Tomlin takes stern, fresh approach with younger Steelers


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There will be no discernible difference in coach Mike Tomlin tonight when the Steelers play their third preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He will look the same, walk the same, even act the same.

In seven seasons with the Steelers, he has not been the type of coach who exhibits multiple personality changes or mood swings. No matter the circumstances, he always is focused, determined and, at times, abruptly matter-of-fact.

But a funny thing has happened with Tomlin as the Steelers try to rebound from a disappointing non-playoff season: His players have noticed a change in the way he tries to prepare his team, not only for each game, but for the 2013 season.

"Things have changed in our preparation, the way Coach Tomlin wants this team focused," veteran safety Ryan Clark said. "It's because of the makeup of young guys to old guys. He's constantly preaching to us about being punctual, about being where we're supposed to be, being right-minded, those things we never talked about before."

This change is not a throwback to Tomlin's first season with the Steelers in 2007, when he replaced Bill Cowher and came in with a stern hand, holding every player accountable for even the tiniest of mistakes, even the veterans. He posted something called "The Tomlin News" where any player could be singled out for an infraction -- on the field or otherwise -- that didn't fit with his style.

This change, his players said, is different.

Because of the roster turnover the past two years and the influx of new and younger players, Tomlin has been more vocal than past years about every little detail, including how the players warm up before a game.

In the past, Clark said, veteran players got ready for each game in their own individual way. Not anymore. He said Tomlin wants his veterans to set an example for the younger players so they can see what it takes and what is necessary to be prepared for every game. Part of that is going out on the field before the game so the younger players can watch them.

"You see how it was here, it was a very free environment," Clark said.

"We'd play our games, have a good time. Now, he makes sure the things that were able to go unspoken, about the way we worked, about being punctual, about attention to detail, those things weren't spoken, we just did them.

"Coach Tomlin could focus on those things he was able to work on -- the Xs and Os and game execution to prepare us for battle. Now, these things need to be told to these guys. Guys need to understand this is way things are done."

Tomlin doesn't have the luxury of having so many long-time veterans in the locker room, anymore, especially players such as Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Harrison who played in multiple Super Bowls. This year, they also lost Max Starks, Willie Colon, Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall.

It is part of the reason they brought back two players in free agency -- tight end Matt Spaeth and cornerback William Gay -- who understand the Steelers way and know what Tomlin expects of them.

That is what happens when a team such as the Steelers, one that is accustomed to Super Bowls and AFC title games, is coming off an 8-8 season and hasn't won a playoff game in more than two years.

"When you're 8-8, something is wrong with our edge," inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "We're not supposed to be 8-8 or there are going to be new guys."

"I think it's probably a combination of both," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

"We got new guys stepping into starting roles and you're also depending on some younger players to help you; not only offensively and defensively but we need guys to come out and contribute big time on special teams."

All of which has caused Tomlin to change his style this season.

Clark even said he has changed the way the players warm up before practice and a game, trying to prevent or reduce soft-tissue injuries -- muscles, ligaments and tendons -- that he said were prevalent in 2012.

"He came in his first year and laid down the law," Clark said. "He said OK, I have James Farrior, I have Aaron Smith, I have Brett Keisel, I have these guys in the locker room who understand winning, who understand preparing, and he said, OK, I want you guys to be ready to go on Sunday.

"Now we can't do that. Guys need to execute each and every day, every play at practice, in order to execute on the field because they haven't been there."

Then he added, "That feeling we always had that guys are going to make a play, or guys we've seen make plays, a lot of those guys aren't there any more.

"So, now, people need to earn that respect. They need to earn the fact that we know you can make a play in this situation. So coach Tomlin is focusing on making sure guys understand how important each and every thing is."

Steelers

Gerry Dulac: gdulac@post-gazette.com and Twitter @gerrydulac First Published August 24, 2013 4:00 AM


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