ML: “As far as the health of the football team, we came out of the game in pretty good shape. The normal bumps and bruises, but we should be pretty much full strength by the time we get going. It was a good thing, obviously, (because) it was a very hard-fought physical football game. It's going to be another one come Sunday. So, that's where we are in the season, now. We’ve got to kind of replenish ourselves mentally and physically and get ready to go again this Sunday against the Ravens here at home.
How do you approach the Ravens game coming up this Sunday, since there is nothing at stake in terms of your seeding? Do you approach it differently with guys that might be beaten up by injuries?
ML: “I don't really have any beat-up guys. The only thing that is at stake is that you go out and play to win the game every time we go. Win. That's important.”
Is there a temptation to rest the starters for maybe a half? You have done it the two previous times in this situation, when you went into Week 17 knowing that you were in the playoffs (2005, ’09)?
ML: “How'd that work out for us?”
But do you use that prior history to guide you here? They are different teams and different groups of players, but do you use that?
ML: “Different teams, different groups. I think it's important for our team to play well. I'm not going to answer the question anymore. We are going to play to win the football game.”
Did you learn anything from those experiences in 2005 and ’09?
ML: “It's different team, different group, different people. Playing different teams, different situations, different circumstances.”
What is there left to play for, this week?
ML: “Improvement. Each and every time we go out. That's what we have been doing since Nov. 4th, working to play better every time we had an opportunity to play. We've done that; we need to keep doing that. We're finishing off the month of December, and we need to have a better January than we did December. If we do that, February will be very nice.”
In yesterday’s game, it was tough sledding in the running game. Was there any thought of giving either
ML: “They going to carry it and block, too? Come on. No, no thought whatsoever. Not unless you are going to invent the guy that can block people in front of him and carry it, too. It never even crossed my mind that it had anything to do with the running back (
The Steelers seemed to be focusing mainly on stopping the run. What did you see from them in that way?
ML: “They put the guys all inside, so we threw the ball pretty much at will outside. It's what you needed to do. The only thing that stopped us outside was ourselves. We’ve got to do a better job throwing deep balls. We'll work hard at throwing deep balls this week and get back to completing those balls down the field. We came very close yesterday on some balls. We’ve got to keep it in the field of play every chance we get. Marvin (Jones) came a tick from making a big play in the end zone. It was a great throw – it goes over the guy, who makes a great play at the end. We’ve just got to keep working. We'll work hard at those things, because they are going to pack inside, then we will just throw it over your heads.”
It seemed like your best players played the best yesterday, when they were under the most pressure:
ML: “That’s really what the football team needed to improve upon through the stretch of games we didn’t win -- having your good players play well. They keep responding to that, and those good players keep multiplying. And that’s a good thing. There’s kind of a growth spurt there. Guys made big plays in critical moments. We’re obviously in that point of the season now where every one of those plays count and there’s no tomorrow. But we’ve been playing this way since Nov. 4, so that really hasn’t changed much for us.”
What are your thoughts on how C
ML: “I’m not going to say anybody was the second coming of (former Steelers center) Mike Webster in there yesterday. We didn’t do very good anywhere. We need improvement in our offensive group up front. We did a good job of identification, but we’ve got work to do.”
Can you talk about the job P
ML: “Kevin had a good day punting the football, and as you said it was an important part of the game. Even backed up, he had a couple great kicks into the wind and he was able to get the ball turned over and sail down the field very well. The one short punt he had, we got a great bounce on because their returner wasn’t able to get up to it, and it took off and rolled and ended up being a great outcome for us. Kevin has continued to be consistent. It’s important in this time of the season. We continue to down the ball inside the 10-yard line. He’s excellent at that, and our guys are excellent at getting down there to get it downed. It’s a great weapon that we have.”
The wind is a big reason why kickers generally struggle at Heinz Field. Is punting there a different animal, or does it present the same problems?
ML: “No, it’s the same animal. Obviously the punt doesn’t have to travel that extra 10-plus yards up in the air down at the open end like that, where the wind is a little bit trickier at times. Punters try to cut the ball through the wind, too. It’s a little bit of a different animal. There are aiming points and things like that that are a little different than what a kicker has. (The place kicker’s) aiming points are pretty much between those hashes.”
Is this the best a defense of yours has been playing going into the playoffs?
ML: “They’re playing well. I don’t know if it’s the best. It can prove to be the best when we’re done. That’s what the key thing is. It doesn’t really matter what you did last week or yesterday, it’s going to be what we do each and every Sunday going forward. I don’t have a way to recall and compare. But they did play well yesterday. We need to play better this week and on through (the season and playoffs).”
How much will the outcome of the first game of the season – a 44-13 Baltimore win – play into your mindset this week?
ML: “There’s a lot in my mindset this week.”
Do you remind the players of that?
ML: “We didn’t kick the season off very good, and now we get to finish it at home.”
What were the things that were lacking in that first Baltimore game?
ML: “Making plays. Go back and look at your notes.”
Making the playoffs this year means that this is the first time this organization has had back-to-back playoff berths in 30 years. How important is it for this franchise to take that next step?
ML: “I know that’s the whole media line, but it’s not been 30 years in my mind. I can’t worry about that. It’s a huge thing for the city and the organization, because now we’ve erased two of the monkeys (off our backs). We’ve got two more to erase, and we’re going to work hard these next six weeks to erase those, too.”
So is winning a playoff game the biggest monkey left?
ML: “That would be the first one.”
You spoke at the NFL Combine in February about how eaten up you were that you don’t have a playoff win as a head coach. Does it eat at you now just as much as it did then?
ML: “You do this in order to win a championship. You can’t win a championship until you win a playoff game. So that’s important. Now we’re in the tourney (playoffs), and we’ve got to go from there. That was a different locker room yesterday – it wasn’t a locker room that was giddy about anything. They know the work is ahead. Step one, done. We don’t quite get the step two that we hoped to have (division title), but we’re at (steps) 2A and 3, and that’s more important.”
You have some veterans in here who are now making their third playoff appearance in four seasons. Does that change the locker room mindset?
ML: “I think it does. Obviously the leadership group and the fronts of both offense and defense. I guess three of them have been there for that on offense. The defensive line – Michael (Johnson), Domata (Peko), Robert (Geathers) – have been here through that part. And Pat (Sims). So there’s a feel for that. (Rey) Maualuga, although he got hurt (in 2009).
“And the disappointment – we all looked around at each other in that locker room in Houston last year after losing that (playoff) game to the Texans and understood we had more work to do. We had to fight back to that opportunity. We weren’t just going to get to roll it out there and have it happen. We had to grind back to create the opportunity, and I think the guys have realized that, and they’ve done it. The guys in their second year and third year have really pushed through and done a great job. They’ve helped lead some of these young guys who are playing significant football for us – the rookies that are out there playing. So it’s been a good feel.”
So you made an effort from the 2005 and ’09 playoff-clinching experiences to cut down on the giddiness?
ML: “In ’05, it was like that wasn’t really the prize. That scene in Detroit (when the Bengals won the division in ’05), my point was that we weren’t there yet. When you’ve been beyond that, you realize there are bigger fish to fry. I think our group understands this now. Appreciate it, feel good about it, celebrate it, but realize what it took to get there and that it takes more, because now we’re going to pare it down again. Each and every one of those plays will be as significant as they were in that fourth quarter of that football game yesterday, where it went back and forth and back and forth. That’s what it is going to be.
“We had so many series that the defense made huge stops on yesterday and came back from second-and-ones and third-and-ones to get off the field. Those are significant plays. There was so much of that yesterday. At any point, if you hiccupped or relaxed for a second, we would have lost the football game. But we didn’t. We kept fighting and battling, and the same thing offensively. How many third-and-10s or third-and-14s did we overcome to make first downs to help change the field position in the game? Those were big, big moments. My lesson is when it’s third-and-22, let’s get half of it so we don’t have fourth-and-22 and need the great play. How many times have I watched A.J. make that play? I’ve watched it too many times. When I met with the team, that is what I told them: we’ve watched it in practice three to four times a week where he makes that play and makes that catch. Just like
It sounds like you want to keep it going:
ML: “That’s what we’re here for.”
This team has played pretty well on the road – 6-2 this season – and you’re going to be on the road for as long as you’re in the playoffs, which benefits you guys:
ML: “I wouldn’t say it’s a benefit. Obviously your goal is to have the best record in the NFL going into it and let them shoot holes at you for having that. There has to be some stat about the sixth seed having a better opportunity at winning the Super Bowl than the first seed. How about you guys come up with that stat for me?”
The sixth seed has probably won it more than the first seed over the last five years:
ML: “Five and six (seeds) are doing well. We have to take each week as it comes. We don’t know who we will play or where. We just have to take it on ourselves. More in focus though is the Baltimore Ravens. They are a good team that just won our division and a team that beat the snot out of us in the first game. We have to get ready to go.”
Is that your mentality, though, that wherever the game is played, so be it?
ML: “I think our guys have that attitude and you have to credit them for that. They showed a great deal of mental toughness last week through Wednesday and Thursday at practice, and obviously it paid off in the game, which was good to see. They didn’t flinch, they just kept playing.”