The Steelers 2013 home opener is just days away and coming off of an 8-8 season there has never been as great a split either inside or outside Steelers Nation as to what the Pittsburgh Steelers true prospects for a coming season are.
- There are good reasons for this. The predicted salary cap Armageddon instead became the salary cap equivalent of the Loaves and the Fishes.
The Steelers scouting has been under assault. And for good reason, as the 2008 draft class is now a total bust. Yet, as Ivan Cole of Behind the Steel Curtain has pointed out, the Steelers saw teams take restricted free agent runs at not one, but two players in the form of Emmanuel Sanders and Steve McLendon.
Yes, these 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers are a hard nut to crack, with professionals and bloggers alike sparing over the meaning of an 0-4 preseason start. No one really knows what to expect.
Rightly or wrongly, the man who will be held most responsible for the Steelers success or failure in 2013 is Mike Tomlin. And to that end Tomlin has four very specific challenges he must meet. (Click on the link below for a specific challenge for scroll down to read them all):
Colbert didn’t simply sit back and let other teams overpay for newly minted Steelers free agents ala Tom Donahoe, he let go overpriced and aging superstars like James Harrison, snake bitten studs like Willie Colon, and dependable standbys like Max Starks depart. He also cleared the ranks of the supporting cast, but allowing Doug Legursky, Will Allen and Ryan Mundy to walk.
- In their place he’s assembled a smart 2013 draft class, mixed with some first year players, 2012 draftees, and undrafted rookie free agents.
Mike Tomlin has long defended “The Standard is the Standard” by explaining that merely qualifying for an NFL roster automatically puts a player in the top one have of the top 1% of people that play football.
- Kevin Colbert has given Tomlin cart blanche to prove it this year.
One of Art Rooney II’s implicit criticisms of Mike Tomlin after the 2009 seasons was that the team needed to develop talent faster. The delayed development of Lawrence Timmons comes to mind as one example.
To that end, Mike Tomlin has done a better job since then (see Antonio Brown in 2010 and 2011 as one example).
- 2013 will provide a far bigger test.
Tomlin needs to find a way for these youngsters to grow up fast.
At some point after the Steelers 1998 disastrous trip to Detroit that included Phil Luckett’s infamous “heads is actually tails” incident, a fan wrote into the Steelers Digest and offered something long the lines of “Cowher needs to realize that this team lacks the playoff veterans of years past, and needs to take the team by the collective collar.”
- The fan dead right of course, because so many players quit down the stretch in 1998.
As 2012 wore on and inconsistency became habit forming, it became clear that the leadership void was real.
- To his credit, Mike Tomlin seems to have readily realized that and acted accordingly.
Gone is Scotty Montgomery, a young coach feeling his way in the NFL. In his place is Richard Mann, someone who has been around enough to have coached for the Baltimore Colts, old Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Ravens.
Tomlin hasn’t stopped there, asking Ben Roethlisberger to take on a more active leadership role. He held the first training camp with live tackling since Chuck Noll began his “Life’s work,” and he and Colbert have been unsentimental in wielding the axe to the roster.
- On paper all of these are the right moves.
But ultimately it is performance on the field that will determine whether or not these moves bear fruit.
Its become cliché in Steelers Nation to say that Mike Tomlin teams have an issue with trap games. But unlike Warren Sapp’s dictum of “Old, Slow and Done” the trap game charge stands up to scrutiny.
In 2007, Tomlin’s rookie year, the Steelers dropped games to the Jets and Cardinals. In 2009, the dropped games to the Bears, Browns, and Chiefs. In 2012 the Steelers gave away “Gimmies” to the no-account Oakland Raiders, Tennessee Titans, and San Diego Chargers.
One criticism of Tomlin made in mid-2007 was that the Steelers played down to their competition under their new coach.
Since than that observation has been proven to be true… at times.
- At other times this has not been an issue.
Note that during the Steelers 2008 Super Bowl season, the Steelers dropped regular season games to the Giants, Colts, Eagles, and Titans — all playoff teams. Yet that team made it into the playoffs with a first round bye because they won the games they were “supposed” to win, in addition to defeating the Ravens.
In 2010, the story was similar, with the Steelers losing games to the New Orleans Saints and getting spanked mightily by the New England Patriots. Yet that season they also beat the teams they “should have” beaten.
- The 2011 Steelers were a far inferior version of their ’08 and ’10 predecessors, yet the ’11 Steelers avoided the trap game.
The ability of a team to take all opponents seriously is directly related to a head coach’s ability to mentally prepare his players. At times Tomlin has been adept at doing this; at others his ability has failed him.
Tomlin cannot allow that ability to fail him in 2013.
Chose your cliché. “Start fast, finish strong.” “Go the distance.” Whatever.
Tomlin’s less successful teams have had another nasty habit — peaking near mid season.
- In 2007 the triumph of the 75th Anniversary game was followed by a 4-4 finish and first round playoff loss to Jacksonville
- In 2009 the Steelers dominated a Denver team that went into the game at 6-1 and finally looked like a defending champion – then followed with a 5 game losing streak
- In 2011 the Steelers enacted some vengeance by defeating Tom Brady and New England, only to follow it up with a home loss to Baltimore
In 2012 the Steelers won three straight games, getting stronger with each, then limped to victory over the Chiefs before dropping games to Baltimore and Cleveland. Then Charlie Batch rallied the team for a stunning road upset over the Ravens in Baltimore. The 2012 Steelers, it seemed, had arrived…
- …Except that they went and lost 3 of their next 4.
To be 100% fair to Tomlin, injuries played a large part in several of these late season drop offs. However, to quote Tomlin himself “Injuries are no excuse.”
And he’s right. Injuries certainly didn’t cause force the fumbles, kickoffs returned for touchdowns, coverage lapses, and interceptions that marked some of the ’07, ’09, ’11 and ’12 signature losses.
- Like the trap games, this is a demon that Tomlin vanquished in 2008 and 2010. In 2009 he also pulled the team out of an 0-5 nose dive.
In 2013 it will be essential for Mike Tomlin to keep his players mindset focused on the long term.
Preparing for the “Unknown Unknowns”
Every NFL season brings a certain X-Factor, a certain amount of unpredictability. Think ever reliable Jeff Reed sudden descent into mediocrity in 2010.
Steelers Nation already knows that a younger roster with desperately thin depth, particularly on the offensive line, will test the Steelers.
- But 2013 will present the Pittsburgh Steelers with additional trials that no one can anticipate today.
But if Mike Tomlin can master the four challenges discussed here, he’ll have given the Steelers a shot at also overcoming the unexpected.