Steelers make ‘some alterations’ in bid to address West Coast woes
Were he alive today, Horace Greeley would tell the Pittsburgh Steelers not to heed his most famous quotation.
When the noted 1800s author and statesman uttered his legendary phrase regarding the country’s migration — “Go West, young man” — he most certainly did not have the Steelers in mind. If he did, he would implore these young men to “Stay East.”
Not much good has transpired, at least while Mike Tomlin has served as coach, when the Steelers board a plane and head to the western part of the nation.
Since Tomlin became Steelers coach in 2007, his teams have a 3-11 record when traveling to the Pacific and Mountain time zones. They have won just one of their past 10 trips to such far-off destinations and that lone win — in 2015 at San Diego — occurred in a city that no longer supports an NFL team.
During Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers are 1-5 on the West Coast and 2-6 on trips to Arizona and Denver, including a pair of playoff losses to the Broncos.
The Steelers will try to get a rare win on the West Coast — and their first overall this season — on Sunday when they make their first visit to Santa Clara, Calif., and face the 2-0 San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium.
The last time the Steelers won at San Francisco was 1999 when Bill Cowher was coach, and that was the team’s only win at old Candlestick Park since 1984.
“It has been tough,” guard David DeCastro, a Washington native and Stanford graduate, said of the Steelers’ western road woes. “It always has been weird playing those games. They always seem tougher. You always seem to be a little more tired. I don’t really know why.”
The six-hour flight, three-hour time difference and jet lag are the oft-cited reasons why teams from the Eastern Time Zone struggle when heading to the opposite coast. In 2016, an American Academy of Sleep Medicine study analyzed five years of NFL, NBA and NHL travel and discovered teams going east-to-west were more likely to lose than teams heading the other direction.
This year, Tomlin will have the Steelers operate on an Eastern schedule, with meetings and preparations taking place as if the team were playing at Heinz Field at 4:25 p.m. Sunday.
“We’ve made some alterations, but nothing significant,” Tomlin said. “We’re going to get up and go on Saturday morning and kind of operate on an East Coast time, if you will, in an effort to get a fluid night rest and be ready to play.”
Tomlin embraced that philosophy last season for a December trip to Oakland, having his team leave Pittsburgh at 9 a.m instead of the customary 3 p.m. Still, the Steelers were beaten, 24-21, by a Raiders team that finished 4-12.
“I like our approach,” said tight end Vance McDonald, who made several west-to-east trips during his four years with 49ers. “We are keeping our clocks on East Coast time. I think that will be a big advantage to us as long as guys honor it. I know I will.”
The Steelers can’t even turn to any veterans with experience in other organizations for perspective on how to win games in those two time zones. Cornerback Joe Haden spent seven years in Cleveland on teams that went 1-6 on such road trips. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 0-7 during defensive lineman Tyson Alualu’s seven seasons on their roster.
“We tried a bunch of things with how we traveled, going there early, and we didn’t really find the right thing,” Alualu said. “It was always tough.”
The Steelers will make three trips this season to the Mountain and Pacific time zones. They will play the Chargers in Los Angeles on Oct. 13 and the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz., on Dec. 8.
In fact, the Steelers will log 15,138 round-trip travel miles this season, their most since 2013 when a trip to London was part of a 15,666-mile travel itinerary. The last time the Steelers played their schedule entirely in the continental U.S and logged more miles was 1994 when they amassed 20,052 miles, including trips to Seattle, Arizona, San Diego and Los Angeles.
“In my opinion, all of that stuff is null and void until we win out there,” said guard Ramon Foster, an 11-year vet. “It’s our execution of stuff that will matter more than anything. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t look too much at stuff like that anymore.”
“You can’t look at what has happened in the past whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “You have to prepare and know with these long trips that you have to have that mentality and find a way to win.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .