Exclusive with Dale Lolley
The Steelers have been overwhelmed with injuries this year, yet are still in playoff contention. How much credit goes to Mike Tomlin – and what has this team done to help find success despite the injuries?
Tomlin and his staff have done an outstanding job this season working through what could have been some devastating injuries. People get tired of hearing, “the standard is the standard,” and “next man up,” but the players really believe it. Look at how Dallas fell apart this season without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant. The Steelers could easily have taken a similar nose dive. They didn’t because the coaching staff made them believe and put together game plans to make the most of what they had.
The Steelers seem more willing to take risks this season – both on the field and off. With the Boykin trade, more rookies playing, free agent pickups, etc., do you feel there’s and even greater sense of urgency from the coaches and front office this season?
Absolutely. They know they only have a handful of seasons remaining with Ben Roethlisberger in his prime with which to make another Super Bowl run. The Steelers don’t worry so much about next season as they do the current one. That has always been the case. But they have put more into it this year than any I can remember.
The coaches seem to be putting increasing emphasis on situational and simplified football. How has this helped the team – and what are the drawbacks to this?
I don’t see a true drawback. Look at their two-point success and the defense’s success in the red zone as prime examples. By working on 7 shots every all the time, they’ve become very good in those situations.
The Steelers lost the time of possession battle by over 10 minutes in their big Cleveland win. Has the importance of time of possession become a thing of the past in this new offense-oriented NFL?
Yes, I believe it has. This is no longer a running, control-the-clock league. Teams used to be very comfortable running the ball 40 times per game. That usually meant you were winning and controlling the clock. Now, they’d just as soon throw it 40 times. That doesn’t always lead to great time of possession advantages.
The defense has created more turnovers this year and played much better than expected. What has Coach Butler done on – and off – the field and off to improve this unit?
I really believe it’s as simple as allowing the defensive linemen to attack more and being more willing to blitz from anywhere. Dick LeBeau’s defenses blitzed a lot, as well, but the majority of the blitzes came from the linebackers. They’re still coming, but the inclusion of a better rush from the ends has created more pressure on QBs.
It also cannot be overlooked that guys such as Antwon Blake and Ross Cockrell weren’t big parts of this defense in previous years. And we didn’t see a healthy Mike Mitchell. Blake and Mitchell, in particular, add a physical presence in the secondary. And they all can catch the ball. The Steelers didn’t always put a big emphasis on ball skills in the past. They wanted corners who were sure tacklers first. They have started to emphasize ball skills in the secondary.
The defense continues to look for the big hits. How does the team work to straddle the line between physical defense and staying clear of the NFL’s policies on being “too physical”? How does it prepare for this in practice?
They really don’t in practice once the season begins. They hit a lot at camp, more than any team in the league. It’s a conscious effort by the defenders to see what they hit.
The Steelers have always been underappreciated for their innovative approach to the sport – from Noll’s strength programs and scouting changes to the team’s use of hypnosis and development of concussion testing. Have you seen the Steelers continue this progression over the past few years – in the use of technology, strategy, etc? How so?
They added an analytics person to give them a better idea of things on a league-wide scale. They also monitor heart rates of players while on the practice field in every practice. I don’t know how much other teams do in this area, but I’m sure other teams do it.
Are you seeing the leadership concerns of the past couple of years beginning to diminish? How have guys like Mitchell, Heyward, Brown and Roethlisberger helped in this regard. Any examples?
I thought leadership would be a problem with this team given what they’ve lost over the past couple of years. But Roethlisberger has grown into the unquestioned leader of the offense. And Heyward and Mitchell are guys that set the tone on defense. There’s also the quiet leadership of Heath Miller. These guys hold the other players accountable. Roethlisberger has been much more vocal in terms of quizzing guys on offense or explaining what he wants between plays from receivers. And Heyward is the unquestioned voice of the defense. He sets the tone with how hard he practices. The other guys follow that lead.
The recent Steelers drafts have gone well. What has changed with the approach Tomlin and the rest of the staff have brought recently to the draft process? Are they changing their focus on the type of player they are looking at?
I don’t know that there’s a difference. So much of the draft is good fortune. The one thing you can’t measure is heart and the Steelers have always tried to draft guys who love the game, ones that aren’t just there for the paycheck. Opportunity also has a lot to do with things. It wasn’t that long ago people were wondering if Heyward was a bust because he rarely played as a rookie or even into his second season. Because of the retirements and cap issues they’ve had, the Steelers have been forced to play more young guys sooner than they perhaps would have in the past.
The Steelers brought back most of the 2005 Super Bowl team last Sunday to celebrate the anniversary of their 2015 Super Bowl. What similarities do you see between that team and this 2015 team, if any?
I see some in terms of the situation they are currently in. Things are currently setting up for this team to be a wildcard. But that defense was so good and the offense was coming into its own. It’s kind of reversed this year.
Any last thoughts for readers?
This season is a good example of why you actually play the games. The Steelers were supposed to have the hardest schedule in the league. But we’ve already seen them go 3-0 against what was supposed to be the rugged NFC West. We’ve seen the Steelers affected by injuries. We see future opponents – ie. Denver and Indianapolis – that look like they’ll be without their starting quarterbacks for extended periods. Things change in the NFL from week-to-week. You want to be playing your best football in late November and into December. The Steelers look poised to do that as I write this.