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Steelers Stock Report: HC Mike Tomlin losing the faith of the faithful

Is he a savvy technician playing 4-D chess or a galaxy-brained but out-of-his-element coach? Time will tell.

Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on prior to a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Acrisure Stadium on October 08, 2023 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers will travel to play the LA Rams in Week 7 coming off the bye, healthier and ready to roll. Here’s a look at the Steelers stock report before they kick off.

Stock down: Thicc lads

Kevin Dotson, who you might remember from his stint as a turnstile on the Steelers offensive line, is apparently the best guard in the NFL, according to the eminently reliable and most certainly never hyperbolic folks over at PFF. Even if this is a gross overstatement (it probably is), Dotson has been miles better than anyone on the Steelers offensive line this season—aside from rookie Broderick Jones, who played well against a robust and relentless Baltimore front seven.

The Steelers actually traded up to select Jones 14th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, signaling their serious intent to protect Kenny Pickett’s blind side for the next decade-plus. Despite Jones’ pedigree (two-time national champion at Georgia, consensus top 3-5 offensive tackle in the draft pool) and the enthusiasm with which the Steelers pursued him, Jones really hadn’t played much up until Week 5. No matter, it’s better late than never, and that game against Baltimore should serve as a springboard for what should be a successful rookie reason and, from there, a promising young career. Unless….

Welp!

Stock down: Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin has always been a kind of polarizing figure (gee, I wonder why that could be) but his approval rating this season is subterranean. I can guarantee that he is aware of this fact, and also that he is manifestly unbothered by it. And he shouldn’t be. The second a professional coach begins to genuinely care about boos in the stadium, vitriolic screeds on the local radio, or people contributing to Twitter’s insanely toxic hellscape with memes depicting their failures, they’re no longer the ones in charge of the team.

I’ve always thought the notion that athletes or coaches who ply their trades in New York or Los Angeles somehow experience added media scrutiny was misguided or at the very least outdated. I’m sure Joe Namath had to fight through a sea of flashbulbs anytime he wanted to go out and chase every third Miller High Life with a shot of absinthe back in 1970, but that really isn’t a thing anymore. The foremost target of the current NFL media apparatus isn’t even a player. Social media has overtaken print journalism, TV, and radio as the primary medium through which the hottest takes are furnished, so if a player commits some hilarious blooper that goes viral, it doesn’t matter if he plays for the Cowboys or the Panthers; he becomes a national laughingstock all the same.

In fact, I’d argue that highly successful teams in smaller markets (the Steelers, Packers, Bills, etc.) are subject to an even higher level of scrutiny from their respective local media by virtue of being the biggest show in town. To his great credit, Tomlin has always been very adept at navigating (i.e., ignoring) the unique pressure that comes along with being the coach of a successful small-market team, and he’s translated that to the field, where he famously had not had a losing record in his entire career.

At a certain point, however, even the most ardent Tomlin supporters (*raises hand*) have to put aside all the process trusting and shift their perspectives. And in that vein, I cannot for the life of me figure out why the Steelers are even entertaining the idea of starting Dan Moore Jr., an objectively suspect offensive lineman who borders on an outright liability, over Jones, who has certainly outplayed Moore and represents a presumed foundational element.

Tomlin has yet to offer any sort of clarification on the matter, and he likely won’t, because he isn’t required to. However, if Moore does end up starting, and if his performance (or lack thereof) contributes to a losing effort in a plainly self-evident way, he’s going to hear about it at the post-game press conference. Failing to address those questions in a constructive and meaningful way isn’t going to give the impression that he’s a savvy tactician who’s playing 4-D chess; he’ll look like a galaxy-brained but out-of-his-element coach who knowingly pushed the envelope by making a personnel decision that even casual observers knew was a bad idea, and had it backfire. Fortunately, the Rams do not have any historically dominant players in their front seven who could create fits for the offensive line.

Stock up: Rams DT Aaron Donald

The primary benefactor of the chaos befalling the Steelers offensive line? That would be Aaron Donald. A quick perusal of Donald’s statistical profile reveals that he’s having a “down” year in terms of sack production, but this is a lie: Donald is still regularly pressuring opposing quarterbacks to the point that full-grown adult male professional athletes are making terrified exclamations as they run for their lives.

Even if Donald’s current sack pace remains steady for the remainder of the season—which isn’t likely, considering all the pressures he’s been credited with—he’d finish with seven for the season, which isn’t bad for a 32-year-old interior lineman who represents the sole commodity on an otherwise toothless defense. The 2023 version of Aaron Donald isn’t quite the same as the 2018 version, but he’s still more than capable of performing Mortal Kombat fatalities on Kenny Pickett and any other quarterback.

The likely remedy for Donald will involve double teams, though one of the input variables for most of those tandems will be Mason Cole, who is one of the worst centers in the entire NFL (and counts nearly $7 million against the salary cap this season; yikes). Donald must be downright giddy at that prospect. There is a realistic chance that he doubles his season sack total on Sunday. If only the Steelers had Gerald Ford.

Stock up: Phonetics

I just said “Cooper Kupp, Puka Nacua” five times out loud as I was writing this sentence, like Ron Burgundy warming up his newscaster voice. A lot of short-K and long-O sounds.

Beyond the phonetic similarity of their names, Kupp and Nacua comprise one of the best receiving tandems in the NFL. Nacua’s sample size is considerable enough to reasonably conclude that he’s a legitimately good receiver with a multifaceted skillset; he’s ranked in the top 10 in the league in receptions, yards, first downs, yards after catch, and plays of 20 or more yards. Kupp is only two years removed from arguably the greatest season any NFL receiver has ever had and he’s eating well this season despite missing the Rams’ first four games with an injury—his 15 catches would rank fourth on the Steelers, and his 266 yards would put him comfortably in second in that category.

The Steelers' secondary is similar to its offensive line in the sense that a promising rookie is experiencing a confounding dearth of playing time while a struggling veteran continues to get preferential treatment, so unless the Steelers intend to unleash Joey Porter Jr. this weekend, the Rams will get fed a steady diet of Patrick Peterson and Levi Wallace. I am certain this prospect delights them endlessly.

Stock up: Steelers legend Joe Greene

It does behoove me to point out that while I am a steadfast believer that virtually any modern player would dominate the league if you put them in a time machine and sent them back to 1963. No amount of whey isolate is going to prevent Gunner Olszewski from being a liability in any era, but conversely, I think if you pluck the 1975 version of Joe Greene from the Steelers and put him on the 2023 Steelers, he’d do fine (though he’s accrued a massive amount of personal foul yardage in the process). Mean Joe rules, regardless of era.

Week 7 picks (2023 record: 5-5)

Lions (+3) vs Ravens: Ravens moneyline (-162)

Bills (-9) vs Patriots: U/41 (-110)

Browns (-3) vs Colts: Browns -3 (-102)

Steelers (+3) vs Rams: Steelers moneyline (+136)

Chargers (+5.5) vs Chiefs: Chargers +5.5 (-105)