The more I’ve seen this year of Mike Tomlin’s game management, the more I think it’s fair to say that Pittsburgh’s coach has some critical issues that must be worked out or the Steelers will face disaster.
I’m not saying Mike Tomlin needs to be on the hot seat. The Steelers don’t do business that way. Tomlin will be in Pittsburgh unless something unbelievable happens. Whether or not that’s a good thing is certainly up for debate, but I’m not here to fire anyone because the Steelers are underachieving.
I’m here to break down exactly what Tomlin is doing wrong. His mistakes have cost this team victories this year and potentially in the future.
Oh, and those mistakes go beyond how he uses his timeouts and the absurdity of leaving an obviously injured and struggling player in a winnable game Sunday night.
Let’s start with the big picture and break it down.
While Kevin Colbert is the Steelers’ general manager and has final say, it’s always been clear that the coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers has a huge say in how the roster is put together. Tomlin is consulted for draft picks, free agents and existing contracts. It would be ridiculous if he wasn’t.
The problem is, the duo of Tomlin and Colbert hasn’t done nearly as well as the duo of Cowher and Colbert did. The drop off is starting to get noticeable as the team’s core players come up to be replaced.
A perfect case in point was played out this past game against Baltimore. With Ben Roethlisberger, not known for playing every snap of every season, shelved with a scary injury, the Steelers turned to Byron Leftwich.
Leftwich hasn’t won a game as a starter in almost six years. He hadn’t ever started a regular season game for the Steelers. He didn’t fit the new offense based on quick passes and mobility. Todd Haley did his best to adapt his game plan to what his quarterback could do, but it wasn’t enough.
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And then there’s that little problem of Leftwich injuring himself on the first drive. This is a continuation of history for him. He’s been injured for all or part of almost every season he’s spent with this franchise and his injury history is actually longer than Ben Roethlisberger’s.
But it isn’t all his fault that he was put in that spot. The Steelers have done nothing to help themselves at the quarterback position for years. They’ve relied on ancient (Charlie Batch), mediocre (Leftwich) or downright awful (Dennis Dixon) backups instead of investing anything there.
Now, the problem has reached a head and I certainly hope that it will get addressed this year when the season ends. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t getting younger. He isn’t healthy for a full year because he takes so many risks and hits. That’s fine, but not being prepared for something that has played itself out every single season is inexcusable.
The sad thing is that this isn’t the only issue on the roster. It’s just the one that sits at the front of our minds this week. The Steelers have done nothing coherent to replace James Farrior. Larry Foote is fine now, but at best he’s a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Tomlin and Colbert have flopped in the draft too. Beyond LaMarr Woodley, who was part of Mike Tomlin’s first draft class in 2007, and the emerging Lawrence Timmons, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, the Steelers haven’t had much success.
You can even throw in Mike Wallace, although lately his play and his attitude have been anything but horrendous.
The team’s signature players (Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller and James Harrison) are part of the Bill Cowher years. That also holds true for guys like Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton and Ike Taylor. Replacing some of these guys is becoming a priority and I worry that the Colbert and Tomlin team is not up to that challenge.
Let’s tackle the other big issue that’s burning in the minds of fans after that loss to the Ravens. Mike Tomlin is, many times, a putrid game manager.
A head coach, especially one not doubling as a coordinator, has a few key responsibilities during a game. Among those is approving some of the plays and decisions as well as handling timeouts, challenges and other decisions that factor into how a game unfolds.
The success or failure of this team depends on those moments. It’s certainly a tough call at times. Do you call a timeout now to save some time or do you save it for a potential drive later? Do you challenge a borderline call or is the risk too great? Do you go for it on fourth down and risk giving the team an advantage in field position or do you take the points or the punt and run with it?
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Tomlin is failing in those departments at times. Against the Ravens, it was as if he was watching a different game. The Steelers, partly because of Byron Leftwich, burned two second-half timeouts early and left themselves in poor position late when they needed to stop the clock.
We’ve seen time and time again the mindless usage of timeouts, but the bigger problem has been how Tomlin has handled fourth down. I understand aggressiveness and it’s hard to argue when it works. Sometimes, however, those calls to go for it are just beyond risky.
Challenges haven’t been very bad, but that is mostly because Tomlin usually elects not to challenge a call unless, like his challenge last night, the replay evidence is blatantly in his favor. That’s smart, but it doesn’t make up for the other problems.
Handling His Players
There are two factors at play here. The first is knowing how to get your team motivated for a game and making sure they show up when it’s time to take the field. The other factor is how you handle injured or ineffective guys.
I’ll give Tomlin a C for the first. I’m going to flunk him on the second one right now.
Let’s work backwards here. Byron Leftwich was obviously nursing some kind of injury early in the game against the Ravens. He rolled funny when he scored the opening touchdown and clutched his arm and side for the rest of the game.
It wasn’t until he got rocked toward the end of the game that the trainers checked him out on the sideline. And then he ended up back in the game anyway and his injury forced an ineffective final drive.
This happened with an experienced and healthy quarterback on the sidelines. I’ll spare my opinion that Charlie Batch should’ve started this game to save some time, but he should have been out there at the end without question.
Tomlin trusts his players too much. We’ve seen Ben Roethlisberger hobbling around the field with a bum ankle. We’ve seen runners and receivers limp around. We’ve seen defenders fighting to stay in games.
The drive of these players is excellent. The desire is there. But there’s a point where a coach must know he has to take the player out. The player won’t take himself out. Leftwich had to be carried huddle to huddle in college. The guy’s as tough as they come.
Until Tomlin learns that you can lose games with hobbled stars more easily than you can with healthy backups in there, the Steelers will continue to quite literally be handicapped by their coach’s decisions.
Now let’s talk about that motivation. This has historically been a weird problem for the Steelers. Even under Bill Cowher, the Steelers struggled at times to beat bad teams. They show up, as they did this week, for the big guns of the league. It’s when those 1-8 or winless teams show up that people worry.
The problem with it now is that this team is now teetering in the playoff picture simply because they couldn’t defeat doormats Oakland and Tennessee. The Chiefs took them to overtime. Their only “quality loss” (if there is such a thing) was against the Denver Broncos.
That’s problematic because, unless you play 16 playoff contenders a year, you have to beat at least a few teams that aren’t as good as you are. Those are games you have to bank because no team is capable of beating every other contending team every time.
This issue is the spooky music that plays in the background of the Mike Tomlin era. If that tune doesn’t change, one of those inexplicable losses is going to cost this team a shot at a title.
People, myself included, love Mike Tomlin for his sayings, his drive and his coaching. It’s that last one that is the double-edged sword. I’ve never seen a coach who can self-destruct as easily as his team.
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The fact remains that Mike Tomlin is a great coach with a great roster. The question now is if he can team with that roster and be successful. If he can overcome some of these problems and master his job the way Bill Belichick has or Tony Dungy, a Tomlin idol, did, then this team is set for years.
If not, then I worry about how this team will succeed as the Cowher-era stars exit the game.