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Tim Benz: Steelers' Mike Tomlin changes message about Patriots 'elephant' after division battles

| Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2017, 7:19 p.m.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin motions to officials next to Roosevelt Nix on the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Bengals Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin motions to officials next to Roosevelt Nix on the sideline during the fourth quarter against the Bengals Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spent the first two minutes of his weekly news conference Tuesday providing whatever information he could about Ryan Shazier's health.

At the time of his briefing, there wasn't much new information as the team was still gathering medical news on the linebacker's frightening back injury.

Tomlin spent the next three minutes talking about football. He outlined other bumps and bruises suffered by his players during Monday night's win over the Bengals, how the Steelers managed to emotionally come back despite Shazier getting carted off, to a preview of the Ravens game Sunday night.

Tomlin referenced Baltimore's great turnover ratio, their improving running game, even how good of a kicker Justin Tucker is. Then Tomlin continued to answer football-related questions along with any queries about Shazier.

So Tomlin allowed football matters to be on the table.

Two weeks ago, in no uncertain terms, he also put the Patriots on the table.

During an NBC interview with Tony Dungy , Tomlin called the Dec. 17 game against the Patriots “the elephant in the room.” He even pontificated the result of that game likely would be the first of two, the second being in the playoffs.

That seemed awfully out of character and pre-emptive from Tomlin, who always has been the ultimate “one week at a time” coach.

It was especially strange given the Steelers had hard-hitting divisional games against Cincinnati and Baltimore looming between that night and New England. Usually no one speaks with pointed acknowledgement of the brutal nature of “AFC North football” games more than Tomlin.

He did again Tuesday.

“These are hotly contested contests with teams that are highly familiar with one another,” Tomlin said. “And the teams you mentioned (the Ravens and Bengals) have been really good teams.”

Yeah. Exactly.

Plus they hate the Steelers, and the Steelers hate them. That's why the four games the Steelers usually play against those organizations are the most physically demanding of the year. And why it was odd Tomlin even spoke about the Pats.

So how much of a concern is it that the Steelers roster has to survive Sunday's game against Baltimore — a matchup that might be every bit as vicious as the game they just slogged through against Cincinnati — before facing the Patriots?

How worrisome is it that the Steelers have to physically sustain two fights against a couple of rhinos before they tangle with “the elephant?”

I asked Tomlin if he had any concerns in that regard.

“Man, I'm here talking about the Baltimore Ravens. We've got a big AFC North game coming up,” Tomlin shot back.

My bad. I guess talking about the Patriots three games in advance is OK, but one week out isn't.

Maybe I should've politely stated in advance “I didn't want coach speak” as Dungy requested in his interview, since Tomlin said that's why he was so candid with his former colleague.

Tomlin stood by his comments to Dungy immediately after his team won against Green Bay that Sunday night. I wonder if he feels the same way after realizing the toll these two games likely will take on his club before the Patriots come to town.

Not only will the Steelers have to fill a gaping hole — physically and emotionally — created by Shazier's absence, but his backup, Tyler Matakevich, suffered a shoulder injury, too.

Vance McDonald and Joe Haden still are injured. So is Mike Mitchell. JuJu Smith-Schuster is suspended for next week. Marcus Gilbert is suspended for two more. Antonio Brown is gutting it out while hurt.

To reiterate, they haven't even played Baltimore.

The depth at some of those positions has been exposed. Coty Sensabaugh had to be benched for rookie Cam Sutton in Cincinnati. L.J. Fort was pressed into service at inside linebacker. Robert Golden had to play most of the game at safety.

These are special teamers being asked to carry a much greater workload than their standing on the depth chart indicates they should.

On the positive side, I'd at least argue things seemed to get better in the second half when Fort and Sutton played more. But when the Ravens and Patriots have time to plan an attack, I wonder if they'll be more exposed.

The Patriots game has been the most discussed angle to the Steelers season. The most under-discussed angle has been the physical pounding they will absorb to get there.

“We've got no control over scheduling,” Tomlin said. “They schedule the (Ravens) game. We'll show up and play.”

Sure. I assume they will. I just hope the remaining starters are still healthy after it.

Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.

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