Mike Tomlin focused on what Steelers, not Patriots, do best heading into opener
As he prepares to face the defending Super Bowl champions, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is more concerned with preparation being done inside UPMC Rooney Sports Complex than any machinations taking place in Foxborough, Mass.
That’s not a knock on the New England Patriots, who will host the Steelers on Sunday in the nationally televised prime-time opener at Gillette Stadium.
It’s the reality Tomlin encounters each season when he conducts his initial Tuesday press conference.
“We are appropriately focused on a lot of things relative to us,” Tomlin said. “We know what’s waiting on us at the end of the week, and we will focus on things that are under our control.”
It’s the same approach Tomlin takes before each season opener, no matter if the competition is a six-time Super Bowl winner or a team coming off an 0-16 season, as was the case in 2018 when the Steelers opened in Cleveland.
Tomlin won’t start thinking about his opponent — even one he said presents a “tremendous challenge” — until he knows how his 53-man roster will be utilized best.
“In Week 1, if you focus more on your opponent, there is more gray because there is no establishment of those things,” Tomlin said. “We need to focus on the establishment of ours, and I’m sure New England is focused on the establishment of theirs, and the quality with which we do that will determine the quality of our play.”
Tomlin only can hope the Steelers provide more quality than they did last season, when they lost a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter and settled for a 21-21 tie against the Browns. Or the previous year when the Steelers held on for a 21-18 season-opening win at Cleveland, which was fresh off a 1-15 record.
Not only are the Steelers opening on the road for the fifth consecutive season, they travel to a venue where they have never won with Tom Brady as New England’s quarterback. Their lone win at Foxborough this century was in 2008, when Brady was out with an injury.
“When you are playing in an environment like we are going into, it better be better than September detail,” Tomlin said. “That’s the challenge we have in Week 1. We better be pretty good from a detail standpoint, and we better be thoughtful about what we ask our guys to do.
“We better give them enough, but at the same time we better not give them too much.”
The Steelers snapped a five-game losing streak against the Patriots last season with a 17-10 victory in Week 15 at Heinz Field. Brady didn’t direct a touchdown drive after throwing a 63-yard touchdown pass to Chris Hogan on the Patriots’ first possession.
“We can’t warm up to the competition like the way we did a year ago,” Tomlin said. “We settled in and played better. Particularly in their environment, you can’t play football like that.”
Central to the defensive game plan against Brady is the way the Steelers will use their inside linebackers. Mark Barron, who faced the Patriots in the Super Bowl when he was with the Los Angeles Rams, was signed in free agency. Then, the Steelers traded up 10 spots in the first round to draft Devin Bush with the No. 10 selection. Incumbent Vince Williams will factor into the middle of the defense, at least in the base formation.
Barron was signed to replace Jon Bostic, but the addition of Bush could lead to a reduced role for the veteran linebacker. Tomlin wasn’t discounting any scenario.
“We are going to discover that as we get into this journey,” he said.
He took a similar approach when asked about how Bush might be deployed in the opener.
“We’ll be discussing that as we have a plan,” Tomlin said. “I don’t have an answer to that. In the long term, those answers will be based on how he performs based on amount of work we give him. I’m comfortable with that. There’s lot of things you can’t answer on Tuesday before you’ve been in a stadium. We’ll learn more about ourselves as we walk out of that stadium.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .