THURSDAY AVAILABILITY: Week 17 vs. steelers
Defensive Coordinator Don Martindale
Opening statement: "Happy holidays. We started it off right, leaving Cleveland. I was really proud of the way we played that game. Right from the first snap to the last, we did exactly what we wanted to do. We told you public enemy No. 1 was stopping the running back, [Nick Chubb], and we knocked out that run game. Everything else just fell right into place for us."
John Harbaugh has been upfront about not playing certain guys. Are there guys you are looking forward to seeing in expanded roles, and how valuable can that be as a coach? (Jeff Zrebiec)"As far as that goes, I just know 'Big Baby' [Brandon Williams] and Earl [Thomas] are not playing. So, we're going to do what we do every game – put the best 11 out there and try to put them in the best spots to make plays for this game, because let's not forget who we're playing. This is a team that … I have the utmost respect for Mike [Tomlin] and the entire organization. We respect each other, but we don't like each other. That doesn't matter if it's Week 1 or Week 17. So, we're going in there to be ready. I told the defense today, this is going to be a 'test your manhood' game. They're going to run the ball, try to run the ball 50 times. You're going to see Wildcat. We went back to, from the first game, but not only just the first game, back when they had [Byron] Leftwich, any time that Ben [Roethlisberger] didn't play. And we know what to expect, because you know they're either going to do the Wildcat stuff or they're going to bring in extra linemen. And you can think of all the other quarterbacks that we've seen already, all the way back to [Michael] Vick when he was in there and everybody else. So, it's a challenge. And like I said, with Randy [Fichtner, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach] and Keith [Butler, defensive coordinator] and Mike [Tomlin, head coach] and Kevin [Colbert, vice president and general manager], it's an organization that … It's a great rivalry. And like I said before, it's a rivalry out of respect. That's the thing that's most enjoyable about it."
How much does it help that you saw QB Devlin Hodges for limited action earlier in the year? (Ryan Mink)"It helps. It helps. He's a guy that can extend plays with his feet, move around in the pocket, and we have to get after him. Out in Carroll County, they told me it was duck season [on] Dec. 16. (laughter)So, we'll see what happens."
This has come at a time of year where people start assembling their head coaching lists elsewhere, and your name has kind of been mentioned prominently on some lists. What's your reaction to that, and do you know anything more about that situation? (Jeff Zrebiec) "First of all, no, I don't know anything more about that situation. My son sends me all of those lists. Ty [Martindale] sends me all those lists and gets mad at the ones I'm not on. (laughter)I told him it doesn't really matter until you get a call. But we love this city. We love our organization here. It would have to be a dream-type job to take, where you know you can build the winning culture that we have here. And that's huge in making a decision like that, going from a coordinator to a head coach. I think that people get put in boxes. I don't think there's such a thing as an offensive head coach or a defensive head coach or a special teams head coach. Look at our head coach. He's the head coach, and he's built that culture. I think that's key. The only time you get on those lists is when your players … It goes back to the game always has been, always will be, about the players. That's how you get on those lists, because our guys have done a great job this year."
Your offense has a chance to set an all-time rushing record for a season this week. When you think on your history as a defensive coach, is there a rushing offense that you had to prepare for that stands out as the toughest over the years? (Childs Walker) "I wouldn't seem to think so. There are a lot of moving parts with that rushing offense that we have. Nothing jumps out at me, though. That's a great question."
Where have you seen the most growth from OLB Jaylon Ferguson over the course of the year?_ (Ryan Mink) "Just experience, which is an obvious question, because he just plays more and more snaps. I've said that I've been one of his biggest advocates. I think this guy is going to be a really good player for quite some time, I really do. Because the way he attacks the game, studies the game, he's in the best shape he's been. I said that about a month-and-a-half ago, and he knows how important it is, and that's why he's been able to play more plays. Is he perfect? No, but nobody is, expect the guy we celebrated yesterday." _(laughter)
What do you look to accomplish, besides winning this game?_ (Ximena Lugo-Latorre)_ "We want to win the next game, and then we want to win the next game after that, hopefully. But you just have to take it one day at a time. Right now, what I look to accomplish, or what we look to accomplish, is to have the best Thursday practice we've had all year, today. And that's the routine that we've gotten into, and the players have been awesome with it."
John Harbaugh also said that CB Brandon Carr is likely to play. His streak of starts is quite impressive. What does it say about a guy that, from Day One until now, you can always count on him to be in the starting lineup? (Jamison Hensley) "He's a pro's pro. When I say that, he takes care of his body religiously. He studies the game. And he has a confidence when he goes out there because of all the work that he's put into it – whether it's the offseason, training camp or today – that he's going to be able to make the plays that are presented in front of him."
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman
Opening statement: "Thanks for coming out. I hope everybody had a great holiday. The guys are working hard, back in getting ready for this Pittsburgh Steelers game. Did everybody do their homework last week?" (laughter)(Reporter: "I think I did. At least, I remember doing it.")"OK." (Reporter: "Was it, 'Warfare is the art of deception?'")"Something like that, yes. Yes, it is. Good job everybody. I'm glad you guys were on it. (laughter) But yes, to get back to that question last week, we strive to definitely try to create as many conflicts as you can for the defense. This league is filled with great defensive players. Every team has them. This team we're about to play has a lot of them. If you just let them screw their cleats in the ground constantly and get off on the snap, you're not really helping your players out. So, the most we can do to leverage that, we'll try to do. And, 'All warfare is based on deception,' is the quote." (Reporter: "Sounds like the book, exactly like the book.") "It does. Thank you." (laughter)
Are you thinking about the single-season team rushing record? _(Ximena Lugo-Latorre) _"I was made aware of that, and that would be quite an accomplishment for our guys. They've worked hard, starting at OTAs, and we don't make it easy on them running the football in training camp. Our defense does a great job, and we try to put them in as many tough situations [as we can] in training camp. I almost like it to where it doesn't look good, so we have to keep digging and getting better. The guys have really worked hard and been very productive. So, if that's something that happens as the course of the game goes, that would be just an amazing milestone."
Would it be especially cool in this era, when we're not seeing a lot of rushing records fall? You have to go back to the '70s to see when teams were rushing for 150 yards a game. (Childs Walker) "Yes, it's probably a bit of an outlier at this point. And that's a good thing. That means people aren't used to working on that style quite as much, so you take them out of their comfort zone a little bit. But yes, it's, I guess, ironic. I don't know, is that the right word?"
We know it's always a possibility, but with it being a positive circumstance, how are you looking forward to putting together a gameplan with QB Robert Griffin III at quarterback? (Luke Jones) "We're deep into that right now. It'll be a little bit different, but there will be some elements that are very similar. But it's been fun, and we're working through it. We still have some more time to really prepare, and we have to make the most use of that time. But Robert [Griffin] is really excited about it, and we're all really excited about it. I love the energy going on right now."
I asked defensive coordinator Don Martindale this, too: This time of year is when we hear a lot of coordinators mentioned as head coaching candidates. How do you receive that? Your name is seemingly on every list. Is it flattering to you? Can it be distracting? How do you deal with that? (Jeff Zrebiec)"You just really don't even pay attention to it. I have so much to do, and I love my job. The most important thing is you do a great job at the job you're doing. All that stuff will come to pass as it does. It's in other people's control, in other people's hands. So, you really just focus on your job, and I love my job. I have every minute of every day filled up. So, that's a good thing, too. I just keep it simple."
Obviously, you guys had success in that two-minute drill [at Cleveland], and that kind of sparked you guys. I know your offense is so based on deception and using all those different options, but just the speed and the tempo, is that something you guys can use moving forward? (Aaron Kasinitz) "Possibly. The guys just did a great job executing. We were expecting pressure, and we got it. The guys just did a great job executing. It's something we work on. It's important to remember … Just take any game, really – we might run 15 to 20 percent, 25 at times, of what we have ready for that game. So, there is a lot of stuff we haven't done that we're working on and we're kind of holding for the right time, that type of thing. That element is definitely part of what we can do."
When you were building the rushing offense this offseason, did you envision that it would be this good, on the cusp of maybe breaking a record? (Ryan Mink)"You're always trying to be the best. And in the NFL, you're always trying to be the best in the world at whatever you do. So, that's what you're trying to do. And then you just go to work every day and try to improve it every day. Yes, I suppose we were. We have some really good players that are on our team, and these guys are really committed to each other, and they're really committed to our style of football. So, be great or do something else."
On that second touchdown to TE Mark Andrews, there was that free runner, the safety. Because of QB Lamar Jackson's ability to create and be elusive, are you more willing to allow a free runner to come at him rather than maybe checking and having an extra guy to maybe do max protection? (Jamison Hensley) "Yes, there's definitely – when teams all-out blitz you – there are several things you can do. You can audible, you can change your protection, you can bring another guy to try to handle that. Then they bring another guy, so it becomes that situation. You can hand signal something, or you can just play it out and beat the blitz. We kind of do all of those things, and in that case, in a two-minute drive, we were kind of just letting it rip. And they just did a great job of making a play. He [Lamar Jackson] was well aware of the protection and who would be free, and he knew that. That's the most important thing. It's when they have a free blitzer that the quarterback doesn't A) see, or B) is not aware of. That's when you run into a problem." (Reporter: Lamar Jackson knew that because he just read it on the fly? Or that was something you guys had prepared for?) "Yes, film study, but also just trusting his eyes. They were running their Cover 0 Blitz. We'd seen it on tape, and he knew in that particular protection that was the guy we would 'lose' to if we had to lose to somebody."
Since we know that QB Lamar Jackson's run in this regular season is now over, we're looking ahead to the playoffs. We asked him on Sunday what he was most proud of from his 15-game season. He said the team record. Is there an aspect of his game or a stat that sticks out to you that is just exemplary of everything he's done this year? (Jonas Shaffer) "I'm sorry, but I have to go back to what he said, because the quarterback's job is to lead us to victory. And there are a lot of stats you can pump up. As a coach, I can say, 'Hey, I'm going to pump up this stat this week,' but if it's not serving the purpose of winning, it's all fool's gold. So, take the stats apart, and to me, it's all about winning. And we've had to win games a lot of different ways. He has worked his way through all those games just magnificently, and they were all very different. So, to me, it's just that as a first-time starter to start the season this year, being able to navigate his way through a lot of what he's seen this year, a lot for the first time, is really what I look at and I feel best about, because the quarterbacks ultimately are responsible to lead us to victory. Fair or unfair, that's just how it goes."
What have you seen from RB Gus Edwards and RB Justice Hill? Where has Gus improved from a strong rookie season? And how has Justice grown in his rookie season? (Ryan Mink) "Gus [Edwards] continues to get better every week. He's doing a really good job running the ball, hitting the hole, blocking, understanding pass protection. He's doing a really good job. He's a big, physical guy that we love having in there in pass protection situations, so he continues to get better, and he did a great job at the end of that game last week of just pounding the defense. Justice [Hill] is another guy, a younger guy that really, really stepped up last week. He made some key catches for us on third down in two-minute in the red zone, and I really think his running style is developing here. He's improving in how he sees blocking schemes and how he's hitting the hole. Every play is not going to be a touchdown, and he's learning that. And he's learning how to maximize each run, and that's very important for us."
I know you said he was excited, but QB Robert Griffin III hasn't started a game in three years. What can you tell us that maybe we don't know about how he's grown? (Aaron Kasinitz) "That's a great question. Well, I just think he's really locked in on the details of things, taking it one play at a time, understanding what we're trying to get done in a short-term aspect on that particular play but also the big picture of what we're trying to accomplish. He's a true pro. He comes in every day, works hard, [is a] great teammate. I'm really excited to see him this week."
Is there a chance that QB Trace McSorley plays this week? (Ximena Lugo Latorre) "Trace [McSorley], there's a chance Trace could play in this game. We'll have to see how it goes. We'll kind of get together later this week and figure out kind of how we want to do things. But Trace is another young guy that we're really excited about. I love how he played in the preseason. He started a game or two in the preseason, and I really like where he's going, too."
Special Teams Coach Chris Horton
Opening statement: "Good morning. Good to see everyone. I hope you guys all enjoyed your Christmas. Last week I thought our guys came out and played a solid football game. It was encouraging to see."
John Harbaugh has been pretty upfront about the fact that they're going to rest certain guys, certain veterans. Does a game like this give you an opportunity really to evaluate some guys on special teams that you may not normally get a chance to evaluate in a game situation? (Jeff Zrebiec)"There are going to be some guys up that haven't played. Going into this thing, we're trying to win this football game. We're trying to play well on special teams, so I'm going to play the guys that I feel like need to play and that should play. And so, if those guys fall into that category, then I'll play some of those other guys, but I'm going out there and we're trying to really get after it on special teams."
Is there a possibility we could see QB Trace McSorley on special teams at all? (Jeff Zrebiec) "That's a possibility. If that situation comes up, I'd like to get him out there, if I can. If I can't, he's been working hard. He's been doing everything we ask him to do, so if that comes up, you could see him out there."
How far has QB Trace McSorley come since he was introduced, I guess, to that kind of [special teams] position in training camp? (Jonas Shaffer) "He's come a long way. He's a guy that – he loves football. He comes out there, he works for our scout team, and he gives us great looks. Early on it was kind of new for him, but in high school he played a little bit of DB, so he's got some tackling skills. And that was encouraging to know [about] a guy like that coming in."
You've talked about how a lot of little things were off in the Jets game. Did you feel like you guys really tightened things up across the board in Cleveland? (Childs Walker)"I do. I feel like, obviously, every week there's always something that does come up, and those little details that we kind of hit on earlier in the week after the Jets game, we cleaned those things up. And then there were some other issues, so every week there's something. But our guys are working in there, and they're trying to do the right things. We just kind of hone in on those little details and make sure that we get them right moving forward."
Almost the opposite of some of the earlier questions, as you guys start preparing for the playoffs, are there certain starters on other sides of the ball that might play special teams when the stakes are higher that didn't play earlier in the season? (Aaron Kasinitz) "I don't think so. I think you'll see the same guys as we move forward down the road. I think you'll see the same guys that played for us all the way up until this point. There could be some guys that might help out, but I see the same guys playing for us."