Can Mike Tomlin’s 2008 Steelers Knock Off a Contender?

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has done a lot of things right since he was hired. Yet three quarters into his sophomore season, something still eludes him.

He’s said the right things:

  • “I am a football fundamentalist”
  • “I believe in winning by establishing the run and stopping the run”

He made the right moves from the get go:

  • He revealed his self-assuredness, by taking charge of the team, without attempting to remake it in his image.
  • Tomlin oversaw the successful rehabilitation of Ike Taylor
  • He negotiated the Alan Fanaca minefield with the skill of a seasoned pro

When it came time to stop talking and start playing, Tomlin delivered.

  • The Steelers started 2007 3-0
  • The days of double digit wins returned to Pittsburgh
  • The Steelers reclaimed the AFC North title

The Steelers weak finish and early playoff exit in 2007 closed Tomlin’s rookie season on a down note. But, eleven games into the 2008 campaign, Tomlin has shown signs of correcting much of what ailed the Steelers in 2007.

  • Special teams, while not a team strength, have not been a glaring weakness
  • Several times the Steelers have shown the ability to win, rather than lose games in the final minutes
  • Similarly, unlike 2007, the 2008 Steelers has thus far avoided the so called “trap” games

The Elusive Victory…

With all of that, there is something that Mike Tomlin has still failed to do.

Mike Tomlin has 18 wins to on his professional resume, and that justifies praise.

Yet not one of those wins comes against a contender.

That’s right. After 28 games with Mike Tomlin at the helm, the Pittsburgh Steelers have failed to defeat a contender. Contender is a subjective term. We’ll simply define that as a team that has a realistic chance of making the Super Bowl.

  • Tomlin has won big games, Seattle in 2007, the 75th Anniversary game…
  • but the Steelers performance against New England and Jacksonville last year was woefully inadequate

2008 has brought much the same. The victories against the Ravens, Jaguars, and Redskins were big. And while the Ravens still might establish themselves as “contenders,” the Steelers came up short against the Giants and Colts, the two true heavyweights that they’ve faced.

  • Fortunately, Tomlin’s chance to change all of that has arrived.

First comes long time nemesis New England on the road, then the newly resurgent Dallas back at Heinz field, followed by the conference leading Tennessee Titans and division rival Baltimore Ravens on the road.

The Steelers faded down the stretch in 2007, and while this team surely seems tougher and stronger, they’ve played with enough inconsistency to leave room for a “reasonable doubt” in Steelers Nation’s collective mindset.

There are two things that Mike Tomlin must see to if they are to erase that doubt.

Keep the Pedal to the Metal on Defense

The Steelers defense started the 2007 strong, and although they managed to finish with the number one ranking, no one was really fooled into thinking that the Steelers really had the best defense going into the 2007 playoffs.

Unlike last year, the Steelers enter their critical late-season stretch with Tory Polamalu, Ryan Clark, and Aaron Smith. Add the fact that LaMarr Woodley replaces Clark Haggins, and Steelers fans have a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

But turning transforming that hope into reality depends on execution. The Steelers defense has certainly executed this year, but to prevail against the Patriots, Cowboys, Titans, and Ravens the Steelers defense cannot afford to let any opportunity slip through their fingers.

To understand what this means, look no further than the Colts game where both Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu lost interceptions that easily could have provided a 14 point swing in the Steelers favor.

The Steelers defense cannot afford to leave any such opportunities on the field.

Establish the Run

The Steelers are in route to their worst rushing season since the 2003 disaster. Yes, Willie Parker has been hurt, and Rashard Mendenhall has been out since week four.

But Mike Tomlin relentlessly preaches that injuries are no excuse, and the simple fact means that Steelers ground game is not up to snuff.

Does Bruce Arian’s lack a commitment to the run? That’s been suggested here and elsewhere. Does he have the personnel up front to establish the run? The team’s failure to convert 4th and one’s against the Colts and Chargers can be traced directly to losing control of the line of scrimmage.

One question that is not up question, is even if Parker is limited (and missing a guy who can go the distance on any down is no small matter) in Mewelde Moore, Gary Russell, the Steelers have two reliable running backs, with Carey Davis and Najeh Davenport also capable of contributing.

As Bob Labriola of the Steelers Digest has mentioned, calling a few more running games at strategic moments of the game can benefit the team, even if those runs to not yield additional yards.

  • Running the ball will not only keep the defense off balance, but it reduces the punishment that Ben Roethlisberger takes.

Ideally the Steelers can and will establish the ground game. But even if the running game does not come to resemble the hey days of Franco, Foster, and Bettis, a commitment to running the ball bodes will for the offense.

Tomlin Has the Tools, Now He Needs To Transfrom the Steelers Into Contenders

Mike Tomlin is about to embark on the toughest stretch of games of his tenure as Steelers head coach. He’s given every indication that he has the coaching ability. And he has to tools at his disposal.

Now is the time for him to field a finished product.

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