Steelers take on persona of mentally tough coach
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a career-long competitor who almost appears to welcome adversity to prove how well he and his team can stand up to it.
Lose Troy Polamalu and James Harrison to injuries? The defense responds by being No. 1 in the NFL. A same-day trip to face the Giants amid the high emotions in the New York region following Superstorm Sandy? The Steelers rally from 10 down in the fourth quarter to win.
If Tomlin wanted another significant challenge to test resiliency and character, he has one now with both of his top quarterbacks hurt.
Still, despite losing Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich to rib and shoulder-related injuries, the Steelers (6-4) understand they can't afford many more losses the rest of the way — the same stretch in which they went 5-1 each of the last two seasons.
Now that they trail the Ravens (8-2) by two games in the AFC North, the easiest route to the playoffs appears to be as a wild card. They hold a one-game lead over the Bengals (5-5) and a two-game lead over five teams going into Sunday's game at the Browns (2-8).
“Every game from here on out, we can't lose,” linebacker Larry Foote said. “We have to have that mentality.”
But being forced to change quarterbacks every week isn't a way to develop offensive continuity, and the Steelers still don't know when Roethlisberger will be back. This week, Charlie Batch becomes the third starting quarterback in as many games.
Then there's the uncertainty at running back, whether Jonathan Dwyer got the bulk of the carries during the 13-10 loss to the Ravens but Rashard Mendenhall also rotated in regularly.
“My preference would be to have a healthy, solidified feature runner but I don't always get what I want,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “All of these guys have been nicked in some form or fashion. We've dealt with it to the best of our abilities.”
Tomlin also faced questions about why he didn't pull a visibly hurting Leftwich, who played much of the game with two fractured ribs.
“I have personal relationships with these guys,” Tomlin said. “I knew he had a certain level of discomfort, but I didn't see anything in his performance to lead me to believe he needed to be pulled.”
There also were issues with clock management, which forced the Steelers to burn two time-outs.
The Steelers faced a similar crossroads 10 games into their 2009 season when, with Roethlisberger out with a concussion, they lost a three-point game to the Ravens. They also were upset by the Browns two weeks later and missed the playoffs at 9-7.
The current circumstances — the injuries, the addition of new players Plaxico Burress and Brian Hoyer late in the season, the deficit in the standings — will severely test Tomlin.
“But his players embrace him,” said former NFL safety Darren Sharper, a teammate of Tomlin's at William & Mary and an NFL Network analyst. “I remember when he was coaching at VMI and he trotted onto the field like he was going to play. He puts himself in the players' shoes. It doesn't matter their racial, social, economic background, he's a tough coach and he can relate to each player.”
Out-of-town visitors were impressed last week at the genuine camaraderie the Steelers displayed. As the players immersed themselves in their pre- and post-practice shuffleboard and table tennis tournaments, Tomlin watched, commented and laughed along with his players.
“There's no cliques here,” lineman Max Starks said. “You fight for the guy on your left and on your right. We're not selfish individuals. We're selfless individuals. That's what this team is about.”
The Steelers will soon find out even more about what kind of team this is — and what kind of coach they have.
“We've got to keep playing, like we did when we were 2-3,” safety Ryan Clark said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.