Kevin Gorman: Steelers a reflection of Mike Tomlin's culture
Mike Tomlin sat key starters and still led the Steelers to another single-digit victory in a season of them.
Tomlin wasn't worried about the New England Patriots or the AFC playoff seedings before the season finale. Those were merely more distractions in a season of them.
Tomlin believed the Steelers could beat the Cleveland Browns with Landry Jones, Stevan Ridley, B.J. Finney, Matt Feiler and Tyson Alualu instead of Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Cameron Heyward.
And he was right.
“What matters is the culture that Coach Tomlin has on the team,” left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. “The standard is the standard, all the cliches and whatnot, I think it means something to everybody.
“When you're in the meeting room, and you're around coaches that are correcting the starters and correcting the guys that are playing, you absorb all the coaching and it's indifferent whether the starters or the backups are playing. Everybody has a standard they have to meet. It speaks volumes about what Coach Tomlin and the organization have done.”
That the Steelers are a reflection of their coach is why they beat the Browns, 28-24, on Sunday at Heinz Field, why they finished 13-3 instead of 5-11 this season.
Some Steelers fans never have warmed to Tomlin, seeing him in the same vein as Terry Bradshaw: nothing more than a cheerleader.
Well, the victory over the Browns was Tomlin's 116th, trailing only Don Shula for the most by an NFL coach in his first 11 seasons.
The Steelers played in 10 games decided by six points or fewer and won eight. They won in the final minute four times, yet will be remembered by some for the game they lost in the final minute — to the Patriots.
Along the way, Tomlin didn't allow distractions to sidetrack the Steelers from their Super Bowl aspirations, whether it was sitting out the national anthem in Chicago, Big Ben wondering if he still had it after throwing five interceptions against Jacksonville, Ryan Shazier's spine injury or the benching of Martavis Bryant or the suspensions of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Marcus Gilbert.
“We've tuned most of that stuff out and thought, ‘Let's just get back to playing football,' ” Heyward said. “That's our safe haven. That's where we do work. That's what we're paid for. We have goals in mind. If it's not about our goals, then it's not with us.”
That James Harrison is no longer with the Steelers is a sign of how Tomlin dealt with another delicate issue. The 39-year-old outside linebacker displayed his displeasure with not playing a pivotal role, and Tomlin made a difficult decision by releasing a team legend.
It could have torn the Steelers apart. Instead, the players bonded over the departure of the franchise's all-time sacks leader and set a single-season sacks record against the Browns.
Tomlin proved wise to rest his best players, giving them two weeks off to get healthy for their AFC divisional playoff game.
“I didn't want him to reward me for that, but sometimes, as much as I want to be hard-headed, he has the final say,” Heyward said. “He understands what we're chasing is a lot more than just one game. He understands the big picture. You appreciate that. I think we have to reward him back for that. The guys that were out this game have to be even bigger in the next game.”
Tomlin has to be at his best for the next three games. That's how the Steelers are looking at the playoffs, simplifying it to a three-game winning streak to win their seventh Super Bowl. Tomlin already addressed the elephant in the room, predicting they would meet the Patriots again.
Tomlin has learned from his experience, even if he wouldn't discuss it in detail.
“We're all products of our previous experience, so I don't make a big deal out of that,” Tomlin said. “We better be getting better, me included. That's what life is about. That's what this profession is about.”
Tomlin knows he is only as good as the Steelers' last game. Tomlin also knows if their last game is against the Patriots, it's not good enough.