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The 'standard' or stale?
Mike Tomlin has spent 17 seasons building upon the Pittsburgh Steelers' culture. "The standard is the standard," he says. Critics see complacency. These will be two defining months.
PITTSBURGH — Mike Tomlin spoke for 1,571 words before opening up his Monday press conference for questions. There was a lot to unpack.
First, the objectively embarrassing officiating in his team’s 20-10 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars one day prior. The Pittsburgh Steelers head coach immediately did everything in his power to bury bad calls as an excuse, as anything that could linger into Week 9 in light of wide receiver Diontae Johnson going nuclear. Tomlin says the Steelers must win games “definitively.” Must make any controversial calls insignificant. (“That’s what good teams do. That's what elite teams do.”)
He addressed Kenny Pickett’s rib injury. The team’s second-year quarterback will be a game-time decision after Jacksonville’s Adam Gotsis drilled him to the dirt.
He praised the opponent coming to town Thursday night, the Tennessee Titans. Suddenly, this is not the gimmie Yinzers expected.
But one innocuous comment stuck with me watching live at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex — when Tomlin brought up the three turnovers his defense forced. He was disappointed.
“They weren’t the type of turnovers that tee up the offense,” Tomlin said, “in terms of being on a short field. Although I do appreciate them — they kept the score down — they weren’t the type of ones that tee up the offense. Obviously, we’ve got a desire to dominate the turnover component of play. We got some but not the type that’s really advantageous.”
He then noted the lack of “flash plays” on special teams and the inconsistent punting.
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Tomlin was not filibustering on this point. He genuinely prefers turnovers occur deep in the opposition’s end. That’s how these Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns and hijacked momentum vs. the Los Angeles Rams. Forcing three turnovers — period — should be enough for an NFL offense. But on Sunday, the Steelers took over at their own 29-, 2- and 36-yard line and mustered only three points. The other two drives were 3-and-outs.
This is the state of the Steelers.
It’s a grind. Much of the grind is by design, too.
But the question for this team now is how far such a mentality can carry this team, this coach at this time.
Not that anyone locally expects the Steelers to suddenly snap into an offensive juggernaut.
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Tomlin’s crew has been winning in funky ways the last half-decade. Blocked punts. Pick-sixes. Comic-book feats from T.J. Watt. It’s more authentic brand of football than luck. Tomlin views the sport through an old-school lens — and that’s no criticism. He leaves no stone unturned, winning the sort of games other teams do not. Where the modern consumer sees a disgusting win, the Steelers see one of their 53 players rising to the fourth-quarter moment. It’s no accident that this team goes Freakin’ .500 with Devlin “Duck” Hodges and Mason Rudolph in 2019, starts 11-0 in 2020, wins nine games with a broken-down Ben Roethlisberger in 2021 and climbs out of a 2-6 hole to win nine in 2022.
Hustle plays are always in high supply.
We’ve seen more of the same in 2023.
Miles Killebrew’s blocked punt keys one win. Watt (an edge rusher) drops into coverage and baits Matthew Stafford (a Super Bowl-winning QB) into an interception. One or two bad calls flip their way at Acrisure Stadium vs. the Jaguars and these Steelers are 5-2 and a half-game back of the AFC’s top seed. Instead? They’re currently at 4 wins, 3 losses and Tomlin’s age-old anthem — “the standard is the standard” — will be put the test the rest of this season. These final 11 games mark a defining moment for the 51-year-old head coach. The Cincinnati Bengals are peaking, again. Joe Burrow is himself, again. The Baltimore Ravens are this year’s metric darlings. Behind Lamar Jackson and new OC Todd Monken, they’ve opened up a lead of over 10 percent on the rest of the NFL in DVOA, per Aaron Schatz. The Ravens own the best DVOA ever recorded for a 6-2 team.
There’s no way to statistically measure how the Steelers grime out victories. I wish there was. It’d likely require WD-40, a torque wrench, pliers and “Renegade” over a dusty stereo system in the garage. Not algorithms.
But here’s one cringy stat: They’ve now gone 55 games without amassing 400 yards of total offense in a game. And another: Running backs mustered all of 32 yards on 19 carries against the Jags. And one more: The team’s premier weapon — George Pickens — finished with all of one reception. Fans are fed up, even chanting for the offensive coordinator to be fired at Pittsburgh Penguin games. A vocal segment of the fan base would like ownership to reset the entire operation. They see a stale franchise falling behind and, surely, would prefer their head coach discuss the sport in much more progressive terms. Thursday feels like a must-win.
There’s a fine line between a strong culture and going stale but here’s thinking that Tomlin sees that line.
Historically, the best coaches in all sports comprehend such nuance. They don’t hire their twin brother, like Rob Ryan did in Buffalo. They find ways to evolve, like Andy Reid has his entire coaching career. Tomlin is one of the best coaches in the NFL. His team had zero business being competitive in ’19 and ’22, yet were still in the playoff picture the final week of the season. Injuries that nuke other franchises do not nuke the Steelers.
But the objective is not to merely make the playoffs.
Hence, the source of the locals’ boiling frustration. (Reading Brian Batko’s chat with fans at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sure brought me back to the Journal Sentinel days after a Packers loss.)
The defense is fine. Watt, best player in football, is right in the prime of a Canton-bound career. And even though the Steelers will be without Minkah Fitzpatrick, they will be welcoming back Cam Heyward soon. The offense desperately must improve, and this loss to Jacksonville was full proof that there’s plenty of blame to go around. Any “Fire Canada!” chants after this particular loss are foolish. I’ll always be pro-player in this space. They’re the ones risking their bodies and brains every Sunday. It’s true that Matt Canada is not a bastion of trickeration and schematic manipulation. But… damn. This game? The Steelers’ players left a sequence of big plays on the field.
The first play of the game, the OC dialed up a big play. Johnson knifes down the middle of the field, gets to the 50 and has Pickett’s bullet flicker right off his fingertips. He was sprinting in-stride, too. This would’ve been a 30- or 40-yarder. Maybe more.
Later in the quarter, on third and 2, Pickens is wide open on a corner route and Pickett flat-out underthrew him. The protection was fine. The wideout was open. Complete this routine throw — essentially a training-camp throw into the net — and this physical freak of a receiver is suddenly 1 on 1 vs. the safety. One stiff arm it’s a 67-yard touchdown.
Finally, on the aforementioned field-goal drive, the Steelers missed an easy TD. On third and goal, Johnson slipped and fell. Incomplete.
Eighteen potential points up in smoke.
Tomlin made a point to bring up each of these plays.
“That’s kind of where we are,” he said.
A year ago, the Pittsburgh rushing attack heated up in November. This would be a good time for former first-rounder Najee Harris to sync up with the line.
“We’re continually working to get better,” Tomlin said, “and we’d better.”
Coaches and quarterbacks love to say they’re “close” this time of year. That’s the word Jordan Love used when asked about the Packers’ offensive struggles. At least in Pittsburgh, there are playmakers such as Pickens and Johnson to supply real hope that everything can turn around. Pickett has been far from perfect in Year 2. He ranks 26th in passing yards (1,330), 23rd in yards per pass attempt (6.7) and 28th in passing touchdowns (five).
But Pickett can lead this team, as constructed, to wins. To a playoff spot.
He’s tough. One week after a scary bone bruise to his knee at Houston, he beat the Ravens. He diagnosed the 1-on-1 coverage on Pickens and made them pay with 1:17 left. The next week — after three eyesore quarters for this Steelers offense — Pickett brought the unit to life in the fourth with two TD drives. A third-and-8 strike to Johnson to set up one; a back-shoulder dime to Pickens to set up another.
Now, he’s nursing the rib injury.
For better, for worse, there’s no calculator available to measure the value of Pittsburgh’s quarterback. He’s emblematic of the team itself. Granted, Tomlin hung onto Ben Roethlisberger one season too long, but it’s obvious why Pickett was his big bet. Inside this same stadium, with Pitt, the QB faced several high-pressure moments. Where most NFL scouts saw a historically bad QB class, the Steelers saw one capable of doing what he’s always done: raise his ceiling. They believe Pickett’s mental toughness is a continuation of everything everybody’s seen in this city. Generation to generation.
Pickett has the attitude required to handle this tense moment in Steelers history.
At one point in our conversation before this season, I asked the QB if part of him wanted to get the hell out of here. He’s been in the same city… the same building… eating in the same dang cafeteria for seven years now. He insists he loves it here. His wife loves it here. It’s not stale to him. He fully expects to grow as a quarterback right here. Which is what the Steelers will need if they expect to have a shot vs. Patrick Mahomes, vs. Joe Burrow, vs. Any Elite AFC Quarterback in January. Tomlin has never suffered a losing season, but he also has been to only one conference title game since 2010. We should fully expect the Steelers to force a fumble exactly where Tomlin requests through November and December.
Even then, the offense must turn a corner.
The key to his team elevating is Pickett elevating. I’d wager he can.
Regardless of who’s under center, the Steelers need to take care of business against a rookie quarterback this Thursday. Even if this one, Will Levis, was a flame-thrower the week prior vs. Atlanta.
With a straight face, Tomlin said he was unaware of Johnson’s comments trashing the officials. The wide receiver claimed the refs wanted the Jaguars to win, adding “They cost us the game. I don’t care what nobody say. They cost us the game.” Without question, the head coach and the player sat down for a chat behind closed doors. Tomlin has always done a stellar job of setting a tone for the entire building publicly and privately.
The bones of the Pittsburgh Steelers are strong. Always. Simply gaze upon the dumpster fires elsewhere.
Angst for something more than 9-8 is growing, however.
We’re about to see if Mike Tomlin’s crew can raise the standard.