2008 Steelers and Tomlin’s True Test Against Cincinnati

Coming off their bye week, the Steelers are set to embark on a set of games that will see them face off against the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, a resurgent Washington Redskins, the Indianapolis Colts, and the San Diego Chargers.

  • But first they must get past the Cincinnati Bengals.

Seriously.

The 4-1 Steelers are undefeated in their last 7 in Cincinnati, against a team that is currently 0-6. The Benglas are without All-Pro quarterback Carlson Palmer. The Steelers will be returning key starters to the line up and/or getting them back to health. The conventional wisdom would peg the Steelers as hands down favorites in this game. The conventional wisdom is correct. The Steelers should win this game.

  • And that’s what makes this game so dangerous.

Think it’s silly?

What about the Ram’s knocking off the Redskins? Or Arizona beating the Cowboys? Or the Browns upsetting the Giants?

One of the quickest ways an NFL team can torpedo itself is to play the schedule game – you know, looking a couple of games ahead in the schedule, and mentally ticking of the “W’s.” During the latter half of the Bill Cowher era, the Steelers avoided that pitfall, perhaps better than any other NFL team. Nonetheless, the boys in black and gold still played better when they were underdogs, and underdogs this week the Steelers are not.

In Mike Tomlin’s rookie season, much like the early Cowher years, the Steelers were a team prone to let down.

  • Start 3-0!

…lose to the Cardinals.

  • Enter the Seahawks game without Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Casey Hampton and Tory Polamalu and steal your first shutout

… only to lose the next week to the Broncos.

  • Throttle the Ravens in the 75th Anniversary game

…Follow by struggling back to beat the Browns in the 4th quarter, lose to a 1-7 Jets team, and the escape with a 3-0 win against the 0-11 Dolphins.

  • If those letdowns were a result, the underlying causes are well known: Poor kick coverage, disappearing pass rush, and an inability to win the close ones.

The 2008 Steelers are still very much a work in progress, but five games into his sophomore campaign Mike Tomlin appears to have made significant inroads towards rectifying the woes that bedeviled the Steelers in 2007. Steelers have closed two close games in the 4th, kick coverage has greatly improved, and the pass rush has returned with a vengeance.

But what about averting let downs?

After all, the Steelers started a strong 2-0, only to get embarrassed by the Eagles.

Mike Tomlin is keenly aware of the danger of complacency. During his press conference this week he brought up the specter of last year’s Jets loss, and went at great pains to point out that Cincinnati is still a very talented team that took the Giants into overtime and almost beat the Cowboys (then again, the later example looks less impressive now than it did then.)

One of the things that Mike Tomlin said when he was named head coach was “the test isn’t how you handle success, but how you handle adversity.”

Mike Tomlin believes every word of that, and the Cincinnati game will reveal if he has succeeded in getting his players to put what he preaches into practice.

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Is Mike Tomlin A Good Coach – Trackback

James Pete from the website mvc.com has posed an open question, “Is Mike Tomlin A Good Coach?

His question is an interesting one, and one that will be answered in the between now and January. But Pete is asking people for what they think now. Fair enough.

Regular readers of Steel Curtain Rising has explored this issue at length.

However, for the benefit of those who are following the conversation on mvc.com we’re link this post to previous articles:

Mike Tomlin: The Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full?
Assessing Mike Tomlin: The Quest for Objectivity
Tomlin Reveals Willingness to Adapt in 2008 Offseason

Feel free to link back to any of these older posts and/leave a comment here.

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Free Agent Free Safety Parade Revealing

As the NFL’s attention shifts away from “big ticket” free agents to the upcoming draft, the Steelers continue to operate under the radar, and reveal a lot about how they view their needs in the process.

Mike Tomlin has promised to look under every loose stone in his quest to fix what ails the Steelers, and he is making good on his pledge.

Offensive line and special teams were obvious need areas long before the final gun sounded against Jacksonville. The Steelers have hosted several offensive linemen, and signed running back Mewelde Moore and line backer Keyaron Fox to bolster their special teams.

But the Steelers most interesting free agent moves have come on the defensive side. In the last two weeks they have brought in New England’s Eugene Wilson, Atlanta’s Chris Crocker, and Donnie Nickey from Tennessee. All three are safeties.

Pittsburgh’s tendency to fade in the final two minutes was the most alarming negative trend of the 2007 season. With the benefit of 20/20 hind sight, three of these games, (four if you include the playoffs) came with free safety Ryan Clark out of the lineup.

Coincidence?

Without the ability to go back and review those games it is impossible to say. The rest of the defense is not off of the hook if its not a coincidence, but poor free safety play can cost a team dearly when it comes to closing close contests.

Each of Clark’s replacements earned himself a moment of ignominy – Tom Brady burned Anthony Smith, badly, after Smith’s “victory guarantee,” and David Garrard made Tyrone Carter look like a deer caught in the headlights while he sealed Jacksonville’s victory with a third down run.

Can any of these guys make a difference? I don’t know. When you get to free agents at this level you’re looking at getting more bang for your buck, as opposed to getting an immediate impact. I don’t know anything about these players, but you’ve gotta like it that Donnie Nickey got into a fight with Vince Young because Nickey hit him too hard in practice.

Regardless of what happens, watch the free safety slot. In addition to these moves, both the Tribune Review’s John Harris and the Steelers Digests’ Jim Wexell reported on various scenarios that involve moving Deshea Townsend to safety. One way or another, the Steelers are actively exploring ways to improve play at free safety, which is a good thing.

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Assessing Mike Tomlin: The Quest for Objectivity

Some have asked why Steel Curtain Rising’s 2007 season “Tomlin: Glass Half Empty-Glass Half full” post-mortem did not appear until recently. The simple reason is that making an objective assessment of Mike Tomlin is damm difficult for me.

Understanding why requires understanding that I tirelessly defended Bill Cowher through the dark days of 1998-1999, the heart rendering AFC Championship losses, and the gut wrenching 2003 season.

In evaluating Tomlin’s first year, I am torn by this penchant for loyalty, wanting to recognize the positives, and wondering if I am overreacting to some brutally apparent caution flags.

That Cowher’s rookie record was almost identical to Tomlin’s only adds to the irony.

  • Cowher finished 11-5, Tomlin 10-6. Both lost in the fist round of the playoffs.
  • Cowher’s squad was blown out, Tomlin’s lost a heart breaker, but the 1992 Steelers were a 1# seed, and the #4 seed in 2007.
  • Both started out 3-1.

Both suffered also their first losses to inferior opponents (Cowher to the Browns, then led by the then “bumbling” Bill Belichick, Tomlin to a Cardinals team who was rotating its quarterbacks by series.)

Cowher’s team did finish the season at 2-2, and while that’s better than 1-3, on the back half of the 1992 season Cowher’s teams needed some last minute heroics to overcome such 1992 light weights as the Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks.

Indeed, both men were embarrassed by weak teams. The memory of the beloved Black and Gold giving away games to the Jets and Broncos in the final two minutes sears. But so does the one of Steelers falling flat on their faces in a week 15 game against a Chicago Bears team that ultimately finished 6-10. (This was a national TV game, and one where the league seemed ready to anoint the Steelers as official “contenders.”)

This dilemma comes down to two things. While Cowher was also following a legend, he returned home 11 years removed from Super Bowl XIV.

Then there’s the difference between the two men. Cowher lets his emotions flow. He acted out what every fan felt. When we pumped our fists, he pumped his. When we wanted to yell at a player, he got in their face.

Tomlin has a different style, one that is more reserved. While it’s important to respect that, it’s hard not to think of it when you’re examining some of the teams obvious faults.

It’s hard not to look at the loss against the Broncos and say “Cowher would have put that one away….” Or to look at the New England debacle “Cowher would have pounded it in so close to the goal line….” Or, there is no way Cowher wouldn’t have fired his special teams coach after the 2007 highlight reel of special teams disasters.

This is natural, but is it fair?

  • Ultimately, its not.

While Cowher was a great closer, he did give up games occasionally, the 1998 away game against the Bengals comes to mind. So do the last minute 2000 losses to the Browns, Titans, and Eagles.

Cowher helped define Smash Mouth Football, but he too resorted to gadget plays when he didn’t have the personnel, just think of the flea flicker late in the game on third and one against the Jaguars in 1999.

Put graciously, Tomlin’s decision to retain Bob Ligashesky is perplexing. In contrast, Cowher had a flair for canning special teams coaches. But Jay Hayes should have been fired after the 2000 season, instead two blocked kicks cost us the AFC Championship game in 2001….

The bottom line is that Tomlin’s first year offered much promise, but it also raised a lot of uncomfortable questions. Regardless, Mike Tomlin deserves to be judged on his own merits.

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Mike Tomlin: The Glass Half Empty or Glass Half Full?

March is as good a time as any analyze Mike Tomlin Era thus far. As mentioned elsewhere, it is difficult to render an objective assessment Mike Tomlin, which is why an article like this did not get posed until now.

The Half Full Angle

Many others have said this, but it bears repeating. While Mike Tomlin may have walked into the best job in pro football, he did not do so under the easiest of circumstances. Bill Cowher was a native who returned home to become a legend. Cowher was very difficult to work with, but even his harshest critics in the Fourth Estate concede that the guy was loved by his players.

  • Filling the shoes of a legend who is loved in the locker room is hard.

But Tomlin did it. He is his own man, and that’s been clear from day one. His success speaks not only to his self confidence, but to his ability to command the respect of others.

Going 10-6 and winning a division title is an accomplishment for a rookie coach. Pittsburgh woefully under achieved in 2006 at 8-8, and so all others things being equal an improvement to 10-6 represents real progress….

The Half Empty Angle

But are all other things being equal?

Or stated differently, which were the “real” Mike Tomlin Steelers? The team that started out 3-1, the one that put the fear of God into Baltimore Ravens on Monday night, the one that started with a stout defense that did not yield to anyone, the one that shook off injuries to keep players to win big games….

…Or are they the team that lost to the Jets, the one struggled to beat the Dolphins, the one whose pass rush disappear, the one that failed to protect its franchise quarterback, the one that gave up four games in the last two minutes….

If 8-8 in 2006 was an underachievement, was 10-6 in 2007 an over-achievement?

Time Reveals All

In the internet age, its unsatisfying to say “we still have to wait and see….” The contemporary penchant to cite a quarterback’s passer rating for a single quarter shows that people are ready to judge and judge now.

But some things don’t work that way. Just as it always takes more than one year to assess a player, the same is true for a head coach. Jim Mora Jr. looked brilliant in taking the Falcons to the NFC Championship as a rookie…. Bill Belichick’s record in his first year with the Patriots was the same as his last year with the Clowns – 5-11.

It is worrying that Tomlin’s teams had a penchant for giving up close games, but how much of that is due to him, and how much is it due to the fact that we lost Ryan Clark and Tory Polamalu was hurt most of the year? You have to seriously question Tomlin’s decision to retain Bob Ligashesky, but Tomlin is dead on when he says the Steelers lacked special teams stand outs.

More than anything else, Tomlin does seem like the kind of man who can and will learn from his mistakes. Case in point: He’s already cut Allen Rossum.

Moreover, with Dan Rooney at the helm, Tomlin will have the chance to learn and grow. That more than anything else should give Steelers fans hope.

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Tomlin Was Right to Go for 2 vs. Jaguars in ’07 Wild Card Game

A lot of people, in private, in public and in the press, are knocking Mike Tomlin’s decision to go for two after scoring the 4th quarter’s second touchdown in the Steelers playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaugars.

With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it looks simple. The extra point gives them 24, and the next TD and extra point give them 31, which means Jacksonville can only tie with field goal instead of putting it away.

  • Hindsight is 20/20.

Given the dynamics of the game at the time, Tomlin made the right move. A successful two point conversion would have made it a three point game. That would have given Pittsburgh the ability to tie the game. Although our defense had been shutting Jacksonville down, give the way they ran on us three weeks ago there was no guarantee we’d be back in the end zone.

  • You might say that after the penalty, he still should have kicked.

Why? Certainly, Reed’s kick was a sure thing. But that only gets us to 24 to 28, with ten minutes to play against the perhaps the best one-two rushing tandems in the NFL.

Tomlin’s decision to go for it was the simple embodiment of his “We live in our hopes, not our fears” philosophy. For all his differences with his predecessor, Tomlin’s actions and attitudes are not that much different. Bill Cowher used to say “I’d always prefer to walk off the field saying “I wish I hadn’t done that, as opposed to ‘I wonder what if….’”

That’s a philosophy which got us a lot of victories during the last two decades, and I am glad to see it being continued, even if we did come up short.

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Self Inflicted Wounds Lead Steelers to Playoff Loss to Jaguars

It’s ironic that, in a year where many claimed the Steelers had gotten away from their Smash Mouth identity on offense, an attempt to stay true to our roots may have well cost us the fist playoff victory of Mike Tomlin Era.

  • Jacksonville was on the ropes after we forced a punt with 3 minutes or so remaining.
  • We were getting to Garrard, their receivers were dropping balls.
  • We were in control with the lead.

The last thing we needed was three and out. Conventional strategy dictates that you keep the clock running, forcing an opponent burn time outs. In the past, with Jerome Bettis and an Pro Bowl offensive line, embracing the conventional wisdom would have been a no brainer.

The Bus has retired. And suffice to say, our only Pro Bowl lineman was playing his last game. Against Jacksonville, a “riskier” strategy would have been the wiser course. Ben owned the Jaguars in the second half. We’d moved the ball decisively on Ben’s throws to Heath Miller and Hines Ward. When the game is on the line, you stick with your prime time players.

Even saying that, I can see running on first and second, to keep the clock running. And I credit Davenport for getting five yards on his first carry. He got nothing on second, which should be no surprise, as EVERYONE knew it was coming. But I take serious exception to the third down call.

Ben executed the run poorly. Nobody was fooled. It came across as a half-hearted effort to keep the clock running. You have to throw the ball in that situation, in fact, the situation screamed for a play action pass. The risk of stopping the clock with an incompletion is minuscule against the benefit of moving the chains.

Alas, we didn’t do that. Jacksonville got the ball back. Our defense did a decent job of stopping them, until Garrard burned us with his run on fourth down.

http://gty.im/78789997

While it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome, I fault Tyrone Carter on that play. When Garrard broke through for the first down, he was going for more and Carter was the only person standing in his way.

  • Safety vs. quarterback. The safety should relish that battle. He should win it.

Instead of pursuing, Carter hesitated and Garrard ended up taking an extra 10 or 15 more yards. That play was huge, and it sealed Jacksonville’s victory.

As a whole, the game was representative of the entire season. The Steelers showed flashes of a championship caliber football.

  • They also gave clinic on how to lose a playoff game.

If Rothlesberger’s failed third down run was the (non) play of the game, Jacksonville’s 96 yard kickoff return was a very, very close second. We opened the game by taking control, throwing our way downfield and then pounding in a score. That was EXACTLY what we needed to do…..

Then we invited them back into it the game. Pundits wax ad nausea about “momentum changing plays,” but this was one of them. It energized Jacksonville and threw us off balance for the rest of the half. Add that play Jacksonville’s points off of Ben’s interceptions and we spotted them 21 points.

You can’t do that. The Jaguars only went the length of the field once, twice if you count the last field goal. That’s 10 points to our 29.

I credit our players and coaches for making crucial second half adjustments, including playing Harrison on kickoff coverage. In the first half, when Ben wasn’t getting planted on the turf, he was trying to do too much to win the game himself.

In the second half, we improved pass protection and Ben calmed down and led us to a lead. Those are all positives. In spite of a long drive in the third quarter, overall the defense played well. They created turnovers, they attacked Garrard, they stuffed the run.

  • In the end, it wasn’t enough. It should have been.

The middle 50 minutes was classic NFL playoff football. Two teams slugging it out. Control of the line of scrimmage changing hands. Capitalizing on turnovers. But the game’s bookends killed the Steelers. First, our chronic inability to execute on special teams cost us, again. Then we abandoned what had erased an 18 point deficit.

Self-inflicted wounds are the most painful, particularly in the playoffs. Now instead of New England, the Steelers face an off season of difficult decisions. I guess that’s what makes this loss sting even worse….

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2007 Steelers Dolphins Rain Game: Pittsburgh 3, Miami 0

Founded in 2008, Steel Curtain Rising existed before then, but on email. Enjoy these “Steel Curtain Outtakes.”

Mike Tomlin has talked the talk. The Steelers rain game win over Miami in flooded Heinz Field shows that now it is time for him to walk the walk.

Since he’s been hired, Mike Tomlin has been the toast of Pittsburgh, winning praise from fans, the local press and national media alike.

Tomlin has said all of the right things. “I am a fundamentalist. I believe in winning by stopping the run and establishing the run.” “If you’re mentally weak you can use injuries and bye weeks as excuses for poor play. We don’t do that here.” And finally, “I am responsible for everything that happens on this team. That is a given.”

  • Excellent attitude. Events will now test how well Mike Tomlin exercises that responsibility.

Starting 8 and 3 is an accomplishment. But fast starts require strong finishes, last night’s game reveals a team at a cross roads.

The weather was the story last night. So be it. It was horrible, and you can’t draw too many specifics from a team’s performance under those conditions. But as Mike Tomlin himself will say, both teams had to play in the muck.

The Steelers defense pitched a shut out. You can’t ask for more than that. Yes, the Dolphins did move the ball a little more than you’d like, especially to start the first half. Pressure was good, and when it wasn’t there were many times when John Beck had no where to throw. Tackling was generally good, and we shut down the run. Most importantly, the defense came up big when it needed to.

  • The offense moved the ball. One might even say better than you’d expect. I however demur.

This is the kind of game where the Steelers should dominate. 9 trips into opposing territory needs yield more than three points. Remember Duce Staley after the hurricane in Miami in 2004 during Ben Roethlisberger‘s first start as a rookie? Remember Jerome Bettis in the snow on the day after Christmas in 1999?

  • The Steelers won those games by playing superior smash mouth football.

Mike Tomlin was right, the Steelers did need every one of Hines Ward‘s ten catches. But should it come down to that? Pittsburgh shouldn’t have to rely on crafty passes to convert third and short in the Red Zone. Najeh Davenport should convert third and 2, let alone 4th and 2. The Steelers didn’t do that last night.

  • Likewise, the Steelers must move the chains. How many third down conversions and/or otherwise large gains were negated by penalties? There’s simply no excuse for this.

Which brings up the critical point:

With 11 games played and five more to go, it’s quite apparent that some things may be beyond Mike Tomlin’s ability to control. The Jets and Dolphins have pathetic sack totals, yet seemed to get to Ben Roethlisberger at will. I honestly don’t know who the weak links on the o-line is (or are), but the truth is real improvement might have to wait for the off season.

And while the Steelers woes can generally be tied to the performance of the offensive line (remember 1998, 1999, and 2003 anyone?) there are things that are concrete signs that will reveal how well Mike Tomlin responds to this test:

Special teams. This has been a sore spot despite extensive practice. Call it execution, call it personnel configurations, call it attitude, call it whatever you will. As coach, Tomlin needs to make the adjustments needed to stop the breakdowns.
Penalties. Football is about momentum. You make a gain, you make a bigger gain, you impose your will. Penalties negate this. Some post-snap penalties are inevitable, but well-coached teams are less penalized. This will be important down the stretch.
Focus. Tomlin has said it again and again: “The men need to bring their ‘A’ game.” “They should be excited simply because we are playing a football game. Good words. Now we need action. The Steelers come out flat on the road, and also appear to play to the level of competition. That needs to change.
Decision making. No second guessing here. But certain decisions can help set the tempo for the team. Dan Kreider has been called a “sixth lineman.” The Steelers need his toughness upfront. He needs to dress and he needs to play, either clearing holes for Willie, or throwing extra block for Ben.

It’s not abnormal for good teams, even great teams to hit rough patches in the regular season. During both 1995 and 2005 seasons the team looked pretty bad during certain stretches, but both teams made the Super Bowl. We can also point to other years where we started off fast, only to sputter.

  • Which direction will the 2007 Steelers take?

A big part of that answer lies on Mike Tomlin’s shoulders.

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