As his fellow defensive backs came through the door, they filled plates with fried chicken, mac and cheese and greens.
Once everyone had fixed themselves a meal, Joe Haden took his place next to the projector screen.
The 10-year veteran went over film from the day’s practice, identifying potential problem areas for his teammates. Frequently, Haden paused the film and called on teammates.
The players discussed what they saw on film, trying to identify problems and solutions. By the end of the 45-minute meeting, they were all on the same page.
Bellies full and minds educated with plans for slowing the Buffalo Bills' offense, the 10 defensive backs adjourned and went home.
It’s the same routine they’ve had all season and for longer than Haden has been around.
“Everybody’s seeing everything the same," Haden said. "That’s something that when your coaches are coaching it up to you, some people would be a little more nervous to ask questions. I know it’s easier to talk to your peers than sometimes your coaches because they’ll be like, ‘Man, you’re supposed to know that,' where us, we’ll be like, ‘Don’t trip. Look at this is. This is what you need to do.’”
The collaborative format is a big reason the Steelers' secondary has been so effective this season. Pittsburgh is second in the league with 19 interceptions and tied for first with 16 fumble recoveries. Defensive backs account for 14 of the team’s interceptions, along with three fumble recoveries and forced fumbles.
A lot of that comes from these Thursday sessions. Not only do they give the players a chance to get on the same page, but they also help them develop crucial chemistry.
“It’s a good thing because we all get a different perspective, not just hearing it from our coaches,” Nelson said. “It just gives everybody a floor, and it’s a relaxed environment. ... I think it’s a cool thing. It’s been helping.”
Taking over tradition
After Haden arrived in Pittsburgh from the Cleveland Browns as a free agent in 2017, he was surprised when he attended his first Thursday defensive backs meeting.
Unlike in his seven seasons in Cleveland, there wasn’t a coach running the show. Instead, veteran corner William Gay and safety Mike Mitchell did the teaching.
“I loved it,” he said. “I feel like at the end of the day, [the coaches] put the trust in us, too. It’s not like when we go to the Thursday meeting we’re playing around. We know exactly what the coaches want us to know. What Will was doing, he was so smart. He was doing everything [Steelers] coach [Mike] Tomlin wanted us to do.”
After Gay, now a Steelers coaching intern, played his last game with Pittsburgh in January 2018, Haden took over the meetings.
“When they left, I kind of took it upon myself, understanding that was just a tradition, the way that Will just showed us and taught us,” Haden said. “This is how we do it.”
Haden catered the first meeting of the season. From there, the schedule of providing food was determined by seniority.
“It just goes down from the oldest in the room to the youngest in the room,” Haden said with a laugh. “It’s getting cheaper and cheaper.”
During Thursday practices, Haden is glued to his tablet. When he isn't on the field, he’s going through plays, marking those that need extra attention in the afternoon meeting.
“They know what they did before you even play it,” Haden said. “So when we’re playing, we’re able to coach ourselves up, and we’re like, ‘All right, bet we all see it the same way.'
“When I’m in those meetings, I know exactly how [senior defensive assistant/secondary coach Teryl Austin] wants us to play it ... basically just fine-tuning stuff. It goes a whole lot smoother. I just love the fact that coaches treat us like pros and know that we’re going to have it right.”
The defensive backs also meet with Austin on Wednesday. But for the younger guys, Thursday’s format is less intimidating. Things they might hold back with a coach, they can share with their teammates.
“It’s like when you’re a parent and you have a kid, and the kid doesn’t want to listen to you, but he’ll listen to his coach or his friend,” Austin said. “It’s the same thing. ... I think that’s why they work well.”
Austin respects the process. He doesn’t come to Haden with things he thinks the cornerback should address with his teammates. The players-only meetings were in place before he arrived in Pittsburgh for this season, and he doesn't want to mess with a good thing.
“I want that stuff to happen naturally and what they talk about to be theirs," Austin said. "I don’t want it to be mine. I want it to be theirs.”
Austin saw his players hold similar meetings when he coached the Seattle Seahawks’ defensive backs from 2003 to '06. Safety Marquand Manuel led the group the year the Seahawks reached Super Bowl XL.
“You want that group to develop some trust, some cohesiveness and be able to play well together because there’s so many moving parts," Austin said. "If you don’t have that, then that’s when you give up a lot of plays. You don’t make the plays you’re supposed to make.”
A pro’s pro
The Thursday before the Steelers headed to Arizona, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward slipped in the back of the defensive backs’ room.
Rookie Kam Kelly provided a meal from C&D’s Kitchen that day, and Heyward wanted to sneak some comfort food. As he filled his plate, he heard some of the backs cutting up. Haden, though, put a stop to it immediately.
“Dude, we’ve got to focus in on this,” Heyward remembers hearing Haden tell his teammates.
A couple days later, Heyward watched Haden collect two interceptions against the Cardinals -- including his second game-sealing pick in as many weeks -- and he thought back to that moment in the meeting room.
“He’s passionate about it,” Heyward said. “He doesn’t let anybody slack off. He takes it very seriously."
Of all the qualities Haden possesses, his most valuable might be his professionalism. It’s something that permeates among the defensive backs, who are an average of 6 years younger than the 30-year-old corner.
“Joe is just a quality professional,” Tomlin said. “He prepares all of the time. He has a systematic approach to that preparation, and I really think it puts him in position to have a high floor, to be opportunistic, to be the guy that’s in that spot in that significant moment.”
The closest in experience to Haden is Steve Nelson, who is in his first season with the Steelers and fifth in the NFL.
On Sunday against Buffalo, Nelson saw Bills quarterback Josh Allen overthrow his receiver, and he stepped up and snagged his first interception as a Steeler.
It was reminiscent of what he saw on film during that Thursday’s meeting.
“They run a lot of those throughout the film," he said. "They showed up, and the guy overthrew the ball. I was right there waiting on it.”