The Pittsburgh Steelers conducted their final press conference and session with the media late Thursday morning on the campus of Texas Christian University. After an atrocious two days of travel, followed by an equally disheartening night of sleep -- my roommate, the editor of SB Nation's Packers site, was recovering from feeling ill and was just starting to get his voice back. Glad he's feeling better but he hadn't turned the corner far enough to keep from snoring like a madman. I can sleep through a hurricane, but falling asleep amidst heinous sounds is a different story. Snoring in particular makes me want to sew my head to the carpet.
Anyway, I was on the air in New Mexico earlier this morning, and didn't make the 45 minute jaunt up to the Fort-Worth area until the hour long session was just about half way over. That's okay though, as I still had time to squeeze in a few questions to a number of Steelers players, beginning with injured offensive tackle Willie Colon. Hurt during OTAs last spring, Colon of course missed the entire 2010 season on IR. Colon mentioned that he actually was taken off IR just the other day. Why take a player off IR just days before the Super Bowl when there's no shot that he'll play? Well, so that Colon can be an official part of all the team activities. He has after all been with the team all year -- be it at practice, at games (including on the road), etc. Remember, not all players that are placed on IR decide to stick around and be a part of the team. Surely I don't need to remind you of the little fuss that was created by various Green Bay Packers last week. It had to do with guys on IR and feeling left out. Just another example of how Mike Tomlin and the Rooneys 'get it'. In fact, I asked Colon why he decided to be such a visible and consistent presence all season and he mentioned the 'culture that Coach Tomlin has created'. He also told me that he sees no reason why he shouldn't try to help the younger offensive linemen on the team -- guys like Ramon Foster who just so happened to be sitting next to him.
I then spoke briefly with veteran linebacker Larry Foote. If you turned back the clocks to 2008, Foote would have been one of those guys commanding loads of attention from the media. Instead, he was relegated to a side table and entirely free to approach. I thought it was fitting that a former standout on defense that now makes plays on special teams was largely an afterthought in the minds of the media.
So I asked Foote about how tough it was to make that transition to a special teams ace at this stage in his career. Foote responded:
"As a competitor, you know, I'd rather be out there on defense, but the more you can do...And I knew my role before I signed, and they told me what it was going to be. But there's so much more that's offered coming back to Pittsburgh as far as the community, guys in the locker room I'm comfortable with. So I accepted it, but there's still something inside of me that wants to be out there. But I've got time to fight to get it back."
Great stuff from Foote. Because he sounded so adamant about earning more snaps on defense in the future, I asked him about playing for Dick LeBeau, and the difference between playing for Coach Dad and his coaches in Detroit last year. Foote responded with the quote of the day, a quick-witted response that earned hearty laughter from his friends sitting nearby.
"It's like comparing a Rolls Royce to a Honda Civic."
Knowing time was ticking, I stuck with the special teams theme and spoke briefly with Wil Allen about making a smiliar transition from big-time contributor on defense to special teams assignments. Allen talked about how much more important it was to him to be a part of a winning team and a special organization; how winning and being around good guys mattered more than individual accolades. The former Miami Dolphin also expressed pride in helping the Steelers become one of the better coverage units in the league just one year removed from being historically bad covering kicks.
Allen too though sounded like a guy who still believed in his abilities to make plays on defense. Before moving on, I asked Allen about what goes into preparations on special teams. Do you run drills? Is it more film-work? I had always been curious about that, as it's virtually impossible to replicate game conditions on special teams. It's done, but not repeatedly, primarily because special teams is so damn violent. Allen said that film study played a huge role in ST preparations -- seeing how lanes materialize from aerial views, what guys' tendencies are on their runbacks, the best way to limit the potential for a big run- back, etc. Even though the Packers don't have a big-name return man on their team, Allen spoke about the talents of their return guys and the emphasis the Steelers have placed on limiting Green Bay in the third phase come Sunday.
I then cut off Big Play Willie Gay, who was bouncing around the room, yelling intermittently at teammates. If I had more time, I was planning on asking Gay about bouncing back from such a tough year in '09, and if it at all rattled him mentally to seemingly be the scapegoat for so many of the Steelers' problems in the secondary. Instead, I simply asked him about his new role this year as a nickle back, and if he enjoyed doing some more blitzing this year in various packages. Gay responded:
"I enjoy just playing with this team man, just being in this defense. So it don't matter what I'm doing, I enjoy football. It's simple."
Good answer, though after hearing Gay speak, I quickly realized that he wasn't the best guy in the room to try to have a quick friendly conversation with. I then made my first rookie mistake when I asked Gay "what scares you and the defense as you prepare for Green Bay and their versatile passing attack."
In not such direct terms, Gay let me know that my question contained a word that's not part of the Steelers lexicon:
"Well we don't use the words scare. We just use the words what we've got to defend . And we've got to defend a high octane offense, but that's the NFL and then we're in the Super Bowl, so you're going to get the best offense out there. So we're looking forward to the challenge."
Other quick highlights of the session included a chance to introduce myself to Hines Ward, who not surprisingly, hung around a few minutes after the event had ended. I didn't say much other than to say I was a fan and that we were all expecting the Steelers to whoop some ass on Sunday. But he was kind enough to ask me my name, where I write, and thank me and the rest of the folks lingering around for coming out. Ward's congeniality with the press absolutely will cement his Hall of Fame status once he decides to hang it up, not that he'll necessarily need the extra push.
And finally, I'm not a picture guy myself, but I did quickly scamper up to Coach Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Dan Rooney when I saw them chatting in the stands with one another with no press nearby. They were clearly not 'available' to field questions, but I just wanted to say hey. Tomlin mentioned being 'off the clock', but when I said I just wanted to say hey and that I was there on behalf of the fans, he said what's up, thanked me for the support and shook my hand firmly. Same with the stoic Colbert and the patriarchal Rooney. I did have to respect their free time though and opted not to say anything other than hello. Still fun.
Back later with updates on what took place in the afternoon on Radio Row, as well as with my first set of thoughts about the actual game on Sunday.
To tide you over, here's several quote sheets from today's press conference.