Ron Cook: Steelers lucky to have Mike Tomlin and staff
January 24, 2016 12:00 AM
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin congratulates Ryan Shazier after intercepting a ball against the Broncos in the regular season at Heinz Field.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The best thing to come from Mike Tomlin’s season-ending news conference came when Tomlin said he hoped to bring back all his coaches next season. Those men had a strong year. Better than Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Better even than All-Pros Antonio Brown and David DeCastro.
Tomlin, who has coached the Steelers for nine years, will tell you he has had just one good season — 2008, when the team won Super Bowl XLIII. But this season’s work might have been his best, considering the adversity the team faced, both self-inflicted through suspensions and from bad luck with injuries. In some ways, it’s still remarkable the Steelers came so close to making it to today’s AFC championship game, losing a 50/50 game last Sunday in Denver.
Tomlin had plenty of help from his coaching staff.
The defense grew along with first-year defensive coordinator Keith Butler. It was a mess in the first game at New England. Calls from the sideline were late. Players weren’t sure of their assignments. At times, the Steelers had only 10 men on the field, which is no way to play the Patriots. Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes. Rob Gronkowski ran free through the secondary.
Compare that to the defense’s performance in Denver in an AFC divisional playoff game. The Broncos managed just one touchdown drive, although, unfortunately for the Steelers, it came in the fourth quarter of a 23-16 loss.
“A defensive group on the rise,” Tomlin called it.
No one predicted that improvement. The front seven, led by defensive end Cam Heyward, was generally stout. Young players Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt improved dramatically. Even the much-maligned secondary was competitive at the end.
That secondary group was not what Butler envisioned before training camp. It wasn’t his plan to play Antwon Blake or trade for Brandon Boykin. But everything changed when Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas were busts. It’s still hard to believe the Steelers finished with 17 interceptions — tied for sixth most in the NFL in the regular season — and had another by Blake in the wild-card playoff win at Cincinnati.
“I was impressed with his work,” Tomlin said of Butler. “I thought he did an excellent job.”
The same could be said of offensive coordinator Todd Haley. No one had a tougher season. Start with the early season suspensions of Le’Veon Bell and Martavis Bryant. Throw in the season-ending injuries to Maurkice Pouncey in the exhibition season, Kelvin Beachum in mid-October and Bell in early November. Add the injuries to DeAngelo Williams in the final regular-season game and the great Brown in the Cincinnati playoff game.
Working with third- and fourth-string running backs Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the postseason wasn’t Haley’s biggest challenge. Roethlisberger missed four games and parts of five others because of injuries and had to play against the Broncos with a serious shoulder injury. Haley had to call plays for two different quarterbacks in six games. Somehow, he managed to coax out a win against San Diego from Michael Vick and one against Arizona from Landry Jones.
Haley’s work was amazing.
What’s really astonishing is that Haley wasn’t contacted by another NFL team to interview for its head coaching position.
Haley will tell you he was helped along the way by the offensive coaching staff, especially Mike Munchak, arguably the best line coach in the NFL. Munchak had to do without 40 percent of his line after the injuries to Pouncey and Beachum. Cody Wallace had starting experience at center, but Alejandro Villenueva was a newbie at tackle. Munchak made it all work.
“He means so much to those guys up front, who, in turn, mean so much to me,” Roethlisberger said last week on his weekly radio show on 93.7 The Fan. “What he brings to this team is awesome.”
Still, the most credit has to go to Tomlin. There’s a belief in sports that a coach shouldn’t stay one place more than five years because the players get tired of hearing his message and tune him out. That hasn’t happened with Tomlin. Never once did he lose his players. Not after the injuries this season. Not after a hurtful late-season loss in Baltimore. Not after the Cincinnati playoff game appeared hopeless. Not against Denver last Sunday after the Broncos took a 10-point lead in the final minute.
Coaching these Steelers was easy, Tomlin said.
“They’re not perfect, but we’ve got a good group of men. We’ve just got a really selfless bunch. I think it gives us a winning edge.”
Roethlisberger talked of the players taking the defeat in Denver hard. “I think we all kind of felt that we let each other down. We felt like we had something pretty special.”
Tomlin was among those who took the loss the hardest. He was in tears when he addressed the squad. The players were moved by his tears, his passion, his love for them.
“I’m glad I have a coach like that,” Heyward told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette.
That feeling isn’t unanimous among the Steelers, of course. Every coach has detractors, inside the locker room and out. But that doesn’t change the bottom line. The Steelers are lucky to have Tomlin.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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