Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Mike Tomlin wants Steelers focused on AFC North
Mike Tomlin turned heads when he entered the media room Tuesday at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and wasn’t dressed in black and gold.
Instead, the Pittsburgh Steelers coach was wearing a red shirt with “Duquesne Football” across the chest and a blue baseball cap with university’s logo. It was a classy show and statement of support to the Dukes after the tragic death of sophomore running back Marquis Brown.
“Our sympathies go out to them,” Tomlin said. “We pray for them as they move forward, not only with dealing with what happened but the challenge that the season presents moving forward as a football team.”
Tomlin knows about dealing with challenges, as the Steelers return to Cincinnati for the first time since Ryan Shazier suffered an injury against the Bengals on Monday Night Football last December that required the inside linebacker to undergo spinal-cord surgery.
This trip could elicit an emotional response from the Steelers.
“We’ll kind of know that when we get there,” Tomlin said. “I’m sure there will be, in some form or fashion, but I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it to this point.”
1. Buzzword: Where Tomlin talked about “trends” last week, he repeatedly mentioned this was an AFC North game at Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.
“We realize that this is AFC North football,” Tomlin said. “We realize that this is on the road. We realize the significance of all those things. That’s why we will prepare with an edge and utilize that fuel as we go into the stadium.”
The emphasis is as necessary as a victory, as the Bengals (4-1, 1-0) are in first place while the Steelers (2-2-1, 0-1-1) reside in the basement of the AFC North. Yes, even the Browns are ahead of them in the standings, after beating Baltimore on Sunday.
The Steelers know their best path to the playoffs is winning the division, and it’s something Tomlin isn’t taking for granted.
2. For the record: Tomlin was unusually testy, especially following an emphatic victory such as the 41-17 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at Heinz Field.
Maybe that’s because the Bengals are “a hot football team.”
Tomlin talked about how the Bengals had come-from-behind wins against the Colts, Falcons and Dolphins (and also beat the Ravens), with their lone loss coming to the Panthers.
“They’re 4-1, and they’ve found ways to win close games,” Tomlin said. “That’s what good teams do. You’ve to respect that.”
The combined records of the teams the Bengals have beaten, however, is 8-12. It’s too early to judge the quality of teams based on their records, let alone the quality of their wins.
3. Burfict is back: Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict returned from a four-game suspension for using PEDs, even if it was in what Tomlin described as a “partial capacity.”
The Steelers expect Burfict to be back in his role as a starter, if not an instigator with a tendency to cross the line of clean play.
“I would imagine, as he gets his legs under him, that we should expect to see him every snap,” Tomlin said, with a chuckle, “because it’s AFC North football.”
And I would imagine Burfict will be seeking revenge on Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster for the crack-back block that cleaned Burfict’s clock last year.
Because it’s Steelers-Bengals.
4. Secret weapon: Tomlin spent little time celebrating the effort of the Steelers’ defensive backs against the Falcons, despite Joe Haden’s shutdown coverage of Julio Jones.
Tomlin was quick, however, to credit the Bengals for their pass game. He started with praise of A.J. Green, who only has become more dangerous with the “emergence” of Tyler Boyd.
The former Clairton and Pitt star has 30 receptions for 393 yards and two touchdowns this season, numbers that complement those by Green (26 catches for 409 yards and five touchdowns).
They have the same number of targets (43), but Boyd has more yards after catch (146-86) and as many receptions of 20 yards or more (seven) where Green has the slight edge in yards per game (81.8-78.6) and first downs (23-20).
“All you’ve got to do is watch the Atlanta game,” Tomlin said of Boyd’s 11-catch, 100-yard game. “Boyd dominated possession downs in the game, not only third down but I think he converted two critical fourth downs in the waning moments of that game. “Not that I’m surprised by that. If you’re from Pittsburgh, you’ve seen a lot of Boyd over the years, even going back to high school football. I’m not surprised that he is really emerging, particularly as a dominant guy in that area of play.”
5. Blitzburgh is back: Tomlin was pleased with the improved play on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which is why he rewarded game balls to both the offensive and defensive linemen.
But he dismissed the notion that the Steelers had six sacks because they blitzed more often against the Falcons.
“Probably no more than normal, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said. “It was effective but probably from a ratio standpoint, no more than normal. … Nothing changed, really, in terms of the proportions or personality. We were just more effective.”
Perhaps, but Tomlin also didn’t make a big deal about the Steelers having a strong week of practice and reversing each of the trends that he talked about last week, from getting off to a fast start to establishing the running game to putting pressure on the passer.
It wasn’t just about having a good week of practice but that the good week of practice translated to the game.
“Ultimately,” Tomlin said, “preparation is defined by performance.”
The Steelers coach sounded like he was prepared for the Bengals. It’s just a matter of whether the Steelers can perform.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.