Mike Tomlin has been on the job as Pittsburgh Steelers coach for nearly 16 years and never had a losing season.
Well, you know what they say. Hang around long enough …
In their first season of life after Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers (2-5) are bringing up the rear in the A-North. Only the Houston Texans (1-4-1) have a worse record among AFC teams. The “winnable” 16-10 loss at Miami on Sunday night secured the distinction of matching the worst seven-game mark ever under Tomlin, the league’s second-longest tenured coach after Bill Belichick.
For a bonus, Pittsburgh heads to friendly Philly to try blemishing the NFL’s only perfect record (6-0) on Sunday.
“It’s an awesome challenge,” Tomlin said during his Tuesday press conference.
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Alternate translation from the cheap seats: There’s a blowout alert at The Linc.
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Of course, Tomlin is moving full-steam ahead, consistent with the determined bluster that offers hope and can inspire the troops. If I had to pick one NFL coach to set the tone with powerful messaging that might make you run through a wall, it wouldn’t be Belichick or even the passionate Sean McVay. It would be Tomlin, who is also adept at dropping one-liners from Hollywood scripts and quoting the Bible.
“Iron sharpens iron.”
“The standard is the standard.”
“We don’t live in our fears.”
He knows. It’s a week-to-week league and stuff happens. An upset at Philadelphia would do wonders for the notion of laying the tracks for a rally over the second half of the season that would put Pittsburgh back on the playoff map.
The last time the Steelers started 2-5 (then 2-6), in 2013, they ripped off a pair of three-game winning streaks and finished 8-8. They produced that same record in 2019, the last time they had a losing record after seven games. It’s no wonder that someone asked Tomlin on Tuesday if he can lean on those previous turnaround experiences in dealing with the current flow.
“I’m not looking to lean on it,” he said. “That’s my experience, not necessarily this collective experience. So, my focus is on the challenges and the variables that apply to this group.”
Fair enough. This is a season with its own script. The Steelers are rolling with a rookie quarterback, homegrown Kenny Pickett, who flashed with some impressive plays on Sunday night but threw two awful interceptions in crunch time to increase his total to seven picks in 13 quarters. And the defense has been without reigning NFL sack champ T.J. Watt since Week 1 when he tore his pectoral muscle, which explains how a unit that led the league with 55 sacks in 2021 is now tied for the seventh-fewest (12) in the NFL.
Also, the running game is uninspiring. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada is under fire (still) for his play-calling, which is what happens when your unit ranks 30th for yards and the team is 31st in scoring. Pittsburgh is tied for 21st in the NFL with a -2 turnover ratio (the Eagles lead the league at +12).
Tomlin won’t say it, but you can: Just wait till next year.
Surely, Tomlin would be insulted by such an assessment, which is one reason why he’s one of the league’s best coaches and has fit so well for a franchise that has had just three head coaches over the past 52 years. The Steelers despise the term “rebuilding year.” Instead, the organizational philosophy is to stay in the hunt, even in obvious lean years, and have a shot at the playoffs.
As it stands now, after one-and-done playoff appearances the past two seasons, this campaign is Tomlin’s toughest challenge yet, which I’m sure he’d spin as something awesome.
“It’s frustrating, but we’re doing good things,” Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick told reporters after the loss at Miami. “This is the point of the season when we could either come together, come closer and let it bind us together and move forward and start stacking wins, or let it hurt us and start pointing fingers and licking splinters. But good teams come together in a time like this.”
The loss at Miami, a week after they upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, underscored the difference between being a “good” team and a “not good enough yet” outfit. While the defense tightened up after being torched early, impressively preventing the speedy Miami receivers from burning them deep, the Steelers dropped four would-be interceptions.
Tomlin lamented the missed opportunities immediately after the game, then again on Tuesday after reviewing the video. The Steelers defense is pressed to support the rookie quarterback with the short fields that come with turnovers (if not producing the points themselves). Whenever Watt returns (Tomlin indicated that it’s unlikely this week), a revived pass-rush could help generate turnovers.
Pickett, meanwhile, is experiencing the growing pains that are not uncommon for a player with three NFL starts on his docket. His final pick on Sunday night, after the defense forced a punt that allowed for a drive that might have won the game, came on a pass that should have never been thrown after some apparent miscommunication with his intended target. Pickett, operating without any timeouts, could have run out of bounds and picked up the first down while stopping the clock.
It’s chalked up now as a hard-knocks lesson that can be the difference between winning and losing.
What an awesome challenge for Tomlin and the Steelers to live up to the standard.