When fighting wildfires, sometimes the best defense is starting a little fire of your own.
Fire, like any other living thing, needs three ingredients to survive: fuel, air, and heat. Over the first three quarters of a season, there have been enough of all three parts to ignite a flame within the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Being the responsible leader he is, he is setting his locker room ablaze in order to quench the inferno, before it consumes everything they had built.
Fire needs to eat. Thanks to injury, there are more than enough fallen giants lying around. Before this week, most of them looked as if they were all dried up, and rotting away. David DeCastro, Sean Spence, and Marcus Gilbert were some fine looking saplings; but they were damaged, and they fell. Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger, and Antonio Brown all fell alongside them, despite their roots being deeply entrenched in the design of the forest. The locker room was starting to look like a barren wasteland, full of kindling from corpses of those left behind for dead.
Fire needs to breathe. Thanks to the media, this fiery concoction has had plenty of chance to breathe. If the coaches had it their way, some issues would be kept inside the locker room. However, in today's modern media world, social networks intake the air drafting through Heinz Field, and exhale them around the world instantaneously. It's not even about sealing the cracks anymore, a giant gaping hole has been Twittered through the veil of secrecy left behind from a day long ago. Subsequently, the team's fan base intakes the media's exhaust, and bellows it back into the furnace, directly at the source.
Once the fuel and air have combined at the right, proportional mixture, all that's missing is a spark; a flash of heat to set a pyromaniac's dream in motion. That spark came in the form of a giveaway-ridden loss to the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. More timber fell in the form of Mike Adams and LaMarr Woodley. The bellows were churning as Charlie Batch threw three interceptions, and every single running back fumbled at least once; with the starter, Rashard Mendenhall, fumbling twice. You could almost hear the hissing, as a backdraft sought to bring it all to the ground in one, swift blast. Initial Ignition took place deep inside Mike Tomlin, and he acted quickly to stop this explosion at the source.
There are several method for fighting wildfires. First, most fire departments employ water; whether they bring it by pipeline, truck, or helicopter. In some cases, water is not enough. The Steelers attempted to throw water on their problems at first, by exuding confidence in Byron Leftwich; and then, by bringing Brian Hoyer and Plaxico Burress in. However, the fallen timbers were too dry and the bellows were pumping too fiercely, for that small splash to saturate and suffocate the smoldering embers. When the mighty Leftwich fell, and the elder Batch began to show the fragility of his age in Cleveland; Tomlin knew splashes would not be enough.
In cases of extreme wildfires, firemen will take extreme measures. They will dig trenches and fill them with water, but sometimes the air will carry the fire across the trenches, and allow it to further its feeding frenzy. The last line of defense, is to build a second fire. The second fire will consume any and all fuel along a line running parallel with the fire's front. Once the secondary fire has consumed all the fuel in the path of the flames, the inferno will starve to death when it reaches that boundary. The secondary fire is intentionally smaller and kept under control; and can easily be extinguished once it has done its job.
Mike Tomlin set his own fire this week through multiple depth chart decisions. By demoting Mendenhall to third string running back, and Mike Wallace to the number one-and-a-half, receiver spot; Tomlin's actions set fire to all of the speculations about his ability to coach. He lit up all the talk about Wallace needing to be the top dog. He set ablaze all the speculation as to why Jonathan Dwyer, a running back who has spent plenty of time in the coach's doghouse, was not given an opportunity to carry the load, when he has been the most consistently productive back on the roster. This new flame took off quickly, mostly because all of this fuel was composed of hot air and volatile incendiaries.
Tomlin didn't stop there, he also lit another flame, by declaring he would move Maurkice Pouncey to guard, putting Doug Legursky at center, if Willie Colon could not play. Normally, a scenario involving moving your high-caliber center to a different position, just to avoid having another player play there, would be deemed ludicrous. However, Tomlin knows what he is doing. Legursky has had his best games as a Steeler, at center in place of an injured Pouncey. Pouncey is definitely the more physically gifted of the two, giving him an advantage at both positions. Putting Legursky into a more comfortable position, puts the overall line at a better chance for success. If Colon actually can play Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens, it will be interesting to see if Tomlin will steer the flame the other direction, and move Pouncey to right guard, allowing Ramon Foster to move to right tackle.
Suddenly, with all the talk about possible offensive line combinations; the fire becomes too choppy to consume the rookie Kelvin Beachum, who stands to start his first official game in the NFL, at right tackle. The Wallace and Mendenhall blaze sucked all the wind out of the bellows pushing in their respective directions. Tomlin left nothing for that inferno to feed upon. He drew a line in the earth, and did his best to bring this fire to its knees, before it grew legs.
As these three raging flames crash headlong into each other on Sunday, they will have been reduced to flickers. Because the firestorm has been extinguished, Tomlin's Steelers will be able to take the field with a focus tempered by lessons learned. Some of the mighty fallen have already begun to show signs of life, and several young saplings are transforming into giants of their own right, in the place of those that came before. When the final flame has gone out, life will restore itself; the fallen will rise again.
The Steelers have built their final line of defense. In Baltimore, we will find out if Tomlin's fireline worked according to plan, or if he only increased the inferno's intensity.