Dick LeBeau Believes in William Gay

If the Steelers are panicking over the loss of Bryant McFadden, they fail to show it.

Scott Brown of the Tribune-Review got Dick LeBeau on the record about William Gay, and this is what the Steelers defensive coordinator had to say: “I think we’ve got a good, quality player there who should continue to grow.”

Gay played in all sixteen games last year, starting in four of them when McFadden and Desha Townsend were injured. He logged 41 tackles and netted the interception that sealed the Steelers second regular season victory over the Ravens.

The Steelers actions reflect LeBeau’s confidence. They will work out a free agent cornerback tomorrow, Tennessee’s Chris Carr. But Carr was not a starter in Tennessee, nor is he projected to push for a starting role here.

It would appear that their interest in Carr is as much motivated by Carr’s kick return skills as his ability as a cornerback. Carr finished 3rd in the AFC on kick returns and eight in punt returns.

This is logically, as Bob Ligashesky’s coverage units improved dramatically in 2008, but the Steelers got little if any spark from their return game, Santonio Holmes‘ punt return for a touchdown against San Diego in the playoffs not withstanding.

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Super Bowl XLIII – A Look to Questions Past Gives Clues to Sunday’s Answers

“This group understands the standard that comes with being a Pittsburgh Steeler, and we’ve got some work to do.”
— Mike Tomlin, on why his players did not celebrate more after defeating the Baltimore Ravens.

The Steelers have come a long way and accomplished a since the convened training camp in Latrobe last July. But, as Mike Tomlin would say, they’re still writing their story.

It will be against the Arizona Cardinals that the Steelers will write the definitive chapter of their 2008 season. While true conclusions remain elusive until the final gun in Tampa, a look at what we’ve already learned about Tomlin and his players offers some insight into how Super Bowl XLIII will transpire.

2007 was a good year for the Steelers. Ben Roethlisberger proved that 2006 was a fluke, an AFC North Crown was added, and the Rooneys showed that they’re pretty good evaluators of coaching talent.

As impressive as his rookie campaign was, Tomlin and his Steelers started at St. Vincent with some real questions to answer. 10-6 is a respectable record, but the Steelers finished 1-4, and lost two home games to the same opponent for the first time in conference history. Besides, Steelers Nation does not seek respectability, it demands excellence.

In two separate articles, Steel Curtain Rising probed the areas that would determine Tomlin’s ability to deliver excellence. On the eve of Super Bowl XLIII, this is what we have learned so far and what it means for Super Bowl XLIII.

Is Mike Tomlin Too Chummy With His Coaches?

We won’t spend too much time on this, as the next two questions closely relate to this larger question. The suspicion at the time was that Tomlin was more like Noll and his mentor Tony Dungy than his predecessor Bill Cowher. The former men bent over backwards not to fire assistant whom they liked; Bill Cowher cut his lieutenants loose without a second thought.

  • Honestly, we do not know this answer yet, and probably will not for a long, long time.

But it is interesting to note that stories about the Steelers are no longer chalked full of quotes about how “great it is to work for a head coach that grants a wide degree of autonomy.”

Also interesting was Phil Simms comment that Tomlin had put his own, person touches on the DB’s pass coverage techniques. None of this means that Tomlin has become overbearing, but it does suggest a slightly different approach.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Really, not many. Tomlin’s job is to get the Steelers players and coaches functioning harmoniously and thus far he has shown he is up to the job.

Should Bob Ligashesky Have Been Fired?

What a difference two weeks makes…. At the end of the regular season, the answer to this question looked like a solid “no.” Certainly, the Steelers were not getting any help form their return game. But during the 2008 season the Steelers kick coverage went from being acceptable, to good, to excellent. This stood in stark contrast to 2007, the blood lettng on the coverage teams never seemed to stop.

Special teams performance as slipped in the playoffs. OK, one can argue that Santonio Holmes electrifying 65 yard punt against San Diego cancels the long return by the Chargers.

That’s a great argument on paper that is really bogus in reality. During the Baltimore game the Steelers had 21 yard punt and only a personal foul penalty saved the Steelers from a devastating punt return.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: The Arizona Cardinals handed Mike Tomlin his first regular season defeat in 2007, largely on the strength of special teams. Bob Ligasheky’s must make sure this pattern does not repeat itself in Super Bowl XLIII.

Do Tomlin and Bruce Arians Philosophies Clash?

Ooh, my. Has Bruce Arians been a lighting rod for criticism this year, and Steel Curtain Rising has contributed its fair share. The root of the issue is simple. When he was hired, and many times since then Mike Tomlin expressed a commitment to attrition football.

  • Nonetheless, one of the first acts of the man he hired to be his offensive coordinator, was to phase out the full back.

And there you have your disparity.

On the eve of Super Bowl XLIII, this answer remains nebulous. Arains commitment to the run has been suspect to say the least.

In all fairness to Airans, he’s really hasn’t had the personnel to put together a power running game, with four new starters on offensive line, and a rash of injuries at the running back slot.

Still, in a late season on line chat, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette indicated that he thought Tomlin might not be completely happy with Arians’ play calling and game planning. (To be objective, Bouchette was quick to add that this was his impression, and did not go into much detail beyond a vague comment.)

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Going up against Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald, in addition to Arizona’s two other 1,000 yard receivers, it does not take a genius to figure out that ball control is going to figure prominently into the Steelers game plan.For the Steelers to succeed in Super Bowl XLIII, Tomlin and Arians must be on the same page.

Can the Steelers Protect Ben?

Early on, the answer to this question would have been “NO.” But the pass protection, and indeed the play of the entire offensive line has improved as the season progressed. Ben got the time he needed against San Diego, and while he did take four sacks against Baltimore, there are also plenty of snaps when he had time to pass.

The Steelers will only underestimate the Cardinals defense at their peril, but the fact is that while Arizona does field a good defensive team, these are not the Ravens.

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: The line’s performance should have improved enough to give Ben the time he needs, if not it will be a long day.

Can the Steelers Close?

Man, what a difference a year, not to mention the return of Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, makes. One of the most disturbing scenes of the Steelers 2007 season was the sight of the Steelers losing close games late in the 4th quarter, in a way that they never, ever did under Bill Cowher.

18 games later, the image the Steelers painted a very different picture. In 2008 the Steelers have been a team that as won games in the final two minutes, time and time again.

And its been a team effort, with contributions on both sides of the ball, and mercifully, cross your fingers, they’ve avoided shooting themselves in the foot on special teams (see above.)

  • Implications for Super Bowl XLIII: Once again, this is going to be the ultimate test. Kurt Warner is one of the quarterbacks in the league that can strike downfield at any moment, and at any time during the game. How many times have we seem him stuffed for 58 minutes, only to draw blood in the last two minutes?And he clearly has the weapons to throw to. These Arizona receivers know how to get their hands on the ball if Warner puts it near them.There’s no formula for stopping this. James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, James Farrior, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons company are simply going to need to get in Kurt Warner’s face up front. Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, and Bret Keisel are going to need to stuff the run game and pressure the passer where they can.And Dick LeBeau is going to have to develop a plan that keeps Warner and Ken Whisenhunt guessing.

    The bottom line is that it comes down to execution. The Steelers simply need to do their thing, do it well and maintain focus for the full 60 minutes.

Thanks for visiting. Take a moment to  look around the rest of Steel Curtain Rising.

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Defense Special in 2008 Steelers 23-6 Victory Over Redskins

We have a philosophy of give us a blade of grass to defend, and we will defend it” — Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin

When the Pittsburgh Steelers last traveled to Washington, it was a Presidential election year (1988,) their ownership was in transition (Art Rooney Sr. had just passed away), Sonny Jergenson was still doing play-by-play in Washington, they squared off against a Redskins team led by an African-American quarterback and their normally automatic place kicker suffered a missed extra point.

  • The similarities, however, end there.

Going into the game, both the Steelers and Redskins had compiled 5-2 records against inferior opponents. Pittsburgh had struggled mightily against NFC East teams, while the Redskins,  had been looking at this game for weeks as their “statement game.”

Which Team Is Making a Statement on Monday Night Football?

The Steelers defense had a statement of its own to make.

Mike Tomlin began by going for the surprise on-sides kick to open the game. The Steelers completely botched the execution spotting the Redskins excellent field position to start the game (you really didn’t think Bob Ligashesky’s special teams were capable of pulling this off, did you?)

  • It didn’t matter. You can take such risks when you field the kind of defense that Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau have put together.

Both on that and the ensuring series where Pittsburgh’s offense turned the ball over deep in Redskin territory, the Steelers defense mitigated, what for most teams would have been a 14 point gift to the opposition, to a mere 6 point deficit.

  • In the first quarter Washington showed a lot of poise.

Its players were pumped and looked ready for PrimeTime. Greg Blanche’s defense was swarming, and while the Redskins offense wasn’t moving the chains very well, their offensive line was keeping Jason Campbell clean, Clinton Portis ripped off a 22 yard run, the longest against the Steelers to date, and the fans at FedEx field were making themselves heard.

Perhaps its only fitting then that the first play of the second quarter saw the Redskins begin with an attempt to convert a 3rd and 6 and ended when James Farrior and Sliverback decided to meet up 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage with Campbell in between….

  • And that set the tone for the rest of the game.

The Redskins offense is not a dominate unit yet, but it is clearly on the rise. Jason Campbell looks like he will justify Joe Gibbs decision to draft him. Jim Zorn is either providing evidence that Daniel Snyder really is turning over a new leaf or he’s the living embodiment of the infallibility of the law of averages. Either way, he looks to be one NFL’s bright young minds. Clinton Portis has simply been running roughshod over everything and everybody that has tried to slow him down, let alone stand in his way.

  • But none of that mattered.

Three statistics tell the story:

  • The Steelers picked off Jason Campbell for the first time in 271 passes
  • James Farrior, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Nick Eason, Aaron Smith and James Harrison sacked Jason Campbell 7 times
  • If you take away his one 22 yard burst, the Steeler held Clinton Portis to 2.4 yards a carry

Jim Zorn’s game plan itself betrays the fact the he himself must have been trying to make a statement. But for all of his boldness and budding wisdom, he was no match for Dick LeBeau’s tried and tested genius. Washington Post reporter Jason LaCafora couldn’t have put it any better:

After weeks of more conventional play-calling, riding the running game and the occasional deep pass to a 6-2 record, Zorn gambled more often with protection in his Monday Night Football debut as head coach, and quarterback Jason Campbell often paid the price….

The interplay between Zorn and LeBeau – an up-and-coming play caller against a defensive mastermind – was the preeminent backdrop for the game, and by early in the second half merely keeping Campbell upright proved difficult as the Steelers delivered at least one crushing hit on drive after drive.

If Zorn’s plan was to make a statement, credit him for sticking to his guns.

After a blocked punt rejuvenated the Steelers offense (not to mention giving them a short field) the Steelers went up 10-6, and the Redskins took over at their 32 after the ensuing kick off with :27 seconds remaining. Not content to take a knee, Zorn called a pass play, and LaMarr Woodley rewarded his courage by sacking Campbell for a five yard loss.

  • You can walk the walk, but you’d better be ready to talk the talk.

Indeed, the Washington Post’s lead articles were titled “Reality Hits Hard,” “In Zorn-LeBeau Chess Match, Campbell Pays the Price,” and “All Burgundy, Like a Bruise.”

Steelers Defense Shines

On a night where the Steelers offense AGAIN struggled to find its way, Pittsburgh’s defense responded in kind, by stepping it up again. The Steelers offensive difficulties have been discussed in Steel Curtain Rising before, and another installment is due soon.

But Monday night was the defense’s night.

  • The Steelers defense in 2007 started the season strong, only to fade as the season progressed.

This year the Steelers defense started off playing well, but it appears to be getting better with each game. Third downs are ending in sacks. The secondary is neutralizing marquee receivers. They are imposing their will on elite running backs and shutting down vaunted running games. Steeler linebackers are terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.

With eight games to go, the “p” word is not yet permissible in Steelers Nation, let alone the initials “L. T.” Nonetheless, if the Steelers are to have a shot at making a serious run in January, they will have to protect their quarterback better, and the offense must find consistency.

  • But offense only wins games. Defense wins championships.

If the offense’s ability to win games for the Steelers remains a concern, the 23-6 smashing of the Redskins in their own backyard reveals that Steelers defense has a chance to become something truly special.

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Answers the 2008 Steelers Must Provide

Mike Tomlin opened training camp declaring that he expected more from his second year veterans, noting that NFL player’s reveal their true mettle during their sophomore seasons.

The same holds true of second year coaches and their teams.

Bill Cowher’s 1993 campaign clarified that 1992 was not a fluke, but Steelers fans also learned that over-confidence could be a Cowher-coached team’s Achilles heel.

The Steelers kick off in less than XX hours against the Houston Texas, embarking on a 17 week campaign that will take them through the NFL’s toughest schedule. Regardless of their ultimate won-loss record, this team is going to reveal of answers to questions left unanswered in 2007.

Can the Steelers Close?

The most disquieting trait of the 2007 Steelers was its tendency to give up games in the final moments.

Tomlin deserves judgment on his own merits, but thoughts of “that (almost) never happened under Bill Cowher” were unavoidable. How many times did we hear The Chin declare: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing… It wasn’t pretty, but we found a way to win.”

Their 10-6 record notwithstanding, the 2007 Steelers too often found ways to lose.

The exact cause of these late game let downs is unknown, but candidates are multifold:

  • Ryan Clark’s absence was far more acute than anyone anticipated
  • Tory Polamalu was out or otherwise not himself for most of the year
  • The pass rush disappeared over the course of the season
  • The offense lacked the ability to play “attrition football.”
  • Self-destruction on special teams

Another, seldom discussed, suggested cause for the Steelers late game woes goes right to the heart of the working relationship between Mike Tomlin and Dick LeBeau. Both men gush with mutual admiration for the other, but the defense started so strong, then wanned as the year progressed. Was it the injuries, or were teams making adjustments to the Steeler defense, and if so, why couldn’t Lebeau and Tomlin counter? Suffice to say, it was impossible to watch opposing offenses march down the field time after time without at least wondering if the head coach and defensive coordinator were on the same page.

Ryan Clark is back and Tory Polamalu is on the mend. Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons look to inject new life into the Steelers pass rush. The additions of Mewelde Moore and Rasheed Mendenhall should boost the Steelers ability to kill the clock.

It all comes down to this: Good teams win close games. That may be cliché, but clichés become clichés because they are true.

Can Ben Avoid a Beating?

For all but three seasons of his tenure, the offensive line was a team strength under Bill Cowher. So it’s easy to point to the beating Ben took last year and say, “You see, new head coach, new offensive line coach, new center, and look what happens….”

Alas, the line gave up more sacks in 2006 than it did in 2007. So we’d better say that the line was one of Cowher’s strength during all but four of his seasons.

This year Justin Hardwig replaces Sean Mahan, who was shipped back to Tampa. Marvel Smith’s back is better. Willie Colon has year under his belt as starter, and while Alan Fanaca is in New York, the word is that Chris Kemoeatu brings a nasty edge to his game.

Enough players have come forward saying that “Alan was great, but you know, its hard to teach an old dog new tricks,” for Steel Curtain Rising to admit that we perhaps criticized the “well, Larry Zierlein was installing a new blocking system” excuse/explanation too harshly. Fine.

Ditto Mike Tomlin’s argument that pass protection involves more than just the line. Ben and Santonio Holmes did seem to be developing a rapport for audible in the preseason. Excellent.

Healthier players. Comfort with a new system and new leaders. Better coordination between the QB, his backs and receivers. Fantastic.

All of it sounds so nice.

But results are what matter.

The bottom line is, Ben gets better protection, 2008 can be a special season. However, another 40 + sack season for Ben could have serious consequences that extend far beyond the season finale against Cleveland.

Should Bob Ligashesky Have Been Fired?

Special teams were appalling in 2007. Some critics have argued that the Steelers special teams, statistically speaking, actually improved from 2006 to 2007.

Yeah, right.

Football is about imposing your will, and establishing momentum. Returns for touchdowns kill momentum. You can keep your opponents return averages down all you want. Averages are irrelevant if you consistently 50 yard returns in the fourth quarter with a leads to protect, you’re still self-destructing on special teams.

Steel Curtain Rising has spoken often enough about this issue in the past. Tomlin determined that the 2007 unit failed for want of special teams aces. That appears to be changing. If special teams continue to fail in 2008, Tomlin must be ready to take the unusual step of firing Bob Ligashesky in mid-season.

The 2008 campaign will undoubtedly teach us more about Mike Tomlin and the men he leads. He knows his players, and they know him. But regardless of what other lessons present themselves, the Steelers must protect the quarterback, improve on special teams, and act with killer instinct when things get close for good things to happen in 2008.

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Subtexts for Steelers Training Camp 2008

Long before the run test the offensive line, special teams, and the defensive line were the established story lines for Training Camp 2008. As if on cue, Casey Hampton failed the run test and Daniel Sepulveda tore an ACL, underlining the urgency of these areas.

Nonetheless, there are several smaller, but still significant, questions lurking below the radar screen in Latrobe.

Is Mike Tomlin Too Chummy With His Coaches?

Given the team’s horrendous special teams in 2008, the question is not whether Bill Cowher would have fired Bob Ligaschesky, but would he have announced it at the post-game press conference or waited until the next day? Mike Tomlin retained Ligaschesky, concluding that was the root of the problem lay in Pittsburgh’s lack of special team stand outs and not schemes.

It’s true. The Steelers 2007 roster did want for special teams studs. But, as Joe Starkley pointed out back only weeks after Tomlin’s hire, Ligascheksy’s track record as a special teams coach could generously be described as mediocre. Pittsburgh’s 2007 special teams weren’t simply sub-par, they were a critical weakness.

During the 3-0 start, the papers were awash with stories describing how Steeler assistant coaches were basking in autonomy that been unheard of in during the Cowher years. Autonomy is fine, but it goes hand-in-hand with accountability. Case in point:

  • Whose decision was it to keep James Harrison off of the kick off coverage team until the second half of Jacksonville playoff game? If Tomlin signed off on this then the error’s on him, if Ligascheksy did it on his own, then he made a serious mistake.

Tomlin regularly cites Tony Dungy has his formative influence. But Dungy, like his own mentor Chuck Noll, often found himself unable to part ways with assistants that deserved the boot. Tomlin chose continuity over change for his coaching staff during his first off season. That’s fine, as long as he’s ready to shoot and ask questions later during 2008.

Do Tomlin and Bruce Arians Philosophies Clash?

Since the day he was hired Mike Tomlin has espoused a love for “attrition football.” Music to the ears of Steelers Nation. However, Bruce Arians signaled a desire for an offense that stresses the pass more upon his promotion to offensive coordinator

The Redskins of the 80’s, the Cowboys of the ‘90’s, and yes, the Steelers of the late 70’s, showed that power football up front and passing downfield do indeed mix. But long before Dan Kreider fell to injury, Arians had begun phasing him out.

  • Kreider’s bruising style should have been brought to the forefront, given the Steelers weak offensive line in 2007.

While the Steelers’ stable of running backs might end up being envy of the league, it remains to be seen if their offensive line is stout enough for Smash Mouth Football. Therefore, it’s possible that any philosophy clash between Tomlin and Arians will not surface in 2008, but it is a situation that bears watching.

Is Carey Davis a Legitimate Fullback?

Coaches gave the starting nod to Carey Davis over Kreider last year because of Davis’ ability as a ball carrier and pass catcher. Davis was supposed to give the offense more flexibility.

  • Davis contributed little to either the running or passing games, and his blocking was clearly inferior to Kreider’s.

Yet it is Davis, and not Dan Kreider who hold’s the team’s lone fullback slot at St. Vincents. The evolution of Arians’ offense, plus the potential for a pony backfield of Mendenhall and Parker, might render this question moot, but Carey Davis has a long, long, long way to go to show he can fill the shoes once occupied by the likes of Merrill Hoge, John L. Williams, Tim Lester, and the aforementioned Dan Kreider.

For Whom the Waiver Wire Tolls…

Circumstances conspired to prevent the Steelers from nabbing lineman with their premium picks. The Steelers also failed to find good value on the free agent market, save for the signing of center Justin Hartwig. (Despite Tribune-Review writer John Harris’ campaign Anthony McFarland’s behalf.) Both the offensive and defensive lines still need help.

That leaves the waiver wire.

While plucking gems off of waivers is less common in the free agency era, and its certainly not the way you want to fortify your team. But it’s the only option the Steelers have.

Kevin Colbert boasts an excellent record with undrafted rookies and “street free agents.” So if the Steelers start scrounging around the waiver, it isn’t necessarily cause for alarm, in fact, it could turn out to be a net positive. Keep your eyes peeled for unexpected personnel moves around the league. You’d better beleive that Colbert & company will be doing the same.

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Tomlin Reveals Willingness to Adapt in 2008 Offseason

With the end of OTA’s, the Steelers enter the only portion of the year which can credibility called “the off season.” When quizzed about what his players had shown him during OTA’s, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin quickly to indicated out that little can be learned from “football in shorts.”

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While that may be true of the players, the same can not be said for the coach. This off season revealed a lot about Mike Tolmin, and its time to take a look at what Steelers Nation has learned about their standard bearer.

  • Mike Tomlin is not emotionally vested in the decisions he’s made.

Personnel provides the perfect example. Tomlin’s two signature personnel moves during his first year were the acquisition of Adrian Rossum and the decision to sign Sean Mahan to start at center. Mahan was woefully inadequate at center, and Rossum was average at best as a returner.

  • Rossum was among the first cut after the season, and Pittsburgh’s second free agent acquisition sent Sean Mahan from being a starter to merely “having the chance to compete” at guard.

Special teams is another area with Tomlin’s dispassionate decision making was display. Tomlin’s credo since day one has been that special teams is 1/3 of the game and should be treated as such. To that end he used two draft picks on special teams players and the team devoted a record amount of practice time to special teams.

Special teams were of course one of the team’s Achilles heels during the 2007 campaign. Whereas Bill Cowher would have fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky in the blink of an eye, Tomlin stood by his man (a decsion which Steel Curtin Rising took issue with), declaring that the base of the problem lie in Pittsburgh’s lack of special team aces.

But he has gone beyond that. He’s now drastically cut back on special team practices, banking on scarcity to create a sense of urgency. It remains to be seen if this approach will bear fruit, but special teams does come down to attitude and “want to,” so this shift in strategy is certainly plausible.

Tomlin has also shown himself to be a man who is flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. An apostle of building through the draft, Tomlin moved quickly when Justin Hartwig unexpectedly became available to shore up the center position.

Outside of signing Mewelde Moore, Pittsburgh made few other free agent signings, but they did entertain a parade free agent safeties, tight ends, and lineman, thus making good on Tomlin’s pledge to “leave no stone unturned” in his quest to better the Steelers.

  • Finally, Tomlin confirmed that he is a fundamentalist.

He began the off season by pointedly observing that the Steelers needed to get “younger and bigger” on both lines. Yet, the Steelers stuck to their board and resisted any urge to reach during the 2008 draft. The quality of their draft will remain unknown for years to come, but the Steelers never blinked as they watched lineman leave the board in droves during rounds one and two.

During the 2007 Steelers Nation learned little about Tomlin beyond the fact that he said the right things at the appropriate times and nurture good relations with the press. The 2008 off season has shown us that, at the very least, Mike Tomlin is a man who is willing to adapt.

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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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