Following are the highlights of Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin's weekly press conference on Tuesday, with my commentary in italics:
* "Our willingness and ability to spread (the Buffalo Bills) out and make them defend the field both horizontally and vertically at the early stages set the stage, in terms of keeping those guys off balance, allowed us to run the ball the rest of the way. We didn't want to get into one of those static field-position type games and allow them to use the weather circumstances against us in that way."
Take: Sounds like a diversion from what we were all thinking, that Tomlin walked into the locker room at halftime and told coordinator Todd Haley in no uncertain terms that he had better start running the ball. "I don't know if that happened,” Ramon Foster told me, “but that's what the offensive line was thinking.”
* "I really appreciate the contributions of Randy Bullock. He was a pleasure. He put his hand in the pile and delivered for us when called upon. Appreciate the spirit in which he approached the challenge that comes with being a guy in his position. Thankful for his contributions."
Take: Thank your one-game kicker with a Super Bowl ring, or at least a percentage of those proceeds.
* "I thought our coverage units were solid. I thought they were highlighted by the play of Rosie Nix. I thought he was dominant in that area. I also thought Rosie had a good game on offense as well."
Take: A good game? Record-setting Man of the Day Le'Veon Bell gave his fullback his game ball. The players love the energy, and even the smack talk, Nix brings to the field. He's another who's coming back from injury as this team seems to be getting healthier as the season wears on. Nix played in only 13 snap in the first 10 games before playing 15, 18 and 25 in the last three games, respectively. Nix also has some pass-catching to show off, too. He has the best hands on a former college nose tackle I've ever seen.
* "DeAngelo Williams (knee) worked some last week and had some positive results. Got a legitimate chance to participate this week. ... (Darrius) Heyward-Bey (foot) will move in that direction as well but probably not as optimistic as DeAngelo. ... Shamarko Thomas (concussion) has got a chance. ... Ramon Foster (chest) has a chance. ... (Javon) Hargrave and B.J. Finney are in the concussion protocol and are being evaluated."
Take: No wonder I couldn't find Finney in the locker room after the game. I wanted to ask him how many concussions he dished out in an outstanding performance as the replacement left guard. Foster will move back into that position, no doubt. As for Williams, it will be interesting to see how much work he gets at running back in these next two important games. Win them both and he can have the entire finale against the Browns to get ready for the playoffs as Bell's complement.
* On the upcoming opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, Tomlin said, "Collectively up 39-0 at halftime of their last two games ... I know they've sustained negatively from a health standpoint but the last two games show they're adjusting to the absence of A.J. Green and Giovanni Bernard. They redistributed the labor and are really finding their rhythm. Jeremy Hill, it starts there for us. ... Tyler Eifert is dynamic. ... Impressed with the growth and development of Tyler Boyd ... (Rex) Burkhead offset the loss of Bernard ... he's a WR in some packages.”
Take: The Bengals got off fast in wins over the Browns (23-10) and Eagles (32-14) the last two weeks but it's hard to imagine that offense playing well this week even with Green returning for his first week of practice after tearing a hamstring on Nov. 20. But I do understand the concept of other players improving in a star's absence. See the next point for more on that.
* Tomlin, when asked if this is one of the best O-lines he's had in his 10 years as coach: "Coming off that performance last week, it would be hard to argue against it."
Take: In talking to Foster on Monday about how well the defense is playing in spite of the loss of Cam Heyward, Foster said the injury to Maurkice Pouncey last year forced other players to step up and that they – and by virtue of that, the entire line – became much better and much more confident this year. Foster said he sees the same dynamic happening with the D-line and in particular Stephon Tuitt, and that next year, when Heyward returns, those two will be a terrifying duo.
* On promoting Demarcus Ayers: "We had a spot there. We've been leaking a little bit at the receiver position. ... He's learned and worked hard on a daily basis."
Take: The seventh-round draft pick will provide depth and offer an alternative to Antonio Brown as a punt returner, but in my opinion he won't return kickoffs – and may not even "get a hat" on game day as part of the 45.
* Tomlin was asked why the Steelers have done so well against tight ends this year. "We're still writing that script. We've got a legitimate one this week in Tyler (Eifert), so stay tuned."
Take: Note to young reporters: Tomlin won’t jinx his team by challenging the karmic forces of the universe. You might as well ask him why his team has been so healthy of late.
* On Sammie Coates: "I know you guys think there's more to that story than what it is, but it's not. The guy's got two broken fingers on one hand. It makes it difficult to catch the ball consistently, particularly when he's working back to the quarterback, so until we can get some comfort or clarity in that area, his offensive contributions are going to be limited."
Take: We do think there's more to it. First, he didn't know how he gashed a hand that required stitches in a game just over two months ago, and then he found out he broke a finger, too. And then a week or so later we learned he had two broken fingers. Yes, we think there's something more to THAT, but we also wonder what's taking him so long to recover and whether he's having difficulty with his assignments, or, as Tomlin likes to say, "jumping on board (and keeping up with) a moving train."
* How has Le'Veon Bell gotten better since his Pro Bowl 2014 season? "All areas, intellectually, understanding of the game. ... The intellectual conversations with him are much different today than they were then. Just understanding how to play the position, the nuances of the position, the protection of the ball, protection of himself. ... More important than the talent, he's got a desire to be great. ... He's a much better conditioned athlete today than he was in 2014. I mean it when I say all areas."
Take: I'll add that he doesn't smoke weed any more, and I'll also cite my conversations with Bell, who’s a much sharper human being. He said he's been off pot for an extended period, and it shows. And I believe – and I would stake a long-term contract offer to him on it – that he'll stay off it. Did anyone see him turn away the turkey leg on TV on Thanksgiving night? Now, he actually took a wee bite and looked like he wanted to spit it out. He told me later he was hungry, and likes turkey, but that those calories weren't part of his scheduled daily intake. I believe he's extended that discipline to pot as well. Just my $.02.
* On dealing with the history of Vontaze Burfict's cheap shots: "We're going to play ball like we always do."
Take: This team has too much going its way to involve itself in Burfict's jackassery in any way, shape or form.
* On Artie Burns' improved tackling: "We've challenged him openly in terms of improving in that area, and he has. And I'm sure he'll be challenged in some other areas moving forward in his career. If that's a template, then it bodes well for him as a professional because he's been no-nonsense in his approach in that area. ... A young guy that's legitimately humble and does more listening than talking is usually going to improve, and I think that describes not only him but Sean Davis and Hargrave as well."
Take: Good stuff for young athletes in that answer, and Burns has improved his tackling. But I will make this criticism: For as many big plays as he makes, he still allows as many big plays. While I would move him just a smidgen past Hargrave in my Steelers Rookie of the Year vote, I still have Davis as the team’s No. 1 rookie this year.