It was a statement season for the greatest “cheerleader” in football. As someone who’s become very critical of head coach Mike Tomlin, I’m giving him his due. He turned this team around at a time when they seemed like they were going to fall apart.
They lost arguably their best defensive player for the season and got trampled by a struggling Miami team (who eventually turned it around and made the playoffs). They lost their franchise quarterback and lost to top-seed New England. They lost to arch-rival Baltimore in a sloppy game where Big Ben probably came back to quickly and Chris Boswell did his best riverdance impression. They lost a nail-biter at home to Dallas, a game they had in hand with 42 seconds remaining, only to commit a bad facemask penalty and then allow Ezekiel Elliott to walk into the endzone, giving the game away.
4-1 turned to 4-5 quickly. They were in a tailspin, heading straight down to crash and burn, turning what some were calling a Super Bowl contender into another underachieving team. Many in Steeler Nation started to call for Mike Tomlin’s head, or at least became very critical of him. I know I did. This is a guy who’s had a generational quarterback for his entire tenure as head coach, and has one playoff win in the past five years; a game that was handed to him by Cincinnati in a way only they could pull off. Mike Tomlin’s regular season success goes without saying, but his 6-5 mediocre playoff record leaves something to be desired.
And here we are – playoff bound. AFC NORTH Champions. How did Tomlin turn 4-5 into 11-5?
I believe it was a team effort from the top down, starting with Tomlin, and all the way down to the water boy. The sense of urgency picked up, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The defense drastically improved over the course of the seven-game winning streak to end the season. They were a bend-but-don’t-break defense, but that’s all they really need to be. They finished as the 12th-ranked defense at season’s end, and I don’t think anyone predicted the defense finishing in the top half of the league. Tomlin demanded performance from his players and they responded. They took care of the teams they should have, and they fought hard to the very end in the games they needed to win the most.
Go ahead and ask any of Tomlin’s players if they think he’s a cheerleader. Go ahead. None of them do.
I’m critical of Tomlin and don’t think he’s a great coach. He won’t even admit that he is. He said it’s not on his resumé yet. He’s not a bad coach though, and he’s certainly not just a great cheerleader. He turned the team around from potentially missing the playoffs to division champions and the third seed in the AFC Playoffs.
A lot of credit is due all around for the Steelers. Tomlin is one. The star power of the black and gold is another. Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown are the way for the Steelers to win a Super Bowl. They don’t win one unless all three play at a high level. They’re the biggest reason the Steelers are where they are. Ben may not have had the big statistical year like he did in 2014, but everyone will remember his game-winning drive against Baltimore. You know, the one where he completed all but two passes (those two incompletions were spikes)?
Antonio Brown is a beast. He put up another stellar season with no consistent second target for Ben to rely on. That means AB was double and triple covered all year. And man, that “immaculate extension” was just…immaculate.
Le’Veon Bell. You can agree with me or you can disagree, but he’s the best back in the league. He’s a threat every time he touches the ball, wherever he touches it, however he touches it. Oh, and he touches the ball more than any other back in the league. He’s the ultimate workhorse. Those touches aren’t wasted either. He led all players in yards from scrimmage per game. He can run you over. He can juke you. He can hurdle you. There’s nothing he can’t do from the running back position. There’s a reason why his teammates voted him team MVP.
Don’t forget about the rookies either. They played a huge role in the defense stepping it up down the stretch. Artie Burns became the Steelers best cover corner. He’s still young, and yes, he got burned a few times, but that happens with young corners. Give him a couple years. He has potential to be an elite shutdown corner.
Sean Davis is my Steelers Rookie of the Year. He made the safety tandem along with Mike Mitchell a pretty good one. Davis is one of the better tacklers on this defense and has really good football instincts. He’s not Troy Polamalu, but he’s another solid piece of that defense.
Javon Hargrave had a big year stepping in a larger role once Cam Heyward went down for the year. Along with Stephon Tuitt, he helped solidly the defensive line, allowing them to win battles in the trench to help stop the run and, more importantly, create pressure on the quarterback, which is something the Steelers struggled mightily to do early in the season.
The Steelers were nearly dead and gone. Just over half the season was gone and they were under .500. They took a long look in the mirror, lowered their heads, and fought back every second of every game. Now they’re 11-5; AFC North Champions.
The stairway to seven starts at home against Miami; the team that dealt the Steelers the first loss of their four-game skid. It’s the perfect way to start the climb towards greatness. Here we go.