Tim Benz: Mike Tomlin's demands of 2nd-year players extend beyond 'coach speak'
A frequent talking point from NFL coaches at this time of year is: “Most players see the biggest growth in their development from Year 1 to Year 2.”
With Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, that’s less of a cliche and more of an edict. When his team reported to Saint Vincent for training camp at the end of July, Tomlin began beating that drum yet again.
“I’m always really consistent about what I expect from a second-year player,” Tomlin said on reporting day. “I expect to see a significant jump. And it’s reasonable to expect that. They understand the culture that we build here, what is expected from them and how they fit in it. All that knowledge should add to fluid play and contributions. And increasingly so.”
Steelers players insist that’s not empty talk from their coach. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave nodded his head in agreement, flashing back to the end of his rookie season of 2016.
“He let that message be known to everybody,” Hargrave said. “Team meetings. Letting the whole team know.”
As a rookie last summer, quarterback Josh Dobbs recalled hearing Tomlin pounding home the demand for huge improvement from his second-year players. Now, back for Year 2 himself, Dobbs was on the receiving end.
“Last year, he was saying, ‘Year-2 guys, you need to have a big jump,’ ” Dobbs recalled. “This year, he is saying the same thing. That’s his message. Consistently.
“You aren’t lost at camp. You should be ready to go to execute and win.”
According to second-year defensive back Brian Allen, part of that maturation process comes from Tomlin using his returning players in teaching roles for the rookies.
“Every night in team meetings he goes over this thing he calls ‘culture building,’ ” Allen explained. “He’ll show a young guy rep, then an older guy rep. So it’s about making the jump and learning from guys as well.”
What is most pressing about that mentality from Tomlin in 2018 is he is working with a returning second-year class that popped as rookies, perhaps more than any in his tenure.
First-round pick T.J. Watt had seven sacks, tied for the second-highest total in the league among first-year players. Second-round pick JuJu Smith-Schuster led rookie receivers in yards (915) and touchdowns (7). Third-round pick Cam Sutton looked intriguing at various defensive positions after starting the year slowly because of an injury. And with limited carries, James Conner averaged 4.5 yards per touch.
That’s not to mention Allen contributing on special teams over the course of 10 games, and Mike Hilton — while technically not a rookie in Pittsburgh — making a splash with 48 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions, and a forced fumble in his first full NFL campaign.
Getting a group like that to increase its play to the level Tomlin desires might be a major key to keeping a 13-win team at that elite level, as opposed to slipping back to the pack.
“I’ve seen evidence of growth in those areas,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “But we’ve got so much in front of us in terms of this evaluation process.”
It could be argued that contributions from 2017 first-year players buffered some of the stagnation from the 2016 class. Players such as Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave showed promise in their first years. None of them were bad in 2017, either. In fact, they all had occasional good moments. But none of them really emerged in the manner Tomlin was describing above.
With Watt and Smith-Schuster missing time because of injuries thus far in camp, Conner and Sutton might be the players who have made the greatest strides. Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner gushed about Conner’s camp. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Keith Butler heaped praise on Sutton’s ability to perform well at just about any position in the secondary.
Tomlin pointed to Antonio Brown’s breakout second season as an example of a player he has coached who went from flashing signs of potential to immediate superstardom. Brown exploded from 16 catches and 167 yards as a rookie to 1,167 yards and the Pro Bowl in Year 2.
The linebacker duo of Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley emerged from backups in Tomlin’s first year (2007) to major contributors during the Super Bowl run of ’08 as they combined for 16 1 ⁄ 2 sacks.
Guard Ramon Foster elevated from an undrafted player thrust into duty as a rookie in 2009 to a full-time starter for the second half of a Super Bowl season in ’10.
So, yes, the “Year 1 to Year 2” cliche is an easy one for any coach to regurgitate. But in Tomlin’s case, he has evidence it works especially well here. And — in the case of this year — maybe a sophomore class that can pay hefty dividends in that regard for 2018.
Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at email@example.com or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.