*Shawn, can you just talk about how Masthay really developed this season?
*First of all, we go back to when he got here last spring, and he was in great competition, and he went through a real growth process there. I think competition brings the best out of players. And then we got into training camp, he won the job. We start the season and he had to learn how to be an NFL punter. And one of the things we talked about was that it's his job to keep the effectiveness of the returner under control and I think as the season went on, I thought he got better and better with that. I think it's evident with how we played against Chicago and how he performed against Chicago with 16 punts in two ballgames with the effectiveness of Hester. I think he's also learned to deal with the weather elements that we've got in Green Bay. And, fortunately, in the Super Bowl we've got a controlled environment. So I expect him to be good in that game.
Shawn, when you talk about how he had to learn to become an NFL punter, what are some of the biggest things that, when they come out of college, the mechanics and techniques you have to work on?
I'll tell you, the first thing is the football. The footballs are guarded, and by design, they are tried to be made exactly the same. And they rotate throughout the game. And you start with one ball. The key, I think, back in the old days, guys would fix the footballs up to fly a little better. But that's a big deal. It's slicker most of the time and it travels a little bit differently. We play a lot of games in the NFL toward the latter part of the season when the weather is really an issue. In college, most of the seasons are over, with the exception of the bowl games, by mid November. So playing in December and January is definitely an issue for a kicker or a punter. Those things as well as just the skill level, the pressure that comes from the punt rushes, and the talent of the returners. It's all different.
*With as much as Jeremy Kapinos struggled last year, how surprised are you to see him in a Super Bowl?
*I'm not surprised at all. Jeremy was always really diligent in his work. He's a young guy, and I think he was learning. Watching him on tape with the Steelers the latter part of the season, I think he's improved. I'm not surprised at all.
*How effective is he as a punter this year?
*I think he looks pretty effective. He's done a good job. He looks like he is much improved with his punts going in, and that's an important punt because of field position.
You mentioned controlled environment. The dome will be closed, but one of the unique aspects of that stadium was the giant scoreboard, which was an issue a couple years ago with punters. Will there be any discussion about that going into this game?
There will be a discussion about it. We will identify whether or not it's an issue. We have the opportunity to go into the stadium prior to the game and actually kick. We typically punt the ball toward the sideline, and that thing's right down the middle. So I don't know if it's going to affect us much.
*How much work do you get in there? Do you know?
*We'll have an opportunity to go in for a short period of time and punt for a day, which will be enough for the guys to get a little bit acclimated. Of course we've got the pregame opportunity also.
Early in the season, when Masthay was struggling a bit, Mike McCarthy came in and said he absolutely has to improve. Was there ever a point where you guys were talking about making a change, or did it ever get to that?
It's not my job at that point. It's my job as the coach to get the player to perform. Tim and I worked hard to continue to improve. He did it, and I think it's a non story now.
How about the decision to use James Starks as kick returner?
*We are looking to put the most effective guy on the field, and that's where it begins. He's a talented young man running with the football. I think he has done some good things. I think that there are some things he needs to do better. And as we move forward, we've used a number of guys on our kickoff return, and we'll approach this game with more than one guy as being prepared to play in the game. *
Shawn, I think Tim was signed about this time last year, and he had said that, before that, he was tutoring students at Kentucky, you know, 20 hours a week. Can you appreciate the fact that I think everybody thinks pro athletes are all instant millionaires or whatever but just the work he put in and where he is now.
Absolutely. The path that a lot of kickers, punters and kickers, take to the NFL, is sometimes not defined until after they do it. Tim was here in August, had a good workout. So he was on the top of our minds once we finished the season and looking at improving at the position. We had a conversation at the time that he signed and we talked about the things he needed to do. I was very well aware of him coming out of college. Actually I was on the field at the combine when he was down there with his workout there and knew quite a bit about him, studying his college days as well. So we started off that way, and then he just put it all together throughout this year to get to where he is now.
Shawn, going back to the kickoff return thought process, you were pretty excited about Shields kind of showing some flashes. I guess I'm just wondering what changed?
I don't know that anything has changed. Sam prepares every week to be one of our kickoff returners. Here recently we've gone with James. Part of that was because of the weather and we wanted a big body catching the ball and getting north and south. But Sam is very much a part of our return game. He's an explosive player and he is getting better. I think he improves all the time. I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him catch a ball and return it for a touchdown. That's been the history here. I'd love to see it in a game.
What's the collective confidence of the units you work with? You have a period in practice all the time and see it as the season went along, they played with more confidence. How would you describe it?
I think there's a karma that's been built. I think part of it is Tim's effectiveness as a punter. He's continued to get better with his placement and his hang times and ball positions. I think our players have gained confidence in being able to go to a specific point on the field. We've added some guys throughout the season that have come in and been impactful with us on special teams. As a group, it's just grown. And success has a tendency to breed success.
How much did you do with Tim as far as shortening his steps or quickening his get off time? Was that quite a bit of work?
First of all, Tim is fundamentally sound in that his mechanics are really in a straight line. That's an excellent starting point. One of the things we did is to compact his footwork into the kick, and that, in my opinion, helps a guy stay most consistent. That's what he's done.
*Was that just a little bit of work? Was it a significant amount?
*It's a process. It's a continuing process. I think it's something that when you go to work your skill, that that's the thought process is to stay compact, stay straight, try to match the ball on the foot. And that's something that he continuously works on. He's gotten pretty good with it.
It's oftentimes overlooked, but what type of weapon is Jarrett Bush? When it seemed like he downed a punt on the 3 the other day, and it seems like he's always in position to swing field position your way.
Jarrett's been impactful as a cover man. He has been for a while, for a number of years for us. We've put him in positions, particularly inside our kickoff team, to be impactful. He's hard to block. Outside he's strong, and he's got enough length and size that it's hard for a corner to play him one on one. And he actually will beat a double team at times. He's been very productive here lately with helping down the ball inside the 20 and inside the 10 in some cases.
Was it ever maddening to you, Shawn, for a while it seemed like he got a lot of flags his way and it doesn't seem that way anymore. Did you pull him aside and have a moment with him?
Yes, we did. Jarrett brings the quality you want in a game. He's extremely tough, and he's put together like a piano wire, and he's ready to jump and go. And he has learned to control that, play within the rules of the game. And I credit him because we did have that conversation. One of the things we needed to do was improve with the number of penalties that we've had on special teams, and he had gotten a bunch of them because, No. 1, he played a lot of plays and he had made a lot of plays. But he was highly combative, and sometimes he got a little over the line. To his credit, he's done well this year.
*Talk about Masthay's mental approach to the game. Pretty even keel?
*He is very even keeled. He doesn't go up and down with the rhythm of the game. He stays pretty true to what his mission is. I think it's evident in some of the situations that he's been in as this season has gone on.
The last time this franchise won the Super Bowl, special teams obviously played a huge role, Desmond Howard with the kickoff return for a touchdown. Any chance that will come up in the next 10 days, or is that just nostalgia for the fans and the media?
There's absolutely a chance. Our special teams were very instrumental in getting us in the playoffs, first of all, and I think what you saw in Chicago the other day with our performance with the punt team was a factor in that ballgame. I expect us to be a factor in the game against the Steelers.
*Do you use that as a teaching tool to your guys in just saying, everyone that knows special teams, everyone that works in your units knows how big it is. But maybe just to underscore that that was the game-changing moment in that Super Bowl.
*That's awesome, and that's a feel-good story. It's a great story to I'm glad it happened with us because that's something, yeah, we can talk about that. Hey, we've done that before. This organization has done that before. I think one of the things that makes our team unique is we're going into this game with a game mindset. The event is one thing, and we'll deal with that. But we're going to prepare and be focused and line up between the lines to play the game. We're going to play it the best we can play it. And at the end of the game, we'll see what happens.
*What's keeping you from getting more productive kick or punt returns when you're getting the ball back? You've popped a couple, but I'm sure you're looking for more. Is there anything there in the blocking scheme or return scheme that…
*Well, I think, realistically, you've got some guys when you look at Devin Hester, you think he returns every ball for a big gain or a score and that's not the case. The field gets smaller because the athletes are so fast. And then when you get a guy that makes a unique play, he may break the coverage and come up with a big gain. We did it against Chicago. We had two. We had a kickoff return that was outside the 40 and had a long punt return. We need to get another one. We're always pressing that envelope to try to get that, and if we get the ball kicked correctly to us and get the blocks made, it will happen. It's not a constant thing that there's going to be a big return in every ballgame.
Shawn, I can think of three or four games this season where on kick coverage you get down the field and your kick coverage team puts on a big hit, sets the tone, maybe sets your opponent deep in their territory. Is there a fine line between those guys flying around and being assignment-sure on that opening play?
*Absolutely. I think that guys take chances. When they take chances, big things are going to happen, either for or against. I think it's important, particularly with what's on the line with this ballgame, that we play fundamentally sound. I think we've learned to do that. We have played a number of different players together. When guys play beside one another for several games in a row, they start to build continuity, and hopefully we've gotten that. *
The Steelers had an onside kick against you the last time you played them. Do you keep that in the back of your mind, or is that ancient history?
*That's always in the back of our mind. We special teams coaches are a little different. We have a library on one another. And Al Everest has been a very good special teams coach. He wasn't there last year. But I'm sure he's aware of some of the things we've done, and we will keep that in mind that Coach Tomlin made that call. And we will be prepared for that. We are all the time. One of the things you have to do is football is a chess match. The kickoff return play is no different. You may have five guys on the front. You may have seven guys on the front line. It's how you want to deploy your troops to give you the advantage. Clearly, if it we feel like it's an onside kick situation, we would lean toward having more guys there. *
You're a Texas guy. How does it feel to go back and play this game down there?
*It's awesome. It's really neat. The emotion of it, you ask that question and I can remember growing up, and I was a Cowboys fan growing up. Watching their success during my childhood and then watching Super Bowls after that, particularly as I became a coach, it's something I always wanted to do. To be able to go do it in Dallas, Texas, means a lot. *
Obviously, you guys have had a lot of injuries and it probably affected the composition of your special teams. But what trepidation is there having a starting corner like Tramon Williams being the primary punt returner?
*Well, it's something we decided as an organization going into this season that we were going to use Tramon in that role. Going back a couple years, we've had Charles Woodson in that role. It's something that we decided to do. I think it's a calculated risk. We trust Tramon and his ability, No. 1, to field the ball because that's what that play is all about. Tramon's got enough skill to make yardage if we get the opportunity. *
You were asked about the Steelers' onside kick. I'm wondering if you remember what your thoughts were watching the Super Bowl last year when they started the second half with an onside kick.
*I thought it was a great play. I think that pulling the trigger on that coming out of halftime was it's all in. I mean, when you get to this point I mean, we've been playing football for a long time. We've been practicing, coaching, playing for a long time, and it's all in. So anything can happen. Super Bowls, there have been some great plays that have happened in that game. I think that's one of them and it definitely had an influence on the outcome of that ballgame. *
Do you think Mason is sharp right now? He hasn't had a whole lot of work in the playoffs. Where do you think he is coming into this game?
He's sharp, yeah, I mean, because of his body of work all the way to this point for the year. He's done a good job of keeping his core strength up and we're very conscious of the number of reps that we take during the week. We'll do that as we go through the next two weeks practicing here and then down in Dallas. He'll be ready and he'll be at his best.