Harris: Competing not enough for Steelers
I always knew it would come down to this for Mike Tomlin. This is the year we will discover how good a coach he really is.
With veteran standouts such as James Farrior, Hines Ward and Aaron Smith gone and a group of young, largely unproven players being counted on to take over, Tomlin's mettle as the Steelers' head man is being tested like never before.
Is Tomlin the motivational leader who guided the Steelers to a pair of Super Bowl appearances in his first four seasons, becoming the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl?
Or is he the coach who plays musical chairs with his running backs, makes his fair share of questionable fourth-down calls and is still searching for a true identity for his offense?
Tomlin's resume says he should be regarded among the NFL's elite coaches: He's the fourth fastest coach to record 60 regular-season wins since 1970. But he hasn't been acting the part.
The Steelers are 7-7 with two games remaining in the regular season and could miss the postseason for the second time in since 2009.
When asked following a 27-24 overtime loss Sunday at Dallas about his pride-and-joy defense that allowed its first 300-yard passing output since last season and has yielded five touchdown passes in its past two games, both losses, Tomlin replied, “I thought they competed, particularly the young guys.”
Were we watching the same game?
I saw Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, who normally makes some of the worst decisions in the league, look like Troy Aikman against the Steelers. Romo completed 30 of 42 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn't intercepted and was sacked only once despite the presence of Pro Bowl linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley and Pro Bowl safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark.
I saw cornerback Keenan Lewis line up about 7 yards off the line of scrimmage against Dallas receiver Dez Bryant — who was playing with a fractured index finger — and still get beaten badly for a 24-yard touchdown. Lewis allowed Bryant to run freely through the secondary and never touched the receiver.
Without injured corner Ike Taylor in the lineup — Taylor would have been assigned to Bryant — the secondary is a shell of its former self.
It's gotten so bad that Polamalu told reporters the defense couldn't stop the run when playing a Cover-2 formation. Because the defensive backs weren't making tackles, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau put eight men in the box. That left those young corners isolated in coverage.
Under Tomlin, there is supposed to be no middle ground. Either you win, or you fail — the standard is the standard, after all.
Instead, we're being told that Lewis, Josh Victorian and Curtis Brown “competed” in a losing effort against the Cowboys.
I know Tomlin is trying to protect his young players, but this is the Steelers we're talking about, not the Cleveland Browns.
It's time for more action and less rhetoric from Tomlin. He must elevate his coaching.
Tomlin used to be able to belt out a few hearty clichés while letting his proven veterans do his dirty work. Those same clichés are beginning to sound hollow.
It's Tomlin's team now. It used to be that players from former coach Bill Cowher's regime dominated the lineup. Not anymore.
If the Steelers are indeed becoming too old and too slow, it's because some of their young talent — homegrown draft picks such as Rashard Mendenhall, Ziggy Hood, Marcus Gilbert, Kraig Urbik, Thaddeus Gibson, Sean Spence and Alameda Ta'amu acquired by Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert — underperformed, suffered injury or simply weren't good enough.
In Tomlin's Brave New World, the coach actually said it's acceptable that some of his young players “competed” against the Cowboys.
That must change — beginning with Sunday's home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.