need to prepare, and we need to prepare better, and ultimately we need to play better on Sunday in front of our home fans at Heinz Field against a good quality opponent. And that’s the driving force for me, and that’s going to be the driving force for our football team. We’ve lost two games in a row at Heinz Field in front of our home fans. And they deserve better than that. We deserve to give a better performance for ourselves that we’ve given in recent dates. All of those things are driving me and they’re going to drive us this week in preparation for this game.
Question: We’ve seen this offense-and before you came here, more from a 60% run to about a 60% pass. Could the reason that you’re passing more be the lack of confidence in the run?
Mike Tomlin: Like I’ve said several times, we strive for balance. We really do. We want to use all of our weapons. We believe that we have quality receivers; we believe that we have a quality quarterback. We believe that we have a quality offensive line and running back. We strive for balance. But our recent failures in third down have really skewed that balance. When you’re having three-and-outs, particularly to start football games-the way it’s happened here for us recently-or you move the ball via big plays, like we did at times-say, two weeks ago against Oakland-you don’t establish the balance that you ultimately desire. What we desire and what’s on tape are two different things right now. So I’m not going to try to explain away what’s on tape. I’m just trying to give you an understanding of how it evolves. Our intentions, or what we plan to do, and what’s unfolded are two different things here of late, and that’s we’re unproductive, and that’s why we’ve not won.
Question: When Troy got hurt the second time, you sounded much more optimistic about his chances of coming back from his injury versus the first time. Did you find further damage, or is he just been slower than expected to recover-has the MRI shown worse results?
Mike Tomlin: I really just think that the healing process is slower than we anticipated, just based on what I’ve seen-well, not what I’ve seen, because I couldn’t read and MRI if it was in front of me-but what our doctors have seen from an MRI standpoint, in terms of the healing of the PCL.
Question: You’ve spoken previously about the offense maybe looking similar to the Patriots’ offense. Is what we’re seeing a reflection of that? And in fact, as you look back at it, is there a flaw in maybe not having the personnel to do that?
Mike Tomlin: No, what you’re seeing is a reflection of ineffectiveness on third down, really. I mentioned the Patriots in passing several weeks ago now simply because that was one of the groups that came to mind when you talked about having a lot of ways of attacking an opponent. They have a dominant quarterback, they have several dominant receiving options, and they have a good running game. They have a nice back- who I believe is maybe the best third down back-in Kevin Faulk. We thought we shaped up, and still think that we shape up in a similar way- from a personnel standpoint, in that we have a quarterback that’s capable of delivering for us, we have some quality receivers, we have a featured back that we like, we have a stable of backs that we like, we have a third down back. But we haven’t performed well enough-particularly recently- on third downs to establish the kind of personality that we desire, which is balance, the ability to attack people in different ways, and ultimately ring the scoreboard up and win football games.
Question: Speaking of personality, Green Bay went to the 3-4 this year. Are you surprised, in some respects, in how quickly they’ve adapted, and in fact been successful in creating turnovers? Or is that personality being displayed for that?
Mike Tomlin: I think a lot of that was in place. I think a lot of what they did in the offseason was geared toward that transition as well. The drafting of Clay Matthews was big; the drafting of B.J. Raji was big. [A.J.] Hawk and [Nick] Barnett are quality interior linebackers; whether or not they play on 4-3 or 3-4 is irrelevant. [Cullen] Jenkins is a dominant defensive lineman; whether or not he’s in a 4-3 or a 3-4 is irrelevant. I think that sometimes skill set transcends scheme. And when you talk about dominant players, really good players-it doesn’t matter what scheme they’re in. Charles Woodson is a dominant corner, regardless of whether you put him on the line of scrimmage, you play bump in man-to-man every down, or you line him up in zone defenses, whether he’s a nickel back or a safety, or a corner-this guy can play. So I think they have a lot of pieces in place that were natural fits. I think that some of the moves that they made were geared toward that transition, and I think it’s kind of come together nicely for them.
Question: Obviously things are always highlighted during a losing streak like this, but those messages-“Redemption Sunday” and the “unleash hell”- does it worry you that those weren’t translated into results and when the phrase “Lost your team” is thrown out there, does that upset you?
Mike Tomlin: It doesn’t upset me. I think that those kinds of judgments and things come with losing. That’s a byproduct of losing. If you’re in this industry and you’re a competitor, you wear that. I wear that. I accept that. I’m always less worried about what’s said from an outside standpoint and more concerned about what I see from the people that I interact with and deal with and coach on a day-to-day basis. So some of those things hadn’t been a bigger concern of mine, based on my interactions with them. I understand that maybe those feelings or sentiments can be relayed through the media or from the outside. But that comes with losing. If we don’t like that, we need to win a football game.
Question: What do you see when you look at your players?
Mike Tomlin: I still see a determined group. I see a group that’s frustrated. I see a group that has a desire to win. I see a group that’s willing to take all of the decision that I make in an effort to win. I think they’ve done a nice job in that. We haven’t put together enough plays to be dominant, which is of course what we desire to do first and foremost. And if not dominant, at least opportunistic. And we’ve done neither. That’s why we’re where we are at this point right now.
Question: Even though Ike Taylor’s receiving skills are questionable, how many touchdowns has he given up in man-to-man coverage? And also, if the Steelers aren’t satisfied with him, is it a possibility that he might be released at the end of the season?
Mike Tomlin: I guess I’ll answer your last question first. We haven’t pondered any off-season decisions on any level at this point. I don’t think it’s the appropriate time to take that approach to anything that we’re doing. Our goal as an organization, as a football team, is to be singularly focused on Green Bay and what it takes for us to win this game. With regards to your first question, I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t know how many specific touchdowns Ike has given up this year.
Question: In that vein, players have said “We’re playing for our jobs now.” Is that so, and what does that mean? Could these next three games cost some of these guys their jobs?
Mike Tomlin: I think that that’s a natural assessment. I think that everybody understands the nature of this business-that when you’re unsuccessful, changes come with that. I think that is a natural assessment from a big picture standpoint. But from a football team’s standpoint, from an organization’s standpoint, that is not our focus in any form or fashion as I sit here today. But form a player’s standpoint, if asked questions along those lines, we have enough veteran players that understand the nature of this industry and this business that when you don’t win, changes are a part of it.
Question: If you look at tape from these last two games, defensively, are there a fair amount of times when it’s not about schemes or mistakes, it’s about guys who just aren’t physically able to get there and make the plays?
Mike Tomlin: That’s a fair assessment. I guess it’s highlighted by the fact that we’ve lost, and I mean that. Win or lose, people get physically beaten in every football game. You get schematically beat in every football game, particularly when you’re not dominant. But if you find a way to make significant plays, some of those failures are distant memory. If Joe Burnett catches the ball against Oakland, we probably wouldn’t think about the physical failures or the schematic failures that happened in that game. He didn’t. We lost, so it’s etched in your memory. That comes with coaching and playing in this business, particularly at this level. So I guess what I’m saying is that every game you roll the ball out, you lose some physical battles, you’re going to lose some schematic battles. You better win more than you lose, and you better make timely plays if you’re not dominant. And, of course, we haven’t done either lately.