Opening statement: San Diego Chargers, of course, await us at the end of this work week. We're excited about that. We're excited about being in the field of eight. Had a great day of work yesterday. The players are off today. The staff is in there working, continuing to formulate our game plan and we'll get back at it tomorrow. We're very familiar with this team as, I'm sure, they are us. Not much has really changed since the first time we played them other than their record. They're a talented bunch, led by a quarterback in Phillip Rivers who makes great decisions. His quarterback efficiency is at the top of the charts. He directs them. He leads them. He does a nice job when plays break down buying time. He's surprisingly elusive and mobile. His big-play guy is Vincent Jackson. The number of big plays he's delivered for this football team since the first time we played them is really staggering. He's a catalyst for a lot of things that goes on with those guys, big plays in big moments in big games. They're battle-tested. They've been in a bunch of them. (LaDanian) Tomlinson is an awesome back. We're preparing for him. We expect him to play. I'm not familiar with him personally, but guys like him find a way to play. I think if we prepare anything other than to see him, it wouldn't be smart. (Darren) Sproles, of course, has stepped up big in the instances when he hasn't been able to go. We expect to see both guys and we'd better be prepared to defend both guys, running the ball inside, running the ball on the perimeter. Their screen game is second to none. They've really sharpened their screen game. They've hurt people and hurt people bad since the last time we played them in that area. (Antonio) Gates at tight end is a unique physical matchup. He's too big and powerful for defensive backs. He's too athletic and has too much body control for linebackers. It will be a challenge matching up on him. We'll have to pick our poison a little bit and be thoughtful in that area. He moves the chains for them. He's a vertical threat. They split him out from the core and run isolation-type routes on third down. He's a very good player. Up front they're anchored by (Kris) Dielman and (Marcus) McNeill. This is a power running team. There's a lot of shifs and pre-snap motions, but at the end of the day, they're going to shove the football at you. That's how they play. Defensively, it starts with the man in the middle, Jamal Williams, a dominant football player. He's surrounded by guys who are good at what they do, Shaun Phillips, Jyles Tucker. The cornerback play has been exceptional with (Quentin) Jammer and (Antonio) Cromartie. (Clinton) Hart has done some good things for them at safety along with (Eric) Weddle. They're just a good, solid football team. Of course on special teams, I saw their punter work just like I'm sure everybody else saw their punter work this past week and Sproles is a dangerous man on both punts and kicks. What else can you say about this team other than the fact that they're very good, battle tested. You've got to respect that. That's been an edge we've embraced throughout the season. But I think we've met our match in terms of a team that's been battle-tested. These guys have had their back against the wall and found ways to win. They've been in the playoffs for more than a month now. So the stage won't be too big for them. I'm sure they'll be quite comfortable in this game this weekend. With that, we've got a lot of work to do. We're excited about the chance to do it.
What do you do to better your chance of scoring touchdowns this time and what did they do to keep you out of the end zone?
They did a nice job of executing and we didn't. There's not hocus pocus or secret formula for getting the ball in the end zone. We've got to execute better. We've got to put our guys in better position to capitalize on the field position. Those are some of the things we're working on as a staff right now. And those are some of the things we'll work on later in the week with the players. But it's just that simple. It's about putting together a rock-solid plan, working it and then going out and performing it. We won't do anything differently this week that we've done in any of the other weeks in preparation for the game. We've just got to let it all come together a little better than it did the last time because I think we were maybe 0-3 in goal-to-go situations in that football game. That's life. Thankfully, we were able to win.
Ron Rivera was realtively new the last time you faced them. Can you talk about the changes he's brought to that defense?
They appear to be playing similar to how I thought they played at that time. I thought that they pressured us extremely well that day. They stepped up and played pretty good situational defense and to me, that's a sign of solid defensive play. When the field got short, they made us kick field goals. They had a fourth-and-one stop. All of those are signs pointing to solid defense. This is not Ron's first rodeo. Ron has done it as a coordinator before, and on big stages. We respect those guys and we expect them to do similar things on Sunday.
Did you address the 13 penalties with the team after that game and was any clarification sought with the league on any of those penalties?
I didn't address that specific instance with the team. I don't wait for things to happen to address things with the team. We realize that if we're going to be good, what we're capable of being, particularly this weekend, the Steelers can't beat the Steelers. We can't be a highly penalized bunch. We were in that instance. Whether I agree with some of them is irrelevant. We took the win and we moved on. Hopefully, it won't even be anywhere close to that this time around. If it is, we're going to have problems.
Is this team as good as any in terms of winning the battle of field position?
They are. They are because they have a great offense. They have very few three-and-outs. It starts there. And then of course, they've got great punting. You've got a big-time chance of having to work the long field when you play these guys because, coupled with that, Rivers doesn't turn the football over very often. All that adds up to a long field that you have to navigate.
How do things change when Tomlinson is in the game versus Sproles and does that take up some practice time?
I think the last time we prepared for these guys, I tried to talk myself into believing it was different. I don't think it's any different at this point. They've got a power-running game when both guys are in there. They'll attack you on the perimeter when both guys are in there. Both guys are equally dangerous in the screen game and their willingness to run the screens. I think at this point, they're calling plays regardless of who the tailback is.
How ready is Ryan Clark.
I think he's going to be fine and ready to participate in the game, as is everyone. I didn't talk about injuries, quite frankly, because we've got a clean bill of health. It's the first time in a long time. Ryan's going to be fine. Carey Davis is going to be fine. James Harrison, James Farrior are going to be fine. And Ben (Roethlisberger) is going to be fine. Those are the guys that had circumstances that the off week, the bye, worked in our favor. We were able to get those guys the rest and recuperation that they needed. We practiced yesterday and everybody participated fully, which is good. We've got a hotly contested battle waiting for us.
Did Rivers change anything after his last game here, or was Rivers' game here the last time just a bad day execution wise?
I haven't noticed anything different. Thankfully, we have a good defense. We've made a lot of good quarterbacks have bad days. We can't rest on what we've done in the past. Hopefully, we create that kind of atmosphere for him again on Sunday. Time will tell in that regard. You can't make a snap judgement on what he's capable of based on what happened in that football game. It was a hostile environment. We played well that day. The weather conditions were what they were. We were able to win the football game.
Coach, what have you learned last year that you can apply to this year?
I've got too many examples to pick one. It's not big revelation that I'm a better coach this year. I'd better be better next year. It's not always displayed in the win-loss record. I think regardless of what you do for a living, you've got to get better. And that's every day. I know when I walk through those doors, that's my intent every day. So I'm not making a bigger deal out of it than what it is. I'm just better because I am.
How much of a help is it that you've seen this team already or is it harder to beat a team twice in a year?
I don't subscribe to that. Just because that's how that last game unfolded, it's no indication of how this game is going to unfold. We're different in some ways than the last time we played them. We're playing with people that we didn't play with the last time. This is the first time around with Heath Miller. It's the first time around for some corners. They're playing with some people who didn't play, or had different roles the last time we played them. It gives you a little window in terms of the physical matchup because you got to watch guys compete against one another, first hand. But it's no indication of how this game is going to unfold. We don't take it as such.
Does the overtime, sudden-death system need to change?
I don't worry about that. The rules are what they are. How we conduct our business is what it is. Everybody's aware of it so you play to it. I think you can spend a lot of time crying over spilled milk. The reality is, our setup is what it is. You understand the lay of the land and you have to play to it. It's no different than a few weeks ago when people were talking about division winners getting a home playoff game. It is our system, you've got to embrace it and that's what I choose to do.
Is your offensive line playing better now that it has at other points in the season?
We played well last week. But the next challenge is around the corner. I just live week to week. We're preparing to be at our best this week because we feel like that's what's required to win. We did pretty well the week before. We'll see what happens.
The fact that these guys have been playing together, the longer they've been together. Has that helped?
Absolutely that's helped. Max Starks is what, 11 games in now? Darnell (Stapleton) is similar, probably 12 games in. We better be coming together, not only as an offensive line, but as a football team. That's what January is about. You're either a team on the rise or a team on the decline. If you're on the rise, you've got a chance to move on. If not, you're definitely on your way out. Hopefully, we fall into that first category.
What are they doing better, differently or both than the last time you played them?
I don't know that they're doing anything differently. They were in some close football games. At this point, they've won more than they've lost. Good teams do that. That's why I've made a conscious effort not to measure anything. It's just a complete effort. Good teams find a way to win. This is the ultimate parity league. They were an 8-8 football team going into the playoffs. But there's not much difference between being 8-8 and 11-5 or 12-4. You look at some of the games, their first two games of the season could have gone either way and possibly should have gone a different direction. We won the game by one point. That game is one that you could look at that should have gone another way. This is a good football team. They were a good football team then, they're a good football team now. They're finding ways to win games when their back is against the wall. They come back and find a way to win against Kansas City. The Bucs were up on them down in Tampa and they're trying to get into the playoffs. They don't blink, they find a way to win. They're a good football team. They're well-coached. They've got guys who have been there an done that. A bunch of those guys were in the AFC Championship game last year. They won't be in awe of what they see when they come out of that tunnel on Sunday.
Coach, given Ben's concussion history, will you be a little more cautious or keep and extra eye on him if he takes a shot this weekend?
No. I'm not.
Who are your main concerns with them rushing the passer?
Anybody that they send. It's Tuesday. I tend to be negative on Tuesday. I tend to get better later in the week. Shaun Phillips is a guy who's reputation proceeds him as a pass rusher. I think Jyles Tucker is a guy who's gaining a reputation league-wide in terms of what he can do to get after a passer. I think Jamal Williams is very disruptive, even though he might not have the sack totals to indicate it. I think any time you get that big in the middle of a defense with the kind of vertical push he puts on the pocket, he allows some of those edge guys to do what they do. Those are three guys that highlight what they are able to do in terms of getting to the quarterback, but we respect them all.
Are they more aggressive defensively under Rivera?
I think more than anything between now and what happened earlier in the year, I don't think it's a difference of Ron's presence or not. I just think over the course of time, they learned how to play without (Shawn) Merriman. I think when you lose a guy the caliber of Shawn Merriman and you're moving people around, you've got to learn how to find your mojo. Over the course of time, you learn how to do that, just like we've learned how to play without Marvel Smith and Kendall Simmons. It's football.
Is there something you'll be watching with Ben during the course of the game?
Have you made any kind of adjustments to how you approach your goal-line situations since that game?
I think that was the game we discovered Gary Russell as a potential short-yardage and goal-line runner. And that's been solid for us. We don't pretend that it's something mystical. We've just got to formulate good plans, call good plays and execute them.
What makes Gary a good candidate for that?
He's a one-trick pony. He's down hill. It doesn't matter what play you call for him. It's down hill. That happens to be a positive attribute for those circumstances.
Is there a sense of smelling the goal line?
Sure. But he has a similar personality in the middle of the field. I just think it's who he is as a runner. He runs behind his pads. Very rarely is he knocked back. He's got a nice center of gravity. He's a competitor. He's been doing a nice job for us in those areas and not only in those areas, but I think he's been doing a nice job as a kick returner to.
Is part of the problem with Sproles finding him behind the line and how do you combat that?
You don't because he's not going to grow between now and Sunday. We'd better find him. With Sproles, I think when I look at him, I think about guys like Warrick Dunn, who I worked with. They're not as much small as they are short. To consider them small is naive. These guys legs run through contact. They finish off runs. They're powerful people. He just happens to be short, but not small by any means, similar to James Harrison, if you will.
It looks like Tomlinson won't play, what makes you think he might?
Guys like him defy the odds. They do. And that's why he is who he is. He's not like the rest of us. Some of those judgements about whether he's going to play are based on charts and information and what's normal. He's not normal. I anticipate him being there. That way we're not surprised when he is.
Have they shifted from a power-running team?
They're probably better equipped to answer that than I am. I think they're using all the weapons at their disposal. I think the evolution of the screen game has been a weapon of choice, particularly in the red zone. To me, that's no different than a perimeter run. Those that appear to be passes, to me are perimeter runs. They get their oncovered linemen out in front, they get the ball to their tailback, fullbacks, they block people and they run into the end zone. Is it a 20-yard touchdown pass or is it a perimeter run? I choose to view it as a perimeter run.
Will you use more of a screen game, particularly on second and third down?
Potentially. That's what we're working on right now. But I wouldn't necessarily tell you guys as I sit here today.
Has your offensive line gotten too much criticism?
If it motivates them then yes. If it doesn't, then no. All I'm concerned about it their performance. If criticism motivates them, then keep criticizing them.
Do you get the idea that the players are still upset about the way last season ended and are they motivated by that?
I think that's so far in our rearview that we're a different team. We are. Some of the key components are different. Some of the roles are different. We just focus on what we are here in ‘08. I don't know that it's a motivating factor. I just think that having an opportunity that's in front of us right now is motivation enough for all of us. We're in the final eight, the final four in the AFC. Everybody in front of us we've played before. We've got a big-time opponent this weekend. It's awesome. It should be great motivation.
I think it's the body of work. A lot's being said about what he did in that football game, but that's not the first time he's stepped up and delivered big for that football team. It was a big stage, so it gets a lot of attention, but I think if you asked the guys in that locker room, they appreciate what he brings to the table.
Some of your better rushing games have come against the bigger nose tackles. Does that mean Justin (Hartwig) has done a good job against those guys?
That's cutting it in a lot of ways. I hadn't thought of it in that way. Justin has done a nice job for us. I think he takes it personally when he plays some of the bigger, powerful people. He realizes that's an area we need him to step up in. If there's any coorelation, I'm not aware of it. I'll look it up when I get a little free time.
Is there a mental edge having won the first game?
You can trick yourself into believing that. You can also trick yourself into believing that you don't because it's tough to beat somebody twice or so forth. I'm not worried about that stuff.
Do you go into games thinking your going to have to double the big nose tackles or do you go in hoping your center can handle him?
You go in acknowledging that if your going to have any success moving the football, you're doubling him. That's what kind of guy he is.
They're a good third-down offense, you're a good third-down defense, what do you remember about that in the first meeting?
They hurt us a couple of times with some screens. We had a pretty good day for the most part, but the screens were significant. It kind of woke us up to that fact and since that time it's continued to be a weapon for them. The thing that makes them unique on third downs is that they have unique matchups for people. Vincent Jackson is a vertical threat who happens to be very big and strong. I talked about what Gates is as a matchup issue. Couple that with their ability to dump the ball to backs and the quarterback makes good decisions and it's going to be one of those rubber meets the road settings. It's going to be fun.
Has the schedule served you well in that each week you were the marquee matchup?
I think it has. Is it going to be significant? We'll see. But no question I think that it has. I think that confidence is born out of rising up in the face of adversity. We've had a bunch. We've had some stiff competition. We're in a pretty decent position because we had some success against that competition. I think with that, builds confidence. I think we're a confident bunch. Hopefully, it leads to production for us on Sunday.