Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin walked off of the field in victory at Acrisure Stadium on Sunday afternoon, having added yet another winning season to his career record. Tomlin had learned only minutes earlier that the Miami Dolphins defeated the New York Jets in a game devoid of even a single TD, thus ending the Steelers’ playoff hopes. Nevertheless, every member of Pittsburgh’s roster and coaching staff was able to hold his head high as they basked in the appreciation of a grateful, hometown crowd.
In a nutshell, we had witnessed exactly the reason why the Steelers have the most rabid and loyal fanbase in pro football. In a year when they clearly were at least a few bricks shy in the talent department, the Black-and-gold might easily have fallen to their worst season mark in many years, particularly after posting a 2-6 record in their first eight games. But honoring their proud tradition, the Steelers pulled together to finish the season with a flourish, posting a 7-2 record in their last nine games.
During the second half of the season, and particularly in the stretch run, Kenny Pickett met nearly every realistic expectation one might hold for a rookie QB getting his first opportunities as an NFL starter. We also saw promising growth in the Steelers’ OL and running game. The emergence of George Pickens, Jaylen Warren, Pat Freiermuth and other talented youngsters who made notable contributions to this late-season surge also was impressive and a testament to the organization’s scouting prowess.
Defensively, the Steelers also pulled together, forging a gritty unit out of what appeared earlier in the season to be a pretty ragged group. While the defense often bent, it rarely broke — continually keeping the team in tight games which otherwise might have gotten out of hand. Cam Heyward played perhaps the most impressive stretch of games in his entire career during the second half of the season, while his veteran leadership of the Steelers’ younger defensive players often appeared to be the glue holding the unit together at crucial stages.
T.J. Watt, who struggled to return to form after his lengthy injury absence, was similarly able to inspire the defensive resurgence later in the season. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds continued their leadership roles in a Steelers’ secondary which grabbed a number of key interceptions during the stretch run.
Regardless of this team’s impressive progress, though, we continued to hear just about every imaginable explanation from Coach Tomlin’s critics as to why the team should replace him. But as much as any of his clutch players, Tomlin deserves substantial credit for leading the Steelers’ out of their mid-season doldrums to finish at a respectable 9-8. Particularly in view of the significantly diminished expectations following Ben Roethlisberger's retirement — plus the tough break of losing T.J. Watt in Week 1 — Tomlin was able to keep a team on the field that, while rarely dominant, nevertheless was able to defeat most of the opponents it faced during the second half of the season. And when key players went down with injuries, Tomlin was quite successful in finding capable replacements on the fly. In the process, the Steelers identified some perhaps unexpected players on their roster who demonstrated the ability to help them win next season and beyond.
All in all, this was a first-rate coaching performance and especially in this uncharted season of transition. Despite the perennial harping of his detractors, it’s no stretch to consider Mike Tomlin as a strong contender for Coach of the Year honors. Within a 3-month span, Tomlin has taken a team widely expected last August to finish the season as a bottom-dweller and turned them into winners.
As we look forward to the NFL Draft next spring — and equally to other personnel changes during the offseason — Steelers Nation can take substantial pride in what the team accomplished during this relatively short time period. Obviously, their progress this season doesn’t mean the Steelers are ready to challenge the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs or Cincinnati Bengals for AFC supremacy. But it does mean the team finds itself in a very promising position for adding a few more key players during the offseason to narrow their talent gap with the league’s top teams.
Realistically, few fans were anxious to see this season’s edition of the Steelers face off in the playoffs against the Bills, Chiefs or Bengals. For the most part, Steelers Nation is well aware this team will continue to experience some significant growing pains. But in the wake of their strong finish to this season, it’s certainly not unrealistic to expect Pittsburgh to be back in the playoffs next season, as well as in subsequent seasons.
Because the dreaded transition to the post-Ben era appears at least to be on schedule and possibly ahead of expectations, the upcoming offseason shapes up as one of the most exciting in many years for the Steelers organization and fans. For the past several weeks, we’ve been watching a mostly-young team clearly on the upswing and playing with the kind of cohesion and spirit which represent prerequisites for a champion. While reaching that lofty goal remains a tall order, the Steelers’ willingness during this season of change to leave every ounce of effort on the gridiron surely is a promising sign.