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August 7, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Does Tuitt have the ‘integrity’ to start right away?

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-- Photo by Chaz Palla Rookie defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has impressed early in training camp.

— Photo by Chaz Palla
Rookie defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt has impressed early in training camp.

Mike Tomlin absolutely loves Stephon Tuitt, and really, when have you heard Mike Tomlin gush over anybody?

When was the last time you heard Dick LeBeau praise a rookie, let alone a rookie two weeks into training camp?

Usually it goes something like this when you bring up rookies to LeBeau: “It’s not a defense you can come in and play right away. I will never apologize for my defense being hard to learn” or something along those lines.

Yeah, the rookie second-round pick out of Notre Dame has been that impressive two weeks into camp.

Impressive enough to shove Cam Thomas – a guy they gave $4 million over two years in the offseason to play end – to nose tackle to fill in for the concussed Steve McLendon so Tuitt can get reps with the first team.

Thursday will be the fifth consecutive practice that Tuitt lines up at left defensive end with the first team. It is almost assured that he will start Saturday’s first preseason game against the Giants.

This is about when and where we should temper the enthusiasm on Tuitt … at least for now.

Defensive ends in LeBeau’s 3-4 scheme very well could be the most difficult position to learn because of the discipline needed to be successful.

How many times have you heard “gap integrity” or “gap sound” come out of somebody’s mouth. It’s a real thing and it can be devastating, especially to a 3-4 defense.

What is gap inegrity? What that means is that for LeBeau’s defense to stop the run, everybody needs to be in a specific place. If you deviate from your gap assignment, it usually results in a pretty significant gain.

What makes it difficult for a defensive end like Tuitt – or any young defensive lineman — is to be discipline enough to be where you are supposed to be rather than where you think you should be.

How many times did you see Brett Keisel out of his gap over his career, and he’s one of the best to play for LeBeau.

Get out of your gap and the integrity of the defense is shot.

Gap integrity is not easy. Tuitt was a playmaker at Notre Dame and to shove that down the list of priorities for him won’t be a walk in the park.

Now, Tuitt was a pretty good with his gaps in Notre Dame’s 3-4, but this is a whole new level, as we all know.

So, maybe we all should be listening to defensive line coach John Mitchell right now instead of Tomlin or LeBeau. Mitchell told TribLive Radio’s Ken Laird last week: “We’ve been in camp five days and you guys want to make somebody out of something.”

Saying that, Tuitt is pretty good.

But remember, patience.

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August 6, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Mystery solved — McLendon has a concussion

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-- Photo by Chaz Palla Steve McLendon talks to coach Chris Hoke during practice on Monday.

— Photo by Chaz Palla
Steve McLendon talks to coach Chris Hoke during practice on Monday.

(UPDATE: Tomlin confirms McLendon is dealing with a concussion after practice on Wednesday, or 4 hours after this initial post.)

Speculation has been rampant on why nose tackle Steve McLendon sat out of the last three practices – one of which he wasn’t even on the sidelines watching.

From Mike Tomlin wanting to get a good look at rookie Stephon Tuitt to McLendon being in Tomlin’s doghouse have been floated around as reasons why McLendon has been out.

The speculations have been warranted.

After all, Tomlin never gave a reason of why McLendon wasn’t practicing and McLendon told me early Wednesday that: “I’m OK. It’s Coach Tomlin’s call. It’s up to him. It’s his call.”

Turns out the reason why McLendon hasn’t practiced since Friday night is because he is dealing with a concussion.

McLendon did not show up to practice on Saturday at all. He was in shorts and a T-shirt on Sunday and Monday relegated to watching. The Steelers were off Tuesday.

It’s unknown when McLendon will return to practice.

McLendon is the second Steeler to miss time with a concussion this camp.

Receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey has been out since July 31 with what has been diagnosed as a concussion. Heyward-Bey said it’s the fifth concussion of his career, which includes one against the Steelers in 2012 in which he was unconscious for 10 minutes after a brutal hit was delivered by Ryan Mundy.

Heyward-Bey said that he and McLendon have talked about their symptoms.

“I saw him and asked him how he is doing. I say how is yours and how do you feel,” Heyward-Bey said. “His is different than mine and that’s just how life is.”

Heyward-Bey hit his head on the ground diving for a pass during a practice on July 31 and has yet to been cleared to participate.

“It’s not like another injury,” Heyward-Bey said. “It’s not a knee that you can tape up. There’s no rehab for it. You just have to wait until you feel 100 percent.”

 

 

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August 4, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Camp Tomlin has been physical, but smart … so far

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-- Chaz Palla The Steelers' Maurkice Pouncey (53) and Hebron Fangupo (yellow) get into a fight during practice Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, at St. Vincent in Latrobe

— Chaz Palla
The Steelers’ Maurkice Pouncey (53) and Hebron Fangupo (yellow) get into a fight during practice Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, at St. Vincent in Latrobe

Mike Tomlin has done this training camp thing a number of times already, so I am pretty sure he knows what he is doing.

Camp Tomlin No. 8 is nearly halfway over here at St. Vincent College and this one ranks up there as one of the most physical under his watch.

Well, as physical as it can be under the new CBA that limits a whole bunch of stuff, most notably two-a-days.

Still, this one has been intense. This one has been hard-hitting. This one has been chippy. Shoving, punching, hitting, fighting, jawing – you name it and it has/is going on.

Oh yeah, and physical.

There have been at least two live hitting drills – backs on backers, tight ends/outside linebackers, pass rushing/blocking, Oklahoma – and one competition team period during every practice.

That might not seem like much, but I would imagine that it would hard-pressed to find another team with that much live hitting in training camp.

All this hitting in camp and preseason seems like a disaster waiting to happen, right?

As previously mentioned, Tomlin knows what he is doing.

First of all, Troy Polamalu takes part in none of these live drills or periods, and rightfully so. The last thing you need is your All-Pro safety getting hurting in August.

During linemen drills, the first team on both sides of the ball go once – if they are lucky.

Ben Roethlisberger had a day off and so did Heath Miller.

Tomlin is taking care of the players who matter while pushing the younger guys to the brink to see how they react. He wants to see if there is legitimate player out there among the 40 or so he knows little about, and that’s good.

This camp is very unlike Tomlin’s first camp when he wore the down with double-digit two-a-days in August that surfaced near the end of the season and in the playoffs.

So, who is my camp phenom so far?

Will you believe Mike Tomlin?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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August 2, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Detailed account of ‘Friday Night Fights’

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-- Chaz Palla LeGarrette Blount dives on top of Vince Williams.

— Chaz Palla
LeGarrette Blount dives on top of Vince Williams.

Friday night under the lights quickly turned into Friday Night Fights at Latrobe Memorial Stadium.

And this one was brief, but a real doozy.

Midway through the much-anticipated and highly intense “backs on backers” drill, a melee broke out after linebacker Vince Williams and running back Le’Veon Bell refused to relent after the drill was clearly over.

Williams ended up on top of Bell in the back portion of the end zone, which apparently didn’t sit well with fellow running back LeGarrette Blount.

Blount, in street clothes and as a pure spectator, took such exception to Williams taking Bell to the ground and staying on top of him that he decided to do something about it.

Blount immediately tried to clear Williams off Bell with a diving forearm.

After that, it got interesting.

Players from the offense and defense gathered around pushing and shoving. Blount somehow found himself outside the mob, but that didn’t stop him.

Blount dove back in trying to get after Williams.

This is where things really got interesting.

Defensive assistant Joey Porter, who once got kicked out of a game in Cleveland for fighting running back William Green an hour before the game even started, turned into “Peacemaker Peezy.”

Porter grabbed Blount and yanked him off the pile. Porter then stood in front of Blount preventing him from going back after Williams. Blount had a couple words with Porter before finally walking away.

Williams had his helmet ripped off his head. His facemask was yanked so violently that it got pulled through the hard plastic clips that keep it secure to the helmet.

The fight was over, but there were some more fireworks after that.

Throughout the remainder of the drill, Blount and Williams were jawing at each other across the field. The one thing I heard was: “I’ll get you tomorrow.”

Afterwards, Mike Tomlin addressed what happened.

“It’s the ebb and flow associated with team development,” said Tomlin. “The tight ends kicked the linebackers butts the other day, and the linebackers came back today with a vengeance. It’s what team development is about. I would imagine the backs and tight ends come out here tomorrow with a get-back attitude. It is an emotional game, and they do lose that element of it sometimes. But those things are growth opportunities, and opportunities for us to teach. All of that is part of team development, even when it’s a little bit negative.

“It is emotional, and at times you’re going to feel like you’ve been wronged, but at the same time you have to keep your wits about you, because we step into stadiums with one goal in mind, and that’s to win. Obviously, 15-yard penalties don’t help us in that cause.”

Throughout the melee, Tomlin never moved a muscle. Although he did have a word with Blount a little after it all settled down.

The fight definitely was escalated by Blount’s actions, but how can’t you like a guy sticking up for his teammate and backfield partner like that?

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August 1, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: NFL refs lay out new rules to Steelers players/coaches

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More penalties and more passing.

And yeah, no more of that trash talking and goal post dunks.

NFL officials were on campus at St. Vincent College on Thursday and Friday detailing to coaches, players and media new rule changes and points of emphasis for the upcoming 2014 NFL season. (Here is the video that was shown to the media and players)

And, of course, it is centered around safer play and more points.

One of the “major” points emphasis this year is illegal contact by a defensive back within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

As you know, 5 yards is legal. Anything after that isn’t.

Veteran field judge Bob Waggoner said that the 5 yards legal zone has gradually expanded over the years.

“What has happened over the years is that it kind of stretched a little bit from a 5-yard belt that went to 6 yards that went to 6 ½ yards. It kind of stretched itself a little bit to a point where they wanted to bring it back,” Waggoner said. “It’s like a rubber band. It got stretched a little bit and not they want to bring back. That was kind of where we were at.”

While that may result in more offense, Waggoner said that offensive pass interference (pushing off at top of the route) is also a major point of emphasis.

“It’s a two-way street,” Waggoner said. “Offensive pass interference is also a big point of emphasis. When we talk offensive pass interference, we talk about bubble screens where guys are 3 or 4 yards down the field blocking. That’s a big point. They get one yard. It’s where the point of contact is. That is going to be called as strict as illegal contact.”

Here are some of the rule changes for 2014:

Zero tolerance on verbal abuse – Players will be flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct if they verbally abuse an opponent in any way, even in a joking manner. Specifically, the officials will be looking for any inappropriate racial or sexual-orientation comments.

“It needs to be directed specifically at a player or an official, particularly any derogatory, personal statements that are made toward players, those kinds of things,” Waggoner said. “We won’t have rabbit ears. If it is a in-your-face, one-on-one type of thing we are trying prevent.”

No cut blocks from the side – It’s still legal to cut a defensive linemen, but you better get your head in front of the legs and don’t roll after the block. It’s illegal to make a block to the side of a defender’s leg now.

Replay consultation with New York – The referee will still have final call on the play in review, but he will have help from vice president of officiating Dean Blandino and/or senior director of officiating Alberto Riveron during replay reviews. A recovery a fumble in the field of play is also now reviewable.

No dunking on goal posts – Call this the Jimmy Graham rule. The pylon, crossbar and uprights are off-limits in celebrations. A violation will result in a 15-yard penalty.

The game clock will remain running after a sack — In the past, the clock wouldn’t run until the ball was marked for play.

Here are the point of emphasis:

* Hand to face, neck and head, even if it is only for a brief moment, will be flagged within the interior line.

* Even the slightest non-football movement at the line of scrimmage may result in a false start penalty.

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July 31, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Observations from Steelers training camp practice No. 4

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Practice No. 4 is in the books here at an unseasonably cool July day at St. Vincent College.

Here are some quick thoughts about what I saw/have been seeing.

* Daniel McCullers is a monster of a man, and he showed that he can play some football as well. McCullers was active all day on Wednesday whether it was pushing Cody Wallace into the backfield during linemen pass blocking drills or swallowing Dri Archer during the 11-on-11 live tackling period. Now, McCullers looks like he needs to get a little more sense of urgency with his play, but that will come. He is a quiet kid who is just trying to fit in during the early days of camp.

* Speaking of McCullers, William Gay gave TribLive Radio’s Ken Laird the soundbite of the year. “We call him ‘Big Dan’. He reminds me of the movie ‘The Longest Yard’, the big dude that was in there and he started crying and then destroyed everybody,” Gay told Laird. “Me and Troy were just talking, every time we’re going to just walk up and give him a hug. Nice guy. Won’t say too much to you. I told him, ‘Once you get six years in, people are going to be scared to talk to you.’  You’re going to say ‘Get out my face’. I told him, ‘You’re bigger than everybody. Just move people.’”

* Here is a quick list of people who you don’t know (maybe don’t want to know) but are flashing at times. S Jordan Dangerfield: He’s getting some respect with his hits, that’s for sure. CB Antwon Blake: He’s fast … very fast. DE Ethan Hemer: You just keep seeing No. 79 make a play. Oh yeah, it’s flashbacks to Aaron Smith. He looks like him, doesn’t play like him yet. RB Jordan Hall: He took a lick a time or two, but kept on trucking on Wednesday. He’s a tough kid. TE Eric Waters: We knew he could catch from the OTAs, but he can block as well. He is a legitimate player to unseat David Paulson and Michael Palmer.

* There was a sloppy portion of practice on Wednesday when Ben Roethlisberger was forced to huddle again then returned to the line just to have a bad exchange with the center that was recovered by Chris Carter. Landry Jones came in with the second team just to immediately trip over Paulson, who was crossing behind the line of scrimmage at the snap.

* I am seeing a lot more emphasis put on defenders trying to strip the ball. Now, this goes both ways. The offense has to be aware of ball security at all times.

* Matt Spaeth can sure block.

* No fights in four practices. There were two or three in the OTAs alone.

* The crowds here at St. Vincent have been quite large the past two practices. I guess 8-8 is good enough.

* Let’s hope that no Steelers offensive linemen get hurt, because through four practices, it’s obvious that there’s not much to speak of behind the top five or six. There’s some potential there, but nothing ready to jump in and play.

* Mike Adams, who I think has a chance to win the right tackle spot from Marcus Gilbert, got absolutely run over for the second consecutive practice. On Monday it was Shamarko Thomas. Wednesday it was McCullers. I know Adams said he slipped with the Thomas one. McCullers? Well, he is 350 pounds.

 

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July 27, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: All the Ike Taylor criticism is misguided

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IkeI call it a lazy narrative.

And that’s what it has become when it comes to talking about cornerback Ike Taylor.

Sure, the veteran didn’t have the best of seasons in 2013. He called it a so-so year when he showed up to organized team activities during the spring.

So-so doesn’t mean bad, and it surely doesn’t mean terrible.

When Taylor was allowed to stay on just the right side of the defense and not follow around the opponent’s best receiver for the final five games last year, he was a lot better than so-so. He was good.

But Pro Football Focus – a popular analytical website – ranked Taylor as the 13th worst cornerback in the NFL last year and that skews the thinking of a lot.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Pro Football Focus’ grading system is severely flawed.

Taylor received bad marks against Detroit and Baltimore when he “allowed” Torrey Smith and Calvin Johnson long touchdown receptions. Those long touchdowns passes ultimately turned out not to be Taylor’s fault.

In both instances, Taylor was expecting safety help inside when there wasn’t any.

Those are just two examples. Surely there are more.

According to the same website, Taylor had games of limiting receivers to 47, 39, 65, 14 and 71 yards to end the season, but we conveniently leave that out.

He can cover. He can tackle. He can run. He can’t catch, but he never could.

Taylor has also been durable over his career missing only four games due to injury. He played in all but 24 snaps last year coming off an ankle injury that caused him to miss the final month of 2012.

In all reality, Taylor played well last year and extremely well for a guy who was 33.

Sure, he was forced to take a pay cut to stay around, but that is more because of his age than his ability.

Don’t get me wrong, Taylor’s best days are behind him.

But he has a lot of good football left in him and getting him for a bargain basement price is beneficial to the organization, not an indication of his worth.

The narrative of Taylor being a big question mark for the Steelers this upcoming season is just misguided.

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July 26, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Cortez Allen on possible extension

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The Steelers made it clear the other day that they want to address some of their more immediate expiring contacts before focusing on quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s deal.

Translation?

The team wants to sign cornerback Cortez Allen to an extension before their self-imposed deadline of the start of the season.

Allen is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with a unit void of any up-and-comers, Allen should be priority No. 1 for the Steelers.

The Steelers have approximately $6.5 million under the salary cap, which would be plenty to sign Allen to a long term deal.

If an extension is on Allen’s mind, he isn’t letting on.

“That’s not my concern right now. Football is my concern,” Allen said. “I am just trying to help the team win games. That stuff will take care of itself. I don’t focus on it too much.”

When asked if the team has approached him with any contract extension information yet, Allen said: “Not as far as I am concerned.”

The Steelers could also target linebacker Jason Worilds for a long term deal before the season that would actually alleviate them of some cap money. Worilds agreed to a transition tag in March that guarantees him nearly $10 million for this season.

However, the Steelers seem to be willing to wait to see when it comes to Worilds. With Allen, the Steelers likely  have learned a lesson two years ago when Keenan Lewis wasn’t offered a contract heading into his final season.

After a solid year in 2012, Lewis signed a lucrative contract with New Orleans last offseason.

Allen deflected the question of if he wanted to get a deal done before the start of the season.

“I am not 100 percent sure,” Allen said. “That’s an organization decision.”

My take? Allen will get an extension before the start of the season.

The Steelers really don’t have much of a choice.

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July 22, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Outside zone makes return

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FosterAll the talk a year ago was how the Steelers were going to incorporate the outside zone running scheme into their offense.

Injuries to running back Le’Veon Bell and center Maurkice Pouncey early in the season forced the Steelers to put the scheme on the back burner.

Even though it wasn’t used after the first week, it was never removed from the playbook.

“We had it in, that’s the thing,” guard Ramon Foster told me on my TribLive Radio Show on Monday. “The same amount we have in this year was the same amount we had in last year. It was a little more publicized last year.”

Pouncey’s back, Bell’s healthy and the Steelers brought in offensive line coach Mike Munchak putting everything in place for the return of the outside zone this year … well, at least in theory.

“We are going to do it and get outside and run but it is also going to help the inside run,” Foster said. “You have to keep the defense honest. If you try to pound down guys the entire game, they get in tune with that you are doing. The outside zone keeps them honest. Sometimes we catch defenses off guard, too. We have to perfect it and get the little things taken care of in perfecting the run but I think it will be a tool that we use.”

It could be a welcome and much-needed addition to the offense.

The Steelers — typically a power and inside zone running team — finished with their fewest rushing yards (1,383) in a full season since the NFL adopted the 16-game schedule in 1978. They haven’t been a top-10 rushing team since 2007.

Foster said this year will be different.

“No excuses anymore,” Foster said.

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July 1, 2014
by Mark Kaboly


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Kaboly: Q&A with Todd Haley about his view on analytics in the NFL

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NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh SteelersIt pales in comparison to Major League Baseball’s gaggle of advanced stats available and it can’t even come close to the NHL’s Corsi rating.

But the NFL – the ultimate come-late-to-the-party entity – is starting to warm to the benefits that advanced stats and analytics can offer them.

There are a handful of teams that now employ full time analytics experts including Buffalo, Chicago and Baltimore. Even though a portion of their job is linked to marketing, they are involved in game day trends and the draft as well.

As for the Steelers, they dabble in it a little bit but accrue most of its information the old fashioned way – by watching film.

Todd Haley has always been interested in the analytics parts of the game and has tried to work some into his thinking as the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, especially when it comes to figuring out one of the game’s most vexing problems – when to kick a field goal versus going for it on fourth down.

I had a chance to sit down with Haley during the recently completed spring practices and asked him about his view on advanced stats and analytics when it comes to football.

 

Q: “Do you use or believe in any kind of football analytics?”

A: “I have always been in to that in some areas. I took a lot of heat in Kansas City for going for it on fourth down. That’s one of the biggest areas for me. As a play caller when I was in Arizona with (Ken Whisenhunt), he would tell me on third down to have a fourth down call ready and I would think ‘Boy, if I would’ve known that two calls ago it would’ve changed everything.’ We have messed with it here a little bit with four-down mode. It doesn’t happen in obvious places. It might be on your own 30 when you say we have four downs to get the first so to me it changes drastically because you can hand it off three times in a row knowing that you will have that extra down. Obviously, if you can average 3.3 yards … when we led the league in rushing (in Kansas City) I was taking a lot of heat for the times we went for it and didn’t get it in critical situations say in Indy where everybody was trying to steal a possession. Our number of handoffs went up dramatically. (Bill) Parcells always taught if you hand off the ball 25 or more times and for years and year and years, it’s like you are going to win eight out of 10 games. In the first half, I am always like how many runs, where are we at. A lot of that is skewed because you are winning the game and you hand it off in the fourth quarter. If you can get to that number early in the game, you are probably playing pretty good football. Turnovers can change everything. That four-down mode allowed me to call three runs in a row, four runs in a row and stay in four down mode and now you might’ve handed it off seven or eight times in a row and those add up.”

 

Q: “So you know there is a better chance of you converting a fourth down than making a 50-plus yard field goal?”

A: “You start to factor in some of those things. Like I said, I took some heat but didn’t realize how much we were in it and how much it helped us win 10 games with Matt Cassel at quarterback and led the league in rushing. You factor in the percentage of going for it rather than kicking a long field goal.”

 

Q: “So it really does change a lot to you if you know you are four-down mode before the drive starts?”

A: “I had a rule and I told Charlie that when I tell him we are in four-down mode, I want three handoffs in a row no matter what unless on first down we got 7 yards and second down we would get 2 and knowing that you had a fourth down to hand it off to get the first, that shot against a more predictable defense came into play. It’s third-and-1 and we are trying to get the ball down the field for a huge play knowing that we are probably going to get man-to-man. It drastically changed the thinking. That came to me when Kenny would say third down and have a fourth down call ready. I’d have a fourth-down call ready but if I knew that, I could’ve handed it off here and here and here.”

 

Q: “Mike (Tomlin) is good with letting you know it is four-down mode?”

A: “I went through the whole thing with him and we have done it some. You really have to have your whole team on board. I’d tell the defensive coordinator that we are in four-down mode so they would know. We might’ve been on our own 35 and we are taking a risk so our defense better be ready to come out and shut them down.”

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