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Mike Tomlin’s leadership highlights a surprising turnaround for the Steelers

One of Mike Tomlin’s finest coaching jobs was done in 2022.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns 28-14 on Sunday but fell just short of the playoffs. Despite the disappointment, head coach Mike Tomlin led a turnaround that transformed a dreadful Steelers’ season into an exciting one. Here, in my 3 & Out column, I look at why Tomlin was so impressive before recapping the win over the Browns.

Leadership Matters

In late October, some friends and I attended the Steelers’ game against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Philly won 35-13 in a contest that wasn’t that close. Afterwards, on our walk to the car, one of my friends said this:

“I’m not trying to offend you or anything. But boy, the Steelers stink.”

I wasn’t offended. Nor could I disagree. Philadelphia bullied Pittsburgh all over the field that day, dominating both lines of scrimmage, sacking rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett six times and throwing to physical receiver A.J. Brown at will. The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 2-6. They looked confused, a little soft, and without much hope they’d turn things around.

Fast forward to Sunday’s game against the Browns. The Steelers, on the brink of a playoff berth, played like a confident, passionate football team. They were clearly more motivated and more physical than Cleveland, just as they’d been the previous week against Baltimore, and the week before that against Las Vegas, and the week before that against Carolina. Following the drubbing in Philadelphia, they closed the season 7-2. Their final record of 9-8 extended Mike Tomlin’s remarkable streak of consecutive non-losing seasons to 16. Pittsburgh missed out on a playoff berth when Miami defeated the New York Jets on a late field goal, but that shouldn’t diminish the job Tomlin did in rallying his team from oblivion.

Before the Fire Tomlin! crowd gets warmed up, let me say I am aware of his shortcomings. Almost making the playoffs is not the goal, and no one gives you an award for snatching mediocrity from the jaws of misery. The Steelers haven’t won a playoff game since 2016 and haven’t been to the Super Bowl in over a decade. When they have made the playoffs recently, they’ve been atrocious, surrendering 135 points in three straight losses to Jacksonville, Cleveland and Kansas City. Then there are the clock management and replay challenge issues, which I acknowledge are legitimate (albeit overblown).

None of the shortcomings above, however, speak to the culture Tomlin has built in Pittsburgh. It’s one that anticipates success, and where players are challenged to be the best versions of themselves. Tomlin’s players speak openly of this, like Mason Cole did after the Cleveland game when he told reporters the following:

“He’s special, man... I played for other coaches and to be here and be around this guy, I get it. I get him. I get the Steelers. I get this city. I’m really appreciative of it.”

Cam Heyward and Najee Harris have made similar remarks in recent weeks, with Harris saying the Steelers wanted to win on Sunday to keep Tomlin’s streak alive. “The way he’s led us,” Harris said, “I think that’s the bare minimum we can do for him.”

Former players rave about what Tomlin’s guidance has meant to them. Ryan Clark said Tomlin likely saved his life when Clark became gravely ill from a genetic abnormality related to sickle cell that was complicated by altitude when the Steelers played in Denver in 2011. Clark would have played in the game, risking his life in the process, had Tomlin not stopped him. “If you were my kid,” Tomlin told Clark, “we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.” Tomlin described his involvement in that affair by saying, “I’ve got a role to safeguard, to the best of my ability.”

That right there, more than replay challenges or clock management, is what defines Mike Tomlin. He does whatever it takes to get the most out of his players, but he also looks out for them as young men. In the often-cold world of professional football, where players are routinely used up and discarded, this matters. It’s why this year’s team continued to play hard, even at 2-6. It’s how a 2019 team quarterbacked by Duck Hodges and Mason Rudolph stayed competitive when everyone considered their season lost. It’s why Tomlin’s teams have played one game while being eliminated from playoff contention in the 258 he has coached.

It might be tempting to argue that, if the Steelers aren’t serious Super Bowl contenders, what does 9-8 do for them? Why not finish with a worse record and a higher draft pick? The problem with that thinking is it invites losing. Once a franchise accepts losing as part of its culture, it can be difficult to remove, like the funk of stale beer from a fraternity house rug. Tomlin has made it clear he believes in his players. Belief is part of a winning culture. How, then, can losing be tolerated, much less encouraged?

Yes, it’s disappointing the Steelers failed to make the postseason, but given the football they played over the final nine weeks, it’s hard not to be excited about where they’re headed. They are young, particularly on offense. They have three of the first 48 picks in the upcoming draft, a luxury they rarely enjoy. They have adequate cap space with which to address additional needs. Most importantly, they have a head coach for whom they love to play, and whose investment in them as both players and individuals has helped create a culture of success that keeps them competitive every season. Mike Tomlin isn’t a perfect head coach by any stretch. But if the 2022 season has taught us anything, it’s that he remains the right man to lead the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Creative Canada

For the first eight weeks of 2022, Pittsburgh’s run game looked like the same feckless attack we’d seen the previous three seasons. The revamped line still couldn’t get a push. Najee Harris looked slow and indecisive. Coordinator Matt Canada was so predictable opposing defenders were stating publicly they knew which plays were coming.

And then, suddenly, it changed. The same unit that averaged just 90 yards per game over those first eight weeks ran for 140 or better in seven of the final nine, including a dominating 198-yard performance at Baltimore last week. In the season finale, the Steelers totaled 148 yards on 37 carries, using the run to take over the game in the second half and put away the Browns.

Why the sudden change? What happened during the bye week after the Philly game that triggered their rushing surge? Here are a few thoughts, using clips from the finale.

First, after running almost exclusively inside zone plays before the bye, Canada began incorporating outside zone. The two are blocked essentially the same way — all linemen working along a track to the call side of the play — but outside zone hits wider. Inside zone runs anywhere from the play-side A to back-side B-gap, while outside zone hits from the play-side C-gap to the edge. Outside zone is a tougher play to block because it requires linemen to move laterally and attack the far shoulder of adjacent defenders. But, like we see below, it stretches a defense when done properly and creates seams through which a back can cut. Harris does so here, working behind the block of right tackle Chuks Okorafor and off the hip of guard James Daniels, who does a great job sealing the play-side defensive tackle:

Why did Canada wait so long to incorporate more outside zone? Likely because the Steelers weren’t blocking it well early in the season as their young line learned to play together under the tutelage of new coach Pat Meyer. Once they got outside zone going, and got defenses moving laterally, it opened up the more vertically based inside zone attack. Canada now had two full-flow schemes he could utilize.

The next step was to find ways to protect these schemes. Everyone knows about the jet sweeps he uses, but there are only so many of those he can run each game without defenses catching on. Canada was loathe to pull guards, and therefore ignored the traditional counter-gap runs that serve as constraints to zone plays. But he did develop an alternative that used zone blocking with counter action in the backfield. Rather than pull a guard, which would provide a key for opposing linebackers, Canada took an H-back from the backside and wrapped him around as the lead blocker. Often, the versatile Connor Heyward served as that player, like we see here springing Jaylen Warren for a nice gain:

Here’s another way Canada constrained defenses within his core scheme. This looks just like the play above, with a jet man motioning towards a wing look and the running back stepping with the motion. Rather than counter back, though, Canada had Derek Watt, the wing, come underneath Pickett to take an inside handoff and plunge up the gut:

This is little more than a short yardage dive play. But the wrinkles Canada incorporates, and the way he layers previous plays by building alternate versions of them, makes it tricky to defend.

The last piece to Pittsburgh’s rushing puzzle wasn’t a scheme or a design but an attitude. Once the run game got going, and the team saw how it benefitted the offense, they bought into running the football as their identity. This was important, as it allowed them to incorporate players into their run schemes who may have previously been unenthusiastic.

Take this run by Harris. The key block is thrown by none other than Diontae Johnson, who comes inside from his alignment on the left hash to pick up the box safety as he tries to blow the C-gap. Johnson’s block seals the edge for Harris, who gets outside for a nice gain:

Once the Steelers became good enough to block the outside zone play, and Canada found ways to create counter schemes to protect his core runs, they were able to build a rushing identity. This led to buy-in from players like Johnson, Heyward and Gunner Olszewski, all of whom became willing and effective blockers. The run game then flourished, which made life easier on Kenny Pickett as he grew into his role as the team’s starting quarterback. Alas, Pittsburgh had a functioning offense.

The Big Three

Pittsburgh’s defense was typically stout against Cleveland. They racked up seven sacks of Deshaun Watson, picked him off twice and harassed him regularly. Up front, the Big Three of Cam Heyward, T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith were their normal destructive selves, accounting for six sacks among them. On Cleveland’s final drive, all three players converged on Watson simultaneously, resulting in a group sack that signaled an appropriate ending to the season:

Pittsburgh’s defense followed a similar course to the offense. They were shaky in the first half of the season but played inspired football following the bye. Pittsburgh held their final seven opponents to 17 points or less, alleviating the burden on their young offense. The Steelers went 6-1 over that stretch. Pittsburgh has some decisions to make on who to resign and who to let go on defense, and they must fortify the line, inside linebacking corps and cornerback group this offseason. But in Watt, Highsmith, Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, they have a core group on which to build that’s as good as any in football.

And Out...

I’m genuinely sad to see this season end. Unlike last year, when the Steelers’ seemed like an overmatched group trying to make it a few more miles on the fumes in Ben Roethlisberger’s tank, this team feels fresh and alive. Led by budding stars in Pickett, Harris, George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth, the growth of the offense as the year progressed was nothing short of remarkable. Paired with a defense that seems poised to improve through the draft and free agency, next year’s team could be formidable.

Thank you to everyone who read these “3 & Out” articles throughout the season. I enjoyed writing them, and I hope they enhanced your love of Steelers’ football in some way. Next, I’ll turn my attention to what Pittsburgh can do this offseason to improve in 2023.