Mike Tomlin described himself as being aggressive Sunday, even if his name did not appear among the Steelers' tackle statistics from the playoff game.
He went for it on fourth down at the San Diego 1, and that failed. He called for a fake punt that lost 4 yards. He called for a deep pass into the end zone from backup quarterback Byron Leftwich on third down with the Steelers ahead by 18, on his 34, with three minutes left and the Chargers out of timeouts. Limas Sweed dropped it, and the Steelers lost a chance to run off at least 40 seconds.
Five plays later, the Chargers scored a touchdown to cut the lead to 11 with 1:57 left. They let Tomlin off the hook when their onside kickoff try went out of bounds. Leftwich took a knee on three consecutive plays with no more deep passes to run out the clock on the Steelers' 35-24 victory.
If Tomlin makes similar "aggressive" decisions Sunday against Baltimore in the AFC championship game, it could cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. It also could help put his team into it. The thinking may be unconventional, but there's no rule it cannot work.
"I had no second-guesses whatsoever," Tomlin said.
Tomlin has evolved as a coach in his second season. He is more animated on the sideline, he has made better decisions and he's more guarded with information during his weekly news conferences (Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll once remarked after one of his own news conferences that it was a success because "no information was passed.").
Tomlin might go for it on fourth down too often to suit more conservative tastes. The Steelers had a remarkable lack of success on fourth down this season; they were 3 of 12 in the regular season, a 25 percent rate of success that ranked last in the league by a wide margin. Next to last was Carolina at 37.8 percent. More than half the teams (17) converted at least half their fourth-down plays.
The Steelers added to their woeful rate by going 0 for 2 on fourth downs Sunday.
Tomlin was asked yesterday if he debated such choices or if he always leans toward being the aggressor.
"There is a debate, and, no, I don't always go on the side of aggression. Specifically, about last Sunday, I thought our opponent had momentum. They had the momentum that was required for them to get into the playoffs. They won a game against a football team that was extremely hot, as hot as any team in football, the Indianapolis Colts.
"We were coming off a bye. I wanted to get our guys going and let them know that we were playing and playing to win. I wanted them to have that same kind of momentum and energy that our opponent had and that's why I chose to take the approach that I took on some of the decisions I made in that football game, particularly in the first half."
It likely is safe to say he would not go for a 2-point conversion early in the fourth quarter after a penalty moved the ball back to the 12 as he did against Jacksonville in the two-point playoff loss a year ago.
And he has become more judicious in another area -- throwing the red challenge flag. Last season, Tomlin used that red flag as if it were a disposable coffee cup. He tossed it seven times and had the call reversed twice. This regular season, he was a perfect 4 for 4 and made it 5 for 5 on his first challenge Sunday. He later lost a challenge, though, when he disputed an incomplete San Diego pass -- he thought Ike Taylor intercepted it -- with about 2 1/2 minutes left and his team ahead by 18.
Tomlin has acknowledged his improvement as a coach from his rookie season to this one.
"I've got too many examples to pick one," he said last week. "It's no big revelation that I'm a better coach this year. I'd better be better next year. It's not always displayed in the win-loss record. I think regardless of what you do for a living, you've got to get better. And that's every day. I know when I walk through those doors, that's my intent every day. So I'm not making a bigger deal out of it than what it is. I'm just better because I am."
The idea that some of his players believe he is a better coach a year later elicited a different response.
"I'm not interested in evaluating my performance and, particularly, I'm not interested in my players' evaluation of my performance." Tomlin said to a reporter at his news conference yesterday. "I'm paid to evaluate them."
"How's your editor doing?"
Sometimes, he's even the aggressor off the field.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published January 14, 2009 5:00 AM