JJ Stankevitz: Back in June, you said that it was amazing you could have a season without an offseason workout program. Now that you're here at camp and putting together the plans and installs, how are you feeling the impact of having a full offseason program?
Frank Reich: There's a confidence level not just among the coaches that hey, we got to do what we coaches like to do, but I think the players are feeling that. The players really approached the offseason with a great eagerness for us to get better.
We kept using this program analogy of going from version 1.0 to version 2.0. And when you have an offseason program like we did, it afforded us to be able to do that. How do you get from version 1.0 to version 2.0? Well, you got to build out the program, you got to debug it, and we've had an opportunity to get a lot of that done.
JJ: I don't want to say, like, how much farther ahead are you compared to that last two years but when you have that foundation to build off, to install off over the next couple of weeks, what does that do for the tenor of practices and meetings?
Frank Reich: The level of preparation is just higher. Especially for us, obviously with a new quarterback in Matt Ryan and as brilliant and smart as he is, and as much experience as he has, when you're coming into a new system all those reps mean a lot. And then when you consider how he's orchestrating everything on the field, what an offseason allows really more than anything is it allows him to orchestrate more on the field in training camp rather than being in more learning mode.
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JJ: As you've worked with Matt Ryan and got to know him better on and off the field, what have you learned from him?
Frank Reich: It's really interesting to see how different quarterbacks view the game. I've learned from all the quarterbacks I've worked with — that's one of the benefits of having a different quarterback every year, certainly has some downside to it but you just continue to learn about the game.
But what I resonate with Matt is all his experience, all the different coordinators he's had, all the football he knows is – at his heart, he wants to keep it real simple. He wants to keep it real simple. And he really knows how to think about the game. He's not always trying to come up with something new, he'd rather run the same thing over and over again.
So really what this offseason was was him learning our core stuff and okay, we'll go to his film from when he was in Atlanta and let's cherry-pick our favorite concepts that maybe we didn't have — a lot of them we do have — and make that all work.
JJ: On the concepts you both brought to the table, are there tweaks of like, we're going to run a sail concept — this is how the Colts run it, this is how Ryan's run it, and melding those things together?
Frank Reich: That happens so much I can't even tell you. Those kinds of conversations are so fun. I mean, I just go home and think this isn't even fair how much fun this is.
I've been working with Matt through that process and it's a give and a take, it's collaborating with the player. What was cool about the way Matt handled it was probably the first two to three weeks, we were inviting him in to, okay, tell us — but he took more of a posture of hey, just give me your basics first. I don't want to say a word, I don't want to tell you what I like, I just want to hear what now is our core stuff. And then once I digest that, then we'll start collaborating some. It was a very healthy approach and it really was a lot of fun.
JJ: With Matt, he's known for his ability to read out progressions and attack defenses based on the coverage and play call. Last year, you explained to me that your offensive philosophy is to spread the ball around to different receivers. How does Matt's ability to go through his progressions and identify the open player allow you to truly spread the ball around?
Frank Reich: It's huge because sometimes, coaches can fall into the trap of over-scheming, right. And of course, everybody likes it — we all like to see some play on TV that was schemed up perfectly, wow, and then the commentators will say, look what a great job by the coaches in scheming that up. And as coaches we should do that, there should be a handful of things in a game that you can do to put players in position to do that.
But you can't play the whole game like that. You can only play about 10 percent of the game like that. The other 90 percent of the game, you gotta play football. And the No. 1 read isn't always going to be open.
So Matt, he just thinks so fast and he's so poised in the pocket to get through the progression. And the result of that is a couple things. You don't always have to be perfect on the play call, and secondly, the ball's going to get spread around — you may be first in the progression but you don't know the ball's going there. And he has the ability to get it to the fourth guy in the progression. So it keeps everybody into their route.
JJ: At receiver, you have different types of players for different situations — downs, distances — where, for example, you can get Michael Pittman Jr. in the slot, or play him as an X and slide different guys in the slot. As you think about Matt going through his progressions and getting the ball to guys who can play every receiver position, how does that benefit Matt and you as a play caller?
Frank Reich: I tell this to Chris Ballard all the time, I say, we need smart receivers. I know we need physically talented receivers and we're gonna get that, but we put a premium on intelligence — with every position — at receiver because we're going to have a smart quarterback.
The reason that's so important, you don't know how defenses are going to adjust, they're not always going to play what you think they're going to play, so if you don't have players who are smart, you're just limited in how you can adjust to a team. So you got these receivers, and Pitt's a good example, we can put him anywhere we want — he can play X, he can play Z, he can play in the slot and we're going to mix it up based on the play and who we're playing to try to get the right matchups.
It's very healthy, I think it can keep defenses off balance — you don't know where the guy's going to line up all the time — and I think it gives a slight edge to our offense.
JJ: With Pitt, I remember last year during the joint practices with Carolina, you shared with us that you went up to him and told him how much you appreciate him for wanting to just go hit somebody. As the physical leader of the wide receivers, how does that impact the rest of the guys in that group?
Frank Reich: It sets the tone. Pitt's the leader of that room. He's really emerged as the No. 1 receiver. And what's great is he's emerged as a No. 1 receiver, but he's also emerged as the No. 1 blocker. He's not afraid to mix it up. And that challenges everybody — like, oh, we gotta block on every play. I mean, our No. 1 receiver does. So it just sets a high standard.
JJ: From a blocking standpoint, with Zach Pascal in Philadelphia and Jack Doyle retired — and with those guys so important to the run game over the last few years — does that lead you to need to shift some things in the run game?
Frank Reich: I mean, I'm not going to say it's impossible to replace Jack Doyle, but there are very few tight ends in the league that block like Jack Doyle. So we have to be smart as coaches and understand that the guys — Mo Alie-Cox and the younger tight ends that end up filling the shoes of Jack at certain positions on certain plays — I'm not sure there's going to be anybody that'll block as well as he can block.
But they all can block well — Mo's a really good blocker. There were things Jack could do that were unique. So we just have to mix that up and make sure we continue to put guys in the right positions. And Zach, Zach was an enforcer. But Pitt is the same way. Pitt and Zach were in the same mold, so Pitt's setting the bar there and we need to continue with that.
JJ: We all see the highlight reel plays from Jonathan Taylor, but you get to see him work behind the scenes every day. What have you come to appreciate about JT and some of the stuff we don't get to see on a daily basis?
Frank Reich: First of all, he takes pride in every aspect of his game. He wants to be elite at everything, not just running the football — in pass protection, as a receiver, as a back out of the backfield. So he puts in the work, he's getting extra catches in the catch circuit. He's making sure he's watching extra tape on protections because if you can't pass protect, it just limits how often we can use you. So it really makes himself available as a complete three-down back.
But the thing to me that sets him apart in so many ways is, it's not just unselfishness — I don't know if pure is the right word — but how much of a team player he really is and how much of a killer instinct he really has. You talk to JT for five seconds, you know this guy's one of the nicest guys I've ever talked to. But man, he's got a killer instinct. And when he's competing, he wants to — he's going to play with a ferocity that's unmatched.
JJ: At left tackle, what are you hoping to see out of the guys there from the start of camp through the end of August?
Frank Reich: I think it'll unfold, we're going to let it play out and let the guys compete. And here's the challenge that we have before us — the real challenge before us is you want to get a look at all these different combinations, but at the same time you need to build a chemistry. So (offensive line coach Chris Strausser), we were just talking about this the other day and we were going back and forth through it, and we kept saying, okay, what's going to be our rotation – we pulled out our depth chart and we're looking through it like, okay, when we break this up and we go ones and twos, who's going when and how many reps and what are we switching?
And what Strauss and I determined is, this is going to be the art of it. We gotta get these guys — at some point we're going to have to lean one way and say let's get these guys reps. And obviously with the work that Matt (Pryor) did last year, we're kind of defaulting to that mode. But Bernhard (Raimann), he's a young talent and we'll see how he develops. It's really going to be interesting to see how it plays out.
JJ: Do you need to have a starting five O-line set by a certain day, or is that a feel thing for you and Strauss?
Frank Reich: I think we do. We'll look at it as a calendar thing and say hey, it'd be nice if by the time we get to the second preseason game we know. But you can't force it. Or maybe it declares itself even sooner. I think we're open to that as well.
Matt played well last year and we feel good about the work that he's done. We'll see how things come in training camp, and we feel good about Danny Pinter at right guard. He's done a good job. And of course really expecting big things from our other guys. But the big question mark is Bernhard, how fast is he going to pick it up? It'll be competitive. And we're play it day by day.
JJ: On defense, how did you see Gus Bradley connect with players during the offseason program and how does that benefit him now as the defense goes through a heavy install of a different scheme?
Frank Reich: That's the other thing of having an offseason program, having a new defensive staff and giving them an opportunity to work, that was huge. And then particularly with a guy like Gus who has a reputation, a well-earned reputation, of being a guy who can connect with players. This guy has a unique leadership style. It's unique. He's so charismatic and he is so good at connecting with people that I know our players feel that. But yet he's got this great track record as a defensive coordinator and scheming up things. So it's a great situation. We feel very blessed that we were able to get him and excited not just about the scheme he's bringing but his style of leadership to the defense.
JJ: When you talk about the ability to connect, how important is that when you're implementing a different defense than the one the players were used to for the last four years? Is it developing trust early, is it in explaining when we're doing things a certain way? How does that play out?
Frank Reich: It's all of those things, and then I think more than anything, what you're looking for is players to really take ownership of it. And I think what Gus — yeah, everybody knows what Gus does well is, generally speaking, pretty simple. Although in OTAs, he put a few tweaks in, some stuff he hasn't done before. And I give him credit for that — he's open-minded and we have a few things that are new for him. But ultimately, what the general gameplan is, is the players feel like he's going to trust them in the scheme, he's going to support them in the scheme and we'll change things up just enough to put them in good position.
JJ: You see Yannick Ngakoue and the stuff he's done over his career, DeForest Buckner is another proven guy and then Kwity Paye is up and coming — as an offensive coach, when you're looking at a defense that has three guys that can get after the quarterback on the edge and interior, what's the challenge in scheming for that?
Frank Reich: That's a big deal because how you're going to slide and where you're going to set your back — I can tell you, when we go up against teams that have two good edge pass rushers, what are you going to do? You gotta pick one. Unless you want to keep seven guys in, right, nobody wants to do that. You want to get guys out in the pattern. So that's the challenge that it presents.
But we got to take advantage of that. We know in this game, on both sides of the ball, this game is about affect the passer and protect the passer. So we want to get better than we were last year protecting — we've been pretty good during the time we've been here but we need to get back on track there. And then we're really counting on our defensive front with this attacking style defense to really put even more pressure on the passer than we did last year, not only from the scheme but from the players that we got. Yannick, that's a great get. He's been very productive. DeForest has continued to be productive and Kwity, and Dayo (Odeyingbo) is going to come in healthy. I think we're in a good position.
JJ: On special teams, there's been some personnel changeover with guys like George Odum and Matthew Adams leaving in free agency. But what have you come to appreciate about special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone and his ability to coach up those coverage units and keep that as a top-level phase for this team?
Frank Reich: Obviously we got really good players on teams. That's a credit to Chris (Ballard) and his staff. But Bubba does such a good job. We really prioritize getting players that can be really good on special teams but Bubba does such a good job of coaching them on coverage in particular. And that's just all about two things, it's about discipline and aggressiveness. You gotta maintain discipline but you still gotta be ultra aggressive and so that blend, and Bubba has a great knack of managing that health tension between being super aggressive in coverage but also staying really disciplined. He's really good at that.
JJ: What's the comfort or ease for you as a head coach in knowing Bubba has that side of the ball not just taken care of, but operating at a high level?
Frank Reich: Yeah, that side of the ball during the time we've been here has been good every year. And it's a credit to a lot of things but Bubba's leadership is second to none. And I think it doesn't have to be this way, but I think in Bubba's case, the fact that he did it so well and he played that position at such a high level, and he still looks and feels like he could play, he brings an energy to those units that's palpable and it has a really positive impact on our team.