This was it.
This was supposed to be Mike Tomlin’s finest hour.
After all, the Steelers had all of the odds stacked against them and the team was going to play lights out after a horrific performance against the Miami Dolphins (who by the way, now look legitimate and will be much better than people think once their offensive line continues to play together). But no, not all. This turned into Mike Tomlin’s nadir moment. Now in his 10th season in the league, yesterday’s game against the New England Patriots was his worst coached game during his decade in Pittsburgh.
Okay, I get it; Landry Jones was at quarterback, the defense was missing Cam Heyward, Tom Brady historically does well against the Steelers, yada yada yada…that still does not excuse Tomlin’s coaching gaffes.
No, Tomlin’s worst moment wasn’t the 2013 season when the team started out 0-4 and also had a moment with Jacoby Jones on Thanksgiving night. No, it wasn’t the 2009 season when he promised to "unleash hell" during December, a month which would see the Steelers lose to a terrible Oakland Raiders team at the last minute and a then 1-11 Cleveland Browns team that saw Brady Quinn go 6 for 19 and 90 yards and still win. This season has been Tomlin’s worst because the expectations were high and the team’s performance has been inconsistent at best, even in the victories (if DeAngelo Hall does his job properly, that 4th and 1 to Antonio Brown in Week 1 is a completely different story). The Steelers have not looked like the Super Bowl contender that they were believed to be, and, in my opinion, the head coach is part of the problem, not the part of the solution.
First, the defense, which is supposedly Tomlin’s forte, continues to be a problem and will likely be the reason why the Steelers will be just an above average team instead of a consistent powerhouse contender like the Patriots. The defense continues to struggle without defensive end Cam Heyward and for the second consecutive week, a running back went well over 120 yards and two touchdowns against the hapless defense.
First, Jay Ajayi (who is looking sharp) and now old friend LeGarrette Blount. However, that isn’t even the biggest issue for the last two weeks. The 3rd down defense has been atrocious: the Dolphins went 7 for 14 in week 6 and the Patriots went 7 for 12, including the first five 3rd down chances of the game. The coach’s job is to put his players in opportunities to succeed. While no one will mistake this current Steelers defensive team to the 2008 version, the bad tackling, poor angles, and most of all, downright stupid penalties (including one by rookie Artie Burns yesterday and the countless ones by Mike Mitchell for most of the season) have to fall at the feet of the coaching staff.
Keith Butler, who had been a good soldier waiting in the wings behind Dick LeBeau for over a decade, looks outmatched at times and the lack of pressure on the opposing passer has been a serious problem all season. Tom Brady was hit just a few times, and Ryan Tannehill last week was hardly touched. If Butler can’t generate pressure with more creative tactics, it is Tomlin’s responsibility to replace him with someone else, like defensive line coach John Mitchell.
The off coverage on 3rd and short is now getting comically absurd but those defensive concepts have been a staple of the Steelers while Tomlin has been on the sidelines. Something needs to change here quickly. It worked for the Bills when they replaced Greg Roman with Anthony Lynn on offense. It might work for the Steelers but one thing is certain: the current method is clearly not working,and waiting for Bud Dupree to get healthy to try to save the Steelers defense is unfair to the second-year player and it is wishful thinking on the Steelers’ part.
The game management decisions are not so amusing and cute anymore. The head coach’s job during the game is to put his team in the best opportunity to win games by putting his players in the best opportunity to succeed on every play. Tomlin failed miserably yesterday with the horrendous replay challenge on the Rob Gronkowski catch, and by letting Chris Boswell try to kick a 54 -yard field goal while behind by 11, and after Boswell missed a 42-yard field goal earlier in the game (not to mention Landry Jones having to burn a timeout within the first five minutes of the 3rd quarter, a timeout that the team could have used in the 4th quarter).
The fact that the Steelers always seem to be just off on every play, and flat out unprepared against teams of lesser talent has been a staple criticism of Tomlin and thus far, he’s done nothing to dispel those criticisms. Tomlin can say his pithy and catchy remarks after games, but as far as the Steelers are concerned, right now, he is part of the problem as to why the Steelers are underachieving.
Until Tomlin changes his routines to help the Steelers best fulfill their potential, the Steelers will continue to rely (or over rely) on Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and Le’Veon Bell to save them from the toothless defense and an overrated and consistently outmatched coaching staff (especially on the defensive side of the ball). I would rather see Tomlin say nothing quirky or clever if it means the Steelers will be a well-disciplined bunch who show up to play every game and quit squandering opportunities like they have for most of this season. If the Steelers still have dreams of making it to the Super Bowl, the coaching staff needs to fix themselves first, starting with the head coach.