Posted: 3:50 a.m.
GH: Critics keep wanting you to upgrade the defensive line, but didn't you play the run well down the stretch?
We did a decent job against the run in the second half of the season with the exception of two games. You can't play inconsistently. We've got to reach a level of maturity that we can go out there and be consistent every week. The biggest telltale sign of not playing consistently is giving up big plays. Not always touchdowns, but plays that keep drives alive and put them in position to score touchdowns and field goals. You have to eliminate those big plays by reaching a level of consistency.
GH: What happened that didn't happen in the first half of the season?
Guys were trying to do too much. It's the little things. It was those little things, the right things that we asked them to do that got us where we were. Up front, we continued to improve by understanding our run fits, by understanding gap control. The big plays came primarily in the passing game more than the running game. We have to become a better tackling team. We got better as the season went on, but we tailed off at the end. We have to be a much more physical team.
I think our defense knows that. They know we have to become more physical. To their credit they came out in the playoff game and attacked it totally differently than we did in the last game of the season in Kansas City. We really came out gangbusters against Pittsburgh and played well early. Then we kind of slipped as the game went on. I think we lost our confidence.
We've got to be a more physical team. We had flashes of being physical, but that consistency level just is not there. If somebody pulls out a tape of just the Kansas City game, people will laugh. But you pull out a tape of the Pittsburgh game in Pittsburgh, and you say, "Hey this team plays pretty physical."
It's a level of maturity and we have to do a better job of having our guys play physical every week. That's all I've heard since the day I got here from Marvin. We play in a physical division. You have to handle that and then when you get out of your division, things become a little bit easier if you play with that same mentality.
GH: It couldn't help that you barely had your starting safeties together. Kim Herring was on IR all season and Madieu Williams played just four games.
We didn't get there with them, either. But we had guys who stepped in to the point where we were at that did a very commendable job. Do we need to get better? Yes. Whether it's looking in free agency or the draft , or just improving with offseason workouts. Fundamentals are so overlooked at times in this league. We have to continue to work on fundamentals and become better tacklers.
GH: Are people overestimating the value of a safety?
No. I think anyone who knows football knows you have to secure the defense up the middle. You've got to have two good guys inside, you've got to have good linebackers inside, you've got to have good safeties up the middle. Anything on the edge is gravy. When you solidify the middle of the field, you force your opponent to try the perimeter. And you have to make sure the people you put in those positions are sound and solid in the fundamentals.
GH: How can you upgrade at safety?
Two approaches. Take one in the draft and develop him or get a dominant veteran safety in free agency that knows the game, that can help orchestrate back there, is the field general, and can be like a coach on the field. Or, work with what you already have in the offseason.
GH: You're talking about a tackler, right?
That's what I mean by dominant. A physical player.
GH: Is that guy out there in free agency?
There's a bunch of guys out there and there are three things you look at starting with No. 1, are they better than what you have? No. 2, how do they fit the scheme of this team and No. 3, can they bring the character that we want? To me, that is what has been the big reason for the success and turnaround we've had here because Marvin has done a great job of being able to bring in people that have good character and fit what we want to get done, and we have to continue to do that.
GH: One of those guys is cornerback Tory James, heading into the last year of his four-year free-agent deal. Contrary to some reports I've seen, you guys are counting on him this year as much as ever.
He's going to be an integral part of whatever we do. Tory really became a leader in the locker room this past year and a leader in our group. And he really did make an attempt to play more physical this year in the run game. He didn't have as many interceptions, but a lot of that is because they were throwing it in the opposite direction. He's like everyone else. He's got things to improve, but I had him in Oakland and I've had him here, and he's a good person and a solid player.
GH: The nickel cornerback had been Keiwan Ratliff until Rashad Bauman took the job. Do you expect Ratliff to get it back this season?
It got to the point where Keiwan had to play multiple positions. That hurts you mentally, but we had to take advantage of the skills he brings to the table with the depth problem at safety. On third-and-long, we needed to have his ball skills back there at safety. It hurt him a little bit in progression, but that's part of the reason we drafted him is because of his versatility. He had to wear a lot of different hats and that does tax you mentally. But the bottom line is you need guys like Keiwan on your team because they can do so many things.
We're flexible enough that we can put one of the starters in the nickel if we had to. All things are possible. Tory had a big interception return in the playoffs (in Oakland) as the nickel guy. My point is that we have flexibility there.
GH: Rookie wide receiver Tab Perry has been rumored to be getting switched to safety this spring.
That's up to the guy down the hall (Lewis). It's a situation where we have a very talented young man that can play either way. We looked at it this year because of the depth problem. We had him in there playing some DB (last) year. It's been discussed. Where it goes is up to the guy down the hall.
GH: Matthias Askew is heading into his third season after dressing in only one game for you at defensive tackle. What's his status? What's holding him back?
Matthias needs to mature a little bit as a football player. He began to practice better at the end of the season than at the beginning. He's a guy that needs to learn to practice with that consistency that is going to get him on the field so he can show what he's got.
GH: Consistency with intensity?
Everything. Intensity. Technique. Understanding the scheme. The way he approaches meetings. A lot of guys fall into that group. There's a maturation process he's got to go through and it's time for him to do that now. He's been around long enough, as well as other guys on the unit.
GH: You played a lot of three-man fronts last year. Is this going to stay a 4-3 defense, or will it be more 3-4 given your number of linebackers?
The three-man look is what we used basically in sub packages or passing downs. Third down. You know, we've got good, talented inside players, too, as far as the defensive line goes. We will find the way to get the best 11 guys on the field for the situation. It could be two defensive linemen, it could be five. There's all different situations based on what the offense is giving you. We used a 5-3-3 at times, and a 4-4-3. We had all those scenarios you can play with, taking advantage of who is healthy at the time.
After you go through free agency and the draft, you see what you've got and go from there. It's still a 4-3 base, but you do whatever you can to get the best 11 guys on the field.
GH: A lot of times you rushed just three guys.
It depends. We had three-man fronts where we had the linebacker blitzing as the extra guy from a disguise look, or just a true four-man rush. We did get forced into some situations where we played a little bit more three-man look. It's based on down and distance, and who the quarterback was. When we did drop a lot of guys into coverage, we felt we could fill voids in the zone and get off the field. It was very successful for us for the most part.
GH: A guy like starting left end Robert Geathers got moved inside on a four-man pass rush. Is he more effective rushing on third down on the edge, where he was as a rookie?
Starting is a lot different than coming in as the third man like he did a year ago. You're getting a lot more reps and a lot more beating to the body, and wear down on the body. I don't think it was a case of him not being as productive or that he regressed. It's that he had to play a lot more snaps at a single position. We did move him inside and that may have limited him a little bit what he can do off the edge. But it was in order to take advantage of getting (David) Pollack on the field and using him as a pass rusher (at end). Robert did a great job for us. He's going to continue to improve and he's got to continue to attack it as the starter because he learned a lot this year about the wear down as an entire season as a starter.
GH: Are you happy with what Pollack did down the stretch on the edge as a pass rusher, when he seemed to come on?
If you look what he was doing before he got hurt in the (first) Pittsburgh game, he was playing lights out. Then he gets hurt and was out for about a month, then he picked it up where he left off. Yeah, I'm excited about where he's going as a pass rusher and as a SAM linebacker. He's really starting to understand what he's supposed to do in coverage.
These are the things taking him a little longer to do because he was a pass rusher his whole career. But he's definitely showing progress. He's a guy that you love to be around because football is so important to him. He works it in meetings. He works on his own. He met with Marvin every day, or every other day, during the entire season, and sometimes he watched practice tape at night up here with us in staff meetings. He does it the way a coach likes to see it done. Seriously and with a passion.
GH: He said the most he played at linebacker was the last two games of the season.
We had an inside joke. Every time he went in the game he went into blitz. But he played some coverage, too. And he's definitely getting better. He's understanding what he's supposed to do. You continually take it for granted with him because he hasn't played linebacker until he got here.
GH: Where do you see this defense right now?
It's a maturation of a unit. I went to a Super Bowl with Oakland with an older unit full of veterans. There are a lot of plusses with that, but you're really selling yourself out for that one year. We've got a unit right here that, shoot, we were the second or third youngest defense in the league last year, and that makes you smile. You've got nothing to do but improve and you're improving with young, talented guys that are going to be here for a long time.