Hearing from Coach Mike Tomlin

On spotting trends, interceptions vs. picks



As the Steelers get set to navigate free agency and prepare for the upcoming 2010 NFL Draft, Coach Mike Tomlin will provide his insight and observations to Steelers.com on a variety of topics pertaining to the team and the National Football League.

Q. Do you watch playoff games with an eye toward determining what’s working in the NFL, to see whether there are trends developing, things of that nature?

A. You can, but it’s not necessarily playoff football that provides that for you. When you study the trends in the game, I think you study the people who are doing well in a particular area or aspect of the game. If you’re studying red zone offense, then the New Orleans Saints are very efficient in red zone offense, as are the Indianapolis Colts. It doesn’t happen by mistake that you end up watching these teams, because the reason they’re playing deep into the playoffs is because they’re very good at fundamental aspects of the game of football. Every offseason when you break down and re-build what it is you do, or you try to improve the areas where you’re lacking, you look at those teams doing it well, and that usually includes the teams playing January and February football.

Q. So you might study the Saints red zone offense and determine that a play they use, or a philosophy they employ, could be effective for your team, too?

A. Absolutely, but you don’t come to that end by deciding to look at the Saints. You come to it by saying, we’re going to analyze this area of our play, and these are the people who currently are doing it well so we’re going to study them. It just so happens that it turns out to be a team that played in the Super Bowl. It usually unfolds that way.

Q. In two of the previous three seasons, the Steelers defense has not recorded many interceptions. In 2007, the team had 11 interceptions; in 2008, it finished with 20, and Troy Polamalu had seven of those; and in 2009, it had 12, and Polamalu had three of those. Is it the kind of players the Steelers have who are not conducive to making a lot of interceptions, or is it the way they are deployed?

A. I think it’s a little bit of both. Some of the pressure packages that we employ are done with coverages that are not conducive to tracking the ball and seeing the quarterback. There are a lot of man-under concepts and principles, where the safeties have an opportunity to intercept passes but the people underneath don’t have good vision of the quarterback. Those are some of the things we do schematically that might limit what people are capable of doing from a sub-package linebacker or cornerback or nickel back standpoint. And lastly, guys have to take advantage of opportunities. I would say that in both 2007 and 2009, we’ve had a number of dropped opportunities as well. So, I think it’s a combination of both.

Q. If a defensive back comes to you and says he wants to improve his interception numbers, what do you tell him to work on?

A. To me, the big thing is getting into position – being where you’re supposed to be and seeing what you’re supposed to see. The answers are in the minute details. I think a lot of times when people are deficient in that area, they focus on things that are obvious, such as ball skills and catching the football. I’m a firm believer in that the more the people are in a position to make those plays, they will make more of those plays, and the probability of them closing those deals will increase. To me, it’s about getting into position to make those plays. Those are the things that coaches can control, so that’s what I focus on in terms of communicating with the player.

Q. What does that entail for the player? Watching more videotape?

A. Tape study, self-analysis, analysis of opponent. But more importantly than that, the minute details of how what you do fits into the big picture of what we’re doing from a coverage standpoint. The better you understand the overall concept of the coverage scheme, the better you are able to predict where the ball is going to go and where you need to be.

Q. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your own coverage scheme might tell the player where the quarterback is going to go with the football?

A. Yes, and that comes in combination with the scouting of the particular quarterback. Some of the great players in our game are great because they’re great above the neck. They understand where the ball is potentially going to go, and they know how to put themselves in position to take advantage of those things.

Q. In your experience, could you name someone who utilized those elements to his benefit?

A. Darren Sharper. Darren Sharper is a classic case of a guy who has a general understanding of where the ball should go based on coverage, and he takes calculated risks when given an opportunity to make plays. Darren is a guy I have seen on numerous occasions pick off a slant pass away from rotation, when he’s supposed to be rotating to the middle of the field. Those are things guys do that you can’t coach. It’s intuition-based, which is what makes great players who they are. Ed Reed does a lot of those things. Troy (Polamalu), too. A lot of the plays he makes, he’s not necessarily where he’s supposed to be, per se, but he’s where the ball is going to be. That’s part of being a great player. A quarterback getting picked: in essence is a guy making a play because he knows where the ball is going. Sometimes guys get hit in the face with the ball – those are interceptions. When a guy has an understanding of where the ball is supposed to be, and he takes the calculated risks necessary to make those plays – to me. those are picks.

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