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Faced with myriad challenges, Steelers' Tomlin endures arguably his most trying season

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin argues after the Chargers' Quentin Jammer recovered a muffed pass, ruled a lateral, in the end zone to score during the third quarter Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at Heinz Field.

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Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 10:58 p.m.
 

Mike Tomlin implored the Steelers to “seize the moment” last Sunday after Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis inexplicably deployed the field-goal unit to try a near-impossible 56-yarder at Heinz Field that didn't have a prayer of splitting the uprights.

Finally, it seemed, the Steelers were going to clear a path to the postseason despite an uneven performance during the season's second half.

After all, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was given a short field to atone for an interception that gift wrapped Dallas' overtime victory the week before.

Instead, Roethlisberger was picked again in the waning seconds. Two plays later, a disappointed Tomlin jogged onto the field after Josh Brown's game-winning field goal to congratulate a jubilant yet relieved Lewis.

The Steelers' fifth-year coach constantly juggled his lineup as injured players, including top draft picks in guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams, drifted in and out of the infirmary.

As his team's playoff fate faded, Tomlin was forced to lean on unheralded, undrafted, unproven free agents such as defensive backs Robert Golden and Josh Victorian.

“There's a lot of things coaches have no control over, especially injuries,” linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. “He gets a lot of blame, but coaches don't play the game.

“We have the big contracts. We have to play. When you lose, people are always looking to blame somebody. As a team, we put the blame on ourselves. We don't point fingers around here. That's what makes us a strong as a team.”

Ultimately, Tomlin discovered that even two Super Bowl appearances in four years couldn't spare him scrutiny.

In losing mostly close games, five by three points or less, some questioned his judgment — but not his players.

“I haven't seen a better motivator of men in my life,” quarterback Byron Leftwich said.

“He is the true definition of what a head coach should be. Personally, he doesn't get enough respect for what he's done his this league.

“He understands that being in Pittsburgh, you're held to a different standard. None of us saw 7-8 in our future. But we still get the same Mike Tomlin whether we're 12-4 or 7-8. People forget, but as players we know who and what we have in a head coach.”

Tomlin isn't interested in looking back at a season in which the Steelers can break even at 8-8 with a victory Sunday when they host AFC North rival Cleveland in their season finale.

“This is an opportunity to play and play to win and to get this sour taste out of our mouths,” said Tomlin, who signed a contract extension soon after training camp opened. “Maybe the result of the performance that we put on during this upcoming week in our stadium will be a springboard for growth.”

However, this has been an unusually troubling season for Tomlin, who at 40 remains among the youngest coaches in the NFL.

He finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to fire up a seemingly dispirited group still reeling after losing five of six games, including similar 13-10 defeats to division and playoff-bound foes Baltimore and Cincinnati.

“It's about the personal, individual relationships that we all have — players and coaches — with the game of football and doing things in the appropriate manner and the competitors that we are,” Tomlin said. “I know I've got a group that exemplifies that, and I expect them to show that regardless of the circumstances.”

Still, this a group that failed to make the playoffs, mostly because of setbacks to losing teams — Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego. Now it faces the prospect of losing to a Browns team that hasn't beaten them twice in the same season since 1988.

“It's something we're not used to around here,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “But (Tomlin) isn't used to it, either. It's something we don't want to get used to. It's unfamiliar in terms of being consistent and not making the playoffs.

“Coach knows he's going to take a few hits because he's the head coach. At the end of the day, it always comes down on him. From what I see, he takes the criticism in stride and has super-thick skin.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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