Being a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, I have to admit that I haven’t been as supportive of the ‘Fire Tomlin’ rhetoric that has been floated around Steelers Nation via social media sites during the 2014 NFL season. After Mike Tomlin’s Tuesday press conference, I went back and took a look at a few things I agree with and those I feel could not only be better explained, but need to be repaired if the Steelers are going to make any kind of move towards the post-season, let alone beat the Tennessee Titans.
Tomlin was asked if scoring one touchdown in four of the five road games the Steelers have played in could be approached, or looked at, in a different way offensively heading on the road in future games. His answer:
“Not specifically. We have to execute better. Obviously there are known issues and challenges with playing on the road offensively, but we feel like we deal with those appropriately in our preparation (with) silent count, crowd noise, etc. More than anything it’s about the real intangible things that we need to focus on which is the quality of our preparation and play.”
My take: I agree with the statement that the Steelers have to execute better and that any preparation should be of good quality. Tomlin’s answer seems evasive, but when you break it down he is really just saying that the offense doesn’t need to throw out the playbook because they’ve struggled on the road. Instead, the team needs to look at how they were successful at home and translate that into how they practice for their road games. If it takes piping rabid Steelers fan noise into the audio system at practice – so be it. If it means looking at the personnel in the different road games versus home games, then they should analyze and make the appropriate adjustment. Intangibles are things that can’t be predicted, and in this one choice of phrasing I disagree with coach Tomlin. A good football team doesn’t need to focus on what they can’t control, but absolutely should be zeroed in on what they can – protecting the football, running the correct plays, playing their individual position(s) within a team atmosphere, etc. They need to be prepared for any eventuality if they want to succeed.
Tomlin was asked, “Re: Not running for 100 yards in three of the last four games and does the running game need to be re-established? How did the offensive line grade out?”
He responded by saying, “I believe that in some of those instances we ran the ball at an acceptable level (due to) our yards per carry in some of those instances. Just by game circumstance and the nature in which we desire to play (and) the nature in which our opponents play we tend to pass more than run. I stood before you guys repeatedly and said that we want to be a balanced offense so that we can be what it is we need to be on the week-in and week-out basis to increase our chances of winning.”
As for his feelings about the offensive line, Tomlin said he felt they weren’t playing as well as they have in past games. “We had some pressure. We didn’t run the ball as well as we had liked. The grades usually reflect what the video shows.”
My take: I took an extensive look at the rushing game and performance of the offensive line this week (for CBS affiliate KDKA) and broke down yards-per-carry, a statistic that is used to gauge how well the rushing game is going based not on the individual performance of the rusher, but the blocking that is provided to them. The decline is real. It isn’t that Le’Veon Bell or LeGarrette Blount haven’t run hard – they have run less. Shorter yardage. Called on to run the ball less often. Tomlin is correct that the offense generally has been balanced throughout the season (statistically), but tweaked week-to-week based on defensive pressure.
Where I disagree with Tomlin is in this statement: “I believe that we are the type of offense that can run the ball when we want to or when we have to.” He may believe the offense is capable of playing at that level, but without addressing a decline in offensive line performance, individual by individual, and correcting it – even Tomlin has to admit that the overall offense will not be able to run the ball at-will. Further evidence? Tomlin’s own words about the offensive line play: “Not as good as they had [played] (in the past).”
Regarding the Jets defense attacking the vertical passing game, the question was posed to Tomlin whether New York had success after seeing what the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens failed to do. Tomlin responded: “I think our vertical passing game was easier to eliminate because it was more predictable because of the game circumstance. We were down 17-0. A lot of it is our doing I admit. But when you get down three scores like that as the game continues to wear on and they possess the ball in the manner in which they possessed the ball, then they can simply play to defend the deep passes to make us earn it over the course of a long field which is what they did. Not taking anything away from them, they played the game circumstances. They got themselves in those positive game circumstances. But that had a lot to do with it I would assess.”
My take: I absolutely agree with Tomlin here. The offense became predictable and it resulted in mistakes, turnovers and a mediocre defense (Jets) to do what Indianapolis and Baltimore could not – dominate. In football circles, analysts talk all the time about how to shut down offenses, and the best way (short of having someone on the opposing team get injured) is to eliminate the need to guess the play by forcing the quarterback to go to the only thing that appears to work. Every team in the league understands this principle. Did the Jets get lucky? No. They broke down the weaknesses Pittsburgh presented and played a smart defense. As soon as they shut down the run game, pressure the offensive line and hurried Ben Roethlisberger, it became very easy to limit the number of yards the Steelers were able to gain and number of points they put on the scoreboard.
Finally, Tomlin addressed questions related to a trend of losing to bad teams, whether it was mental and whether the team would focus on the losses on the road this season headed into the Monday night game against the Tennessee Titans. He replied: “I’m sure we can bounce around a myriad of things regarding the mental element of it. I tend to focus on what’s really tangible. In regards to Sunday, we turned the ball over a lot and we didn’t get any (back). At minus-four, it’s going to put you in a tough position to win regardless of who you are playing or where you’re playing or what the circumstances of the game are.”
My take: Tomlin isn’t going to give a straight answer to a question that is so loaded that it could be misinterpreted a million ways to Sunday. A lot of people think Tomlin is evasive, that he tries to talk around questions. Have the Steelers had mental breakdowns in road games this season? Yes (obviously). Is there a mental element to an individual players’ on-field performance? Yes. Can Mike Tomlin get his players out of their own heads? No. Tomlin’s job as a coach is to get his players’ attention, teach, preach, illustrate and then turn them loose. If Antonio Brown can’t get his muffed punt from Week 10 out of his head, it’s on Brown. Can he get it out and should he? Yes. Brown hasn’t had such an inconsistent game in the remainder of the season and there is no reason to expect he, or any other player on the Steelers roster, can’t bounce back. When players start second-guessing themselves or lose mental focus on the field, it results in mistakes. Players can’t focus on the past because it is an “intangible” and even coach Tomlin knows you don’t get to use a time machine and change the outcomes of games already played.
There is a way to fix what happened against the Jets heading into Tennessee to take on the Titans. Here are the things I think should be and can be tweaked or improved:
One, get onto the practice field and shake it off. The Steelers don’t need to be distracted by the loss to the Jets or any other team. They need to just throw those games on the junk heap. Tomlin talks about week-to-week because he understands what can happen to teams that buy into the idea that they can’t recover – they turn into losing teams. Look at the Oakland Raiders. Even their own players and staff are completely dejected and they show it in how they play and what they say off the field. The Steelers players (if you watch or read post-game and mid-week interviews) talk about looking forward, moving forward. That is an indication that the team does not buy into the idea of failure.
Two, the Steelers need to rally as teammates and brothers. If the rookies and younger guys need a pep talk, then the veterans need to grab them (in a nice way) and lead. With Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor on the sidelines due to injury, it’s a perfect time for them to be vocal with the teammates playing their positions and get everyone on the same page. Having Brett Keisel and James Harrison back in the defensive lineup has improved the team in many ways. It certainly isn’t because they are the fastest or youngest guys on the team. It’s because both men are willing to lead by example. The young guys need to put away any macho credo they may subscribe to and give everything to the team. They can practice their touchdown and celebration dances on their own time.
Third, but in no way the last thing, is responsibility. Every man on the roster has an assignment. It is his job to study for the test. It’s physical and mental. For some, it’s spiritual. Fingers can be pointed on any given week at any individual – player to coach to assistant – but it isn’t helpful. When you have an assignment, it’s your responsibility to complete it, to take care of it and to take ownership of it. The Steelers, as individual players, have had incidents where they have broken down. They didn’t do their assignment, didn’t show up, or they just went for a mediocre ‘C’ grade. For the Steelers to move forward with any success, each individual has to not only be excited to get the assignment but want to turn in the best grade possible. Move to the head of the class, boys. Graduation could be the post-season.
(article originally posted by author on Examiner.com on Nov. 13, 2004.)
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