Can Mike Tomlin Stabilize the Pittsburgh Steelers?

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Mike Tomlin
OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 09: Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks on while his team warms up prior to the start of an NFL football game against the Oakland Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on December 9, 2018 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

It has not been a pretty month for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since their 52-21 drubbing of the Carolina Panthers in Week 10, the Steelers have not looked like the same team. Pittsburgh is 1-3 in their last four games, including dropping the last three in a row. The same problems that plagued the team early this year have resurfaced. Spongy defense, lack of a running game, and costly mental errors and penalties have turned the narrative around in Pittsburgh. Naturally people have turned to the head coach for answers. Mike Tomlin managed to right the ship once earlier this year. He has done it many times during his tenure in Pittsburgh. The question is, can Tomlin do it again to save a spot in the postseason?

Will Mike Tomlin Be Able To Right the Ship (again)?

His Defense Still Needs Work

Tomlin was hired in 2007 because of his defensive approach to the game. In the first six years under Tomlin, the Steelers consistently had a top 10 defense in rushing, passing, or total defense. Tomlin’s coaching and leadership deserve some of the credit. But some of it could also be due to inheriting a roster that won the Super Bowl a couple years prior. Tomlin also retained many members of Bill Cowher‘s coaching staff.

However, assistants move on and players leave due to free agency or retirement. The defense since then has not been near as consistently good. Since 2013, the defense has only had one season where they finished in the top 10 in all three categories. From 2007 to 2012, that happened four times. The players brought in and drafted have not developed as expected. Also, the quality of defensive players brought in hasn’t been as high. Except for T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, most of the stars on the Steelers are on the offensive side of the ball.

All of that adds up to a defense in 2018 that can play well against the run, but can be picked apart through the air. There have been many occasions where the secondary is chasing opposing receivers. For a guy that made his name as a defensive backs coach, it doesn’t look good for Tomlin to see his defense give up big play after big play.

Back to Asking Questions of the Running Game

James Conner exploded on the scene in Week One. His next few games to end September were rough and not very impressive. Conner went on a tear that has never been done by any Steelers running back. He racked up yards and touchdowns that were matched only by Todd Gurley. That soon came to an abrupt halt.

Conner was knocked out of the game against the Panthers with a concussion. The following week in a comeback victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Conner was mostly ineffective. Conner played uninspiring against the Denver Broncos, then got injured against the Los Angeles Chargers. Last week against the Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh had to employ a committee approach with Jaylen Samuels and Stevan Ridley. That wasn’t effective at all.

Should the Steelers have given Le’Veon Bell what he wanted? I don’t believe so. But Bell did say that he didn’t want to be used for nearly 400 touches over the course of the season. He pointed to the toll it takes on a player. He has a point. That is why Conner isn’t healthy. Tomlin might not be the offensive voice in the room, but he is the head coach. He can dictate to the offense that Samuels and Ridley should be rotated in more. That should have started with the Jaguars game or more often in the Broncos game. It could have helped Conner avoid injury against the Chargers.

Mistakes Have Become Increasingly Costly

This season has had a constant theme: penalties. The Steelers are in the top five for most penalty yards on both offense and defense. That is the mark of a highly undisciplined team. Just look at how the Chargers game ended. Three consecutive offsides calls against the defense. It cost Pittsburgh the opportunity to go into overtime. These types of mistakes have happened routinely throughout the season. Many times the team has been unable to get out of their own way.

The penalties are made worse by the unnecessary turnovers. Pittsburgh’s negative turnover differential is tied for fifth worst in the league. Ben Roethlisberger threw for three interceptions against the Cleveland Browns and the Jaguars. His late interception at the Broncos ended that comeback. Don’t forget the turnovers from Vance McDonald and Conner that kept points off the board for the Steelers against the Broncos. Altogether, these mistakes have sunk the Steelers from the chance to have a first-round bye, to potentially squandering the division.

Unusual Amount of Noise Coming From the Players

The players have been increasingly outspoken this season. There were Le’Veon Bell’s comments regarding re-signing with the team. When he failed to show, the offensive line spoke out very loudly. Antonio Brown called out a former team employee on Twitter. Even Big Ben has called out different players for their performance.

While there is nothing wrong with players voicing their displeasure, Tomlin should have a better handle on this. Big Ben might be the franchise quarterback, but as the head coach you should tell him to keep that criticism in the locker room. He might mean well, but it doesn’t do the team any favors. It does more harm than good for the players to call each other out through the media. That is something the head coach needs to make clear.

Final Thoughts

Mike Tomlin has his hands full. The noise that was loud early in the season has resurfaced even louder. It went away when the team was winning, but that hasn’t happened for the last three weeks. Tomlin does not deserve to be fired. He has been very successful for the Steelers. But as the season has started to spiral, Pittsburgh’s division rivals have found new life. The Steelers are in danger of squandering the division, possibly the playoffs altogether as they enter a brutal final stretch. Tomlin will need to correct course again, or he could find his seat awfully warm at the end of the season.

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