Editor’s Note: This Outtake was written and distributed by email a few days after the 2007 Steelers 0-3 rain-soaked win over the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field.
Mike Tomlin has talked the talk. Now it is time for him to walk the walk.
Since he’s been hired, 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 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 Tomlin himself will say, both teams had to play in the muck.
The 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 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 the hurricane in Miami in 2004? Remember the snow on the day after Christmas in 1999? The Steelers won those games because they were better at smash mouth football.
So we 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. We didn’t do that last night.
Likewise, you’ve got to 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 me to my point. With 11 games behind us 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 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.” We need his toughness upfront. He needs to dress and he needs to play, either clearing holes for Willie Parker, 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.
* The personal animosity between Bill Cowher and the press was real – don’t think for a moment that didn’t doesn’t affect the coverage of Tomlin – but that is another subject for another time.