Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels
*Q: Is Pittsburgh still fundamentally running the same defense and concepts they have in the past? If so, how does that help you in terms of getting a jump-start on your preparation for them? *
JM: Yeah, there's plenty of carryover from what we've competed against in the past. They've got a certain volume of things that, I would say, are core things to them, that they do each year. They have plenty of change-ups that, depending on the game, the opponent or how they feel like they need to defend you, that they can kind of unveil and use at their disposal each week also. We've played them a lot but it's always a difficult preparation, one, because they have good players, two, they're very well-coached and their style of play - they play with great effort, physicality. There's nothing easy, they don't give up many big plays and then they create a lot of disruptive plays with what they do. And then to top it all off, there's the element of the unknown. In every game you play against them, there's going to be some element of adjusting that needs to take place because they're going to change something that you're prepared for and they're going to make an adjustment that they think is important to make that week, and then you're going to have to switch something up or adjust in the game as well. Really, really tough opponent, tremendous amount of respect for Coach [Mike] Tomlin and Coach [Keith] Butler and this whole defensive group. We've played against them a lot and they're obviously playing very well right now, lead the league in sacks, create a lot of negative plays, don't give up many yards, stop the run, good on third down. I mean, this is a big challenge and this is a tough place to play.
Q: You guys, especially Tom Brady, have been exceptional taking care of the ball against the Steelers. Why is ball security such a big deal and why are you guys so good at it against the Steelers?
JM: Well, I think it's one of, if not the most important, statistic in most NFL games is being able to take care of the ball and protect the possession of it when you have it. Tom deserves the credit for what he does on the field. We certainly try to drill ball security drills and those types of things, but ultimately, a lot of times for the quarterback, ball security comes down not only to fundamentals, but to decision-making. So, when you're under duress, you have a split second to make a choice and you could chose to try to do something heroic or you could chose to try to make a smart decision and take your medicine on that play and understand that you're not going to - every play's not going to be a 50-yard touchdown. They have really good players and a good scheme and sometimes they're going to get you. Sometimes I think accepting that is not only a big part of taking care of the ball but then making that critical decision under pressure is really important. I don't know the numbers the last so many times we've played Pittsburgh, but I know they've created pressure on our quarterback, I know they've sacked us, and each one of those plays, there's obviously the element of ball security to finish the play, to make sure that we still have the ball. Tom has historically done a great job of taking care of it and we're going to need to do a really good job this week because when they create turnovers, put their offense on a short field, obviously that's not a good thing for us.
Q: Do you marvel at the number of hits Rob Gronkowski has to take to make plays and keep producing in this league?
JM: Well, there's no question that he's an extremely tough guy. I think we have a lot of those guys on our team and Gronk's certainly one of the tougher ones in the league at that position. I think because of his size and where he usually catches the football, which is in between the numbers, there's a lot of bodies that eventually come downhill towards him and have an opportunity to make a decision how they want to try to tackle him. Most of those people usually go low, they could choose to do some other thing, but a lot of times they go low because of how big he is and the concept of trying to tackle him high generally isn't high on everybody's wish list. There's no question that playing his position at his size and understanding what happens in our league now with the emphasis on not hitting people in the head and all the rest of it is it requires a tremendous amount of courage to go in there and continue to run pass routes inside. You know you're eventually going to incur some punishment, some hits, and thankfully most of those are not to the head and neck area anymore and that's a good thing. But there's no doubt that toughness and courage is a huge element of playing inside in our league and in the passing game and having success and being able to stay focused on the football, finish the play properly, understanding in the back of your mind, you know you're going to take a hit. I would say Julian [Edelman] is right up there, also. They both do a lot of stuff inside and they have a great understanding of how that works and neither one of them plays the game with fear. Tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for all of the things that they do inside and the toughness that they display week-in and week-out.
Q: Coming into this season James Develin had one rushing touchdown and he now has four this season and three in the last two weeks. How has this suddenly become a big part of what you guys have done the last couple weeks?
JM: Well, James will do anything we ask him to do. He'll block, he'll pass-protect, he'll carry the football if we ask him to, he'll catch it and do his part, he'll help chip defensive ends or pass-rushers if that's what we ask him to do. He serves a lot of roles for us and Dante [Scarnecchia] and Cole [Popovich] and Ivan [Fears], they do a tremendous job of evaluating those goal-line and short-yardage situations. Dante's done this for so many years and been tremendous at it. And depending on the front or the match-up or what have you, you have to try to keep things moving a little bit on the defense but also try to find a sweet spot that you want to try to run into each week. It just so happens that we have that play in our offense and James is a productive runner when he's had his opportunities to do that. He's been successful when we've handed it to him this year. Again, not something that you do every single week, not something that is necessarily something that you're going to repeat over and over and over again. But, depending on what the defense is maybe giving you or where you think your best opportunities are, you try to make your best decisions in those situations and get the ball in the end zone.
Q: What can you take from the way last year's game against the Steelers went back-and-forth that you can carry into this week as a lesson from that game?
JM: I think every time you play Pittsburgh, one, you know they're well-coached. You know they're a really tough, physical team. They're very similar to us in many regards in terms of the way we play. Their style and scheme may be different, but the players, the way that they're coached, they're a blue collar team that prides themselves on being physical and tough. On defense, they try to stop the run and get after the quarterback and they're mentally tough. That game had a lot of ebbs and flows in it, back and forth, and so no matter what happens early in the game this week, it won't make any difference. It's going to be a 60-minute battle and I would expect them to - it's kind of a punch, counter-punch thing and you just try to have a great week of preparation and prepare your guys as best you can and go out there and play against a really good team in a crazy environment. It's one of the best places to play in the league on the road. You go in there expecting that it's going to be tough and you're going to have to have mental toughness and physical toughness in order to hang in there and play all four quarters the way you need to. Last year was no different, and they're having a really good year again on defense. We understand what the challenge is going to be and we're going to need a great week of preparation and understand that everything isn't going to be perfect on Sunday but we're going to have to hang in there and keep battling. Our guys did that last year and we're going to need to do it again this year.
Q: I'm curious about the copy-cat nature of the league. You've been designing plays for a long time, so I imagine that not only has a team stolen your play ideas but also, ultimately used those plays against the Patriots. If that's happened to you, what's that like for you as a play-designer to see your creation used against you?
JM: That's tough to answer. The reason I say that is because usually, I don't see much of what the other team does against us, so I don't really know generally if that is or isn't happening. I would just say the same thing I said in the past - there's a lot of really good coaches and a lot of unique designs and people are always creating new things to try to give themselves an advantage each week. We're all football coaches. We all see different games when we're looking at tape of an opponent, like Pittsburgh this week. You may see somebody else's offense, see something that is of interest to you. But ultimately, I think the most important thing when you're looking at somebody else's scheme is trying to make decisions on what works for your team because none of us have the same players. If our guys can do something well that somebody else might have done and it fits who we are and our personality and the strengths and weaknesses of our players, then great. And I'm sure that other coaches and teams do it very similarly to that, is try to make decisions about what they feel like fits them. Like I said, we've copied as many things from other people as other people have copied from us, I'm sure. It's all football. The most important thing is you have to play with good fundamentals. You have to block, you have to run, you have to throw and catch, you have to pick up blitzes, and those things are really the most important ingredient to our success each week. It's not a play call or scheme or some design. It's just our guys going out there and playing good solid football, and when we win, it's because they do a lot of really good things on the field.
Patriots Linebackers Coach Brian Flores
*Q: Bill Belichick noted earlier that Pittsburgh has one of the best offensive lines in the league. As far as being aggressive on defense, how do you pick your spots and not over-commit to being aggressive? *
BF: Oh yeah, it's a very fine line. Like you said, and like Bill stated earlier - I didn't hear that - but in watching it, they've got a terrific offensive line, they do a great job with protections, they handle twist games, blitzes, exotic looks. They handle them all well. Obviously, Ben [Roethlisberger] is one of the top quarterbacks in the league and really probably of all time, and then they've got two of the best receivers in the game. So, you've got to pick your spots, but at the same time we want to be aggressive and we want to do as much as we can to pressure the quarterback and pressure the offense overall, but definitely got to pick your spots. They've got great players across the board and the quarterback does a good job of getting everybody the ball, spreads it around - tight ends, backs, receivers - he can extend plays, he's a hard guy to tackle in the pocket. Obviously, he's been doing it for a long time and this will be a big challenge for us this week, specifically because we're on the road. It's a tough environment to play in. It will be a great challenge for us.
Q: What has John Simon been able to bring to your defense over the last couple weeks?
BF: John's been really a great addition to our team, obviously played real well last week. He's really developed and grown over the course of the season. He got banged up early and then, I would say, over the last three, four weeks has gotten healthy and really done a good job of just bringing energy to the team. He's got a great skillset, does a good job with his pass rush, does a good job setting the edge, plays with good speed, good energy. He's been a solid contributor to the team and we're happy to have him.
Q: It seems like he's a very instinctive and smart player who doesn't get easily fooled by things. Is that something that you see with him on a weekly basis?
BF: Yeah, definitely. It's something that he's shown in practice, he showed in his time in Houston. We got, obviously, good reviews about him. He's definitely an instinctive player, smart guy, picks things up quickly and picked up our defense quickly. So, again, like I said before, we're definitely happy to have him and he's been a great contributor and hopefully continues to do so moving forward.
Q: How come guys keep running so well with the football against your defense after handoffs?
BF: Well, I mean, the run game's been something that we need to do a much better job of coaching, do a better job of playing. We've got to do a better job of getting off blocks, got to do a better job with our angles in the secondary. It's something we're going to spend a lot of time on. It's something we have spent a lot of time on. Teams are going to keep running the ball or attempting to run the ball until we do something to stop it. Obviously, that's at the top of my priority list and our priority list as a defensive staff. We'll practice to get it better, we're on the players to get it better and I think they've got the mindset that they know they've got to get it. We've got to get that part of our defense. It's got to be much better than it's been, and hopefully we do that. It will start tomorrow in practice - actually, it starts today. You know, we'll watch the run game and I'm sure they're watching film and getting to know the Steelers and how they try to run the football and how they would attack us. We've talked about it, we've corrected it and we've just got to go out there and produce and simply play better in the run game.
Q: Is it sometimes scheme? Because offenses can be so specialized, are you sometimes getting hit simply on scheme plays? For example, you don't have the right guys on the field, will offenses try to exploit the guys you have on the field because it's a more run-attractive option for the offense than to throw?
BF: Offensively, having coached on that side, that's the name of the game. What you're trying to do is scheme up plays to take advantage of the defense. So, that's not just the run game. That's every play offensively. So, it's something that obviously they're trying to scheme us, we're trying to scheme them. We're going to have different personnel on the field depending on what they give us and what they've done statistically in specific situations. So, I think, again, to me it comes back to fundamentals, technique, communication, playing physical and really as a team, just playing better run defense and obviously putting that on ourselves. It starts with me and us as coaches, and we'll do everything in our power to right those wrongs.
Q: What were you thinking during the Jesse James catch-no catch deliberation at the end of last year's game against the Steelers? What was your thought process at that time, and how does that apply to this year as you go forward?
BF: To me, obviously, given the rule at that time, it wasn't a catch. So, that was kind of my thought process, and once I saw the replay review and knowing the rule at that time, it wasn't a catch. Obviously, that spurred a lot of conversation about what is a catch and what isn't a catch and the rule was changed. So, that's where I'm at now. I mean, obviously it was a critical juncture in the game. It was a big play in the game, and looking back on it, obviously that call clearly helped us win the game. Looking back on it, and having watched it again, that obviously was a critical play in the game and it turned out in our favor, and that's how games kind of go. One play can change a game and one call can change a game. But again, when two good teams play, it normally comes down to the wire, it normally comes down to four or five plays in total. Thankfully, we made the plays in that game, and hopefully we make them this week.
Q: What have you seen from the Steelers' run game? What have you seen from James Conner, and if he doesn't play, what have you seen from their other running backs?
BF: Well, I would start with the offensive line. This is as good a group as we've faced. They do a really good job in the run game. Conner is a fantastic running back. He's a tough runner, downhill, good vision, jump cuts, physical runner, good in the pass game, as well. Jaylen Samuels, he played last week. [He is] again, another good runner - rookie out of North Carolina State - tough, downhill runner. Stevan Ridley, obviously we had him here, so we have some history with him and we know what kind of runner he is. He was obviously productive for us a few years back. So, again, they've got a good stable of backs, a good offensive line, good tight ends - those guys block, as well. Again, it's going to be a tough test for us. We're going through it now and building the game plan and going to find a way to stop the run game and limit them as much as we can. But, again, it always starts with fundamentals, technique, communication, playing physical and that's what we're going to need to do in all areas - run game, pass game, offense, defense, special teams. I mean, that's how we've got to operate as a total team.
Q: Is it strange to see this offense without Le'Veon Bell this year?
BF: You know what, I wouldn't say it's strange. To me, whether it's Conner, whether it's Samuels, whether it's Ridley, this is an outstanding offense. It starts with the offensive line to the quarterback to the receivers. They've got a great coaching staff. They put the guys in good position to make plays from a scheme standpoint. So, again, Le'Veon Bell, obviously he's a tremendous player. He was that for them for many years. He's not there, but the guys they have there are exceptional, as well, and those are the guys we're focused on. It's going to be a big challenge on the road for us going down there and trying to pull out a win.
Q: Going back to the last play against Miami, what goes into the decision to put Rob Gronkowski on the field and take Devin McCourty off the field?
BF: I understand why you're asking that, but I would just say, that's on us as a coaching staff. It happened, we wish it hadn't, we've watched it, we've corrected it as a staff, we've corrected it with the team, and really honestly, we've got to move on to Pittsburgh. So, if that situation kind of shows up again, I think we'll handle it better. Obviously, it was a big one because it was the situation at the end of the game. But, again, I think Bill said this - there were a lot of things in that game that needed to be better. We try and correct everything, and that's kind of where I'm at. For us and this team, the best thing for us is to move forward, which is Pittsburgh, and that's kind of where our focus is. Again, we've corrected, we've gone through it and we'll be better in that situation the next time it arises.
Q: When you're evaluating cornerback play, is there a particular stat or metric that you place significant importance on, whether yards allowed, yards allowed per catch, catch percentage or anything like that? Or is it just a combination of all of those?
BF: At the cornerback position, ball skills - that would be number one for me. How does he judge the ball in the air? Can he find the ball in the air? And then tackling. I mean, I don't have metrics and algorithm. That's how I was taught when I was in scouting. And to me, having played a little bit of DB - and I wasn't very good at all. I had poor ball skills and I tackled decently. But, those are the two things for me. You've got to be able to find the ball in the air so you can make plays on it, and then tackling, obviously that's the name of the game. So, I would say those are the two big traits for me for that position.