Ron Cook: Critics assail Steelers coach, but it's misguided


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If it's been said once, it's been said hundreds of times. It is most frequently heard during weeks such as this when the Steelers are coming off a miserable loss -- two, actually -- and looking very much like a team that doesn't belong in the playoffs.

"Mike Tomlin is no coach. I don't know why the Steelers hired him in the first place. He's only won because of Bill Cowher's players. He doesn't want to be the players' boss. He wants to be their friend. There's no discipline on the team. There's no accountability. Too bad Cowher isn't still here. Cowher could coach. Cowher was tough. Tomlin is no Cowher."

It's a crock, of course.

All of it.

Start with the Cowher comparison. Tomlin is tougher on the players than Cowher was. Cowher allowed them to get away with murder. How did star running back Jerome Bettis once put it? "He never fined us for anything. You came late, you never got fined. You never got reprimanded for anything."

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As for Tomlin winning with Cowher's players, if they were so good, why didn't Cowher win more with them? People think Tomlin inherited a Super Bowl team. He did not. The Steelers were 8-8 in Cowher's final season in 2006.

Then, there's that accountability business. Tomlin demanded plenty Sunday in the loss to the Cleveland Browns and again Monday when he reviewed the tape with the players. He benched each of his running backs after they fumbled against the Browns. He demoted starter Rashard Mendenhall to third string after Mendenhall fumbled twice. It's also possible, if not likely, that he will bench starting wide receiver Mike Wallace for the game Sunday against the Ravens in Baltimore.

This is just a guess, but I don't think Tomlin has much interest in being Mendenhall's and Wallace's friend this week.

Tomlin was widely criticized for the way he used the running backs against the Browns. I had no problem with it. A back wants to stay in the game? He wants to get touches? He wants to get into a rhythm?

Easy.

Don't fumble.

"Fumbling is unacceptable," Tomlin said.

Beyond that, we're talking about Mendenhall, Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman here, not Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch. It's not as if any of the Steelers backs had been tearing it up. Mendenhall ran well against the Philadelphia Eagles Oct. 7 but hasn't done anything since on those few occasions when he's been healthy. Dwyer had consecutive 100-yard games against the Cincinnati Bengals Oct. 21 and the Washington Redskins Oct. 28 but missed the next game with a quad strain and hasn't done much since. Redman had 105 receiving yards against the Tennessee Titans Oct. 11 and ran for 147 yards against the New York Giants Nov. 4 but hasn't been able to stay healthy.

You have a problem pulling any of those guys from a game after a fumble?

Really?

Tomlin announced Tuesday that Dwyer will start against the Ravens and "get the bulk of the carries." He did not say what he would do if Dwyer fumbles early. I would hope he would go to Redman. Wouldn't that be demanding accountability? How else does a coach do it besides limiting playing time?

It's hard to imagine Tomlin going back to Mendenhall unless the other two guys are hurt. That's a significant fall from first to third string. Mendenhall's reaction after the Browns game was nearly as disappointing as his performance. Dwyer and Redman each took individual blame for letting down the team. Mendenhall blamed the backs as a group. "I try not to get too high or too low. Even as tough as today was, I did the best I could. I can live with that."

Mendenhall is in the final year of his contract. He almost certainly won't be back next season.

Wallace might be gone with Mendenhall. He has had his moments -- big moments -- this season. His 51-yard touchdown catch against the Giants was huge. So was his 7-yard touchdown catch against the Chiefs Nov. 12. But, too often, Wallace hasn't played like a big-time receiver. Against the Browns, he failed to come back to fight for an underthrown deep ball by quarterback Charlie Batch that was intercepted by cornerback Joe Haden.

Tomlin has defended Wallace's effort, but he clearly isn't happy with him. "He's not producing in the manner that he'd like to or we'd like him to. It's a function of a lot of things."

One is the fact quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has missed the past 2 1/2 games with a shoulder/rib injury. There is a big drop-off to backups Byron Leftwich and Batch. Tomlin said Roethlisberger has a chance to play against the Ravens, but it's more likely Roethlisberger won't go until the following game against the San Diego Chargers.

Another is the fact wide receiver Antonio Brown has missed the past three games with a high-ankle sprain. He was the team's Most Valuable Player last season for a reason. He demands coverage. He is expected to play Sunday.

But wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders found a way to be much more productive than Wallace in the past 2 1/2 games. Playing with Leftwich or Batch, Sanders had 10 catches for 187 yards. Wallace had six for 35.

That's why Tomlin listed Sanders as a co-starter with Wallace for the first time this season on the depth chart Tuesday. Don't be surprised if Sanders starts against the Ravens.

It won't be because Tomlin wants to be Sanders' friend. It will be about accountability. It will be because Sanders deserves it.

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Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. First Published November 28, 2012 5:00 AM


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