Bill Belichick's Friday press conferences in the Gillette Stadium media workroom often have a feel of finality. Sometimes, even the coach himself will say during regular season weeks that, "the hay is in the barn."
That was not, however, the tone of Belichick's final press conference of the week as he and his team come down the home stretch of preparations for Sunday night's AFC Championship Game with the Steelers in Foxborough.
A bit toned down in terms of visual hype from his Wednesday press conference that was live on NFL Network in front of a AFC title game backdrop – Belichick himself wondered at one point, "Where is all the stuff from Wednesday? It all got thrown out? The helmets and the [Lamar Hunt Trophy]?" – today's continued the coach's message that all that matters this week is how the two teams battle it out on Sunday night. Belichick seemed still quite focused on the task at hand and the continued preparations that need to take place as New England closes in on its biggest game of the season.
There were a few quirky questions, including one wondering if Belichick had ever previously been mentioned by a president-elect in an inauguration process, as he was by Donald Trump at a donor dinner on Thursday night.
"I don't know. We've got a big game," dispatching the first question of the presser.
Belichick also reeled in a reporters attempt to find out exactly what Belichick would be doing on Sunday leading up to the 6:40 p.m. kickoff. Any pregame rituals or superstitions?
"Yeah. Try to coach and play good. It goes a long way," Belichick said dryly.
Beyond those redirection responses by the Patriots head coach, highlights of his Friday morning press conference included a discussion of how his scout team replicates unique Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in practice, Logan Ryan's tackling ability in the back end and the attitude that his defense brings to the challenges it faces each week.
1. "Our practice squad players do a great job":Practice squad players and some players from the active roster play key roles in the preparation process for any opponent. A big part of that is giving the New England offense or defense a good look on the practice field of what the team will face on game day. Often times, certain players enact the unique talents and roles of specific star players from the opposition. For example, this week Tyler Gaffney and other Patriots running backs are trying to simulate Bell's unique running style. It's the latest example of the guys behind the scenes working to help the team win.
"I think you go through that every week," Belichick said of trying to simulate Bell's unique patience and abilities. "You talk to your players about the way that they play. You try to get your players to simulate that. Any great players whether it's Bell or [Jadeveon] Clowney last week, whoever they are, you don't have guys that are the same as those guys. There's very few of them in the league. But, the style and so forth. Our practice squad players do a great job. The guys who have those roles in practice, they do a great job of trying to do that. The quarterbacks. Being the other team's quarterback. All the other positions trying to simulate it the best they can. Whether it's [Stephon] Tuitt, [Javon] Hargrave, [Ramon] Foster, [Maurkice] Pouncey. It's the same for all of them. It's not just the running back, but it's the running back too."
2. Tackling "a big part of Logan's game":In his fourth season, Ryan has had arguably his best season in Foxborough. One of three Rutgers alums – along with fellow Scarlet Knights teammates Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon -- who notched interceptions in the playoff win over the Texans, Ryan actually finished the regular season leading New England's defense with 92 tackles. His team-best 74 solo tackles were more than linebacker Dont'a Hightower's 65 combined tackles on the season.
Friday, Belichick praised Ryan's tackling ability, a skill that's at the core of all action on defense.
"It's a big part of Logan's game. He's very good at that, and he's been good at it. He was good in college, good here," Belichick explained. "I mean, tackling, looking in, that's our job defensively, is to get the guy with the ball on the ground. Pass coverage plays into it, I understand that and there's a place for players that can cover other players and not allow them to get the ball, but in the end, somebody's got to get the guy with the ball on the ground. So, the more good tacklers you have on defense, probably the better you're going to be defensively.
"He's a good tackler, and our secondary, they work hard at their tackling. A lot of it is leverage and angles, and using your help, knowing where the other player is coming from so you condense the space and limit the runner's options. And then a lot of it is just good, fundamental tackling [and] technique. We work hard on that, Logan works hard on it, he does a good job. Devin [McCourty] played the same position in college, and he was a good tackler at that corner position. Devin has had to make the transition back inside [and] it's a little bit different tackling from safety from the inside-out than from corner from the outside-in. Logan does both, because he plays corner and the nickel position. So, there's an element of both there. That's a very important skill, and it's a high-level skill. Guys that are good at it have a lot of value to your team."
3. Important for defense "to have a good passion": Many believe the Patriots defense will face its toughest test of the season against Bell, Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and the potentially potent Pittsburgh attack. New England led the NFL in points allowed during the regular season, but never faced the level of quarterback or offensive firepower it will see Sunday night. Players like Ryan and Hightower have talked about the perceived lack of respect the Patriots defense received earlier this year and the way that still motivates the unit. Ryan said the group plays with a chip on its shoulder, and Belichick was asked if that's a good thing.
"It's important for the unit to have a good passion for each other and confidence in each other, so that's how you play aggressively and that's how you play well, so however that comes together," Belichick said. "Each unit is different, each make-up of the chemistry of the players and all of that is different. I don't try to control that. You put players together and you hope that they have a good chemistry based on the type of players that you've put together on that team or that unit. These guys definitely have it. Defensively, they have a good attitude, they have a good competitive spirit. They play the game with a passion and a purpose. So, yes, you want that. Absolutely."