Kevin Gorman's Take 5: Steelers' Mike Tomlin talks up Chargers
As the Pittsburgh Steelers are smarting from their loss at Denver, Ben Roethlisberger is pointing fingers (at everyone but himself), and Mike Tomlin is complaining about his turnover-laden team being all thumbs.
From the sounds of it, you never would know the Steelers just ended a six-game winning streak.
But Tomlin made the Los Angeles Chargers appear to be every bit the team that has won seven of eight games.
“They’re playing at an unbelievable level right now,” Tomlin said.
Never mind the Chargers (9-3) have beaten only one team with a winning record this season — Seattle (6-5) — and lost at home to the Broncos two weeks ago.
The Steelers are back to Big Ben throwing shade at his teammates and coaches, and Tomlin sending subliminal messages through the media at his weekly news conference.
1. Talking turnovers
Tomlin wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room, as the Steelers rank 26th in the NFL in turnover margin at minus-7.
Roethlisberger has thrown five interceptions in the past two games, and James Conner had another costly fumble.
“It’s something we’ve got to tighten up and tighten up rather quickly,” Tomlin said, noting the Steelers also have gone eight quarters without creating a turnover. “You can’t have one discussion without the other. We’ve got issues in both areas.”
Tomlin was quick to say “Ben is just part of it.”
Maybe, but Roethlisberger has 12 interceptions in 11 games. That’s one shy of his 2016 total and two short of last season. He’s been picked off in the end zone in each of the past two games, with the interception at Denver killing the Steelers’ shot of a victory.
Speaking of the elephant in the room, that play was similar to the pick Roethlisberger threw against the Patriots last December. This time, Big Ben doesn’t have Todd Haley to blame.
2. Grumble with Grimble
Tomlin wasn’t shy about blaming tight end Xavier Grimble for his fumble through the end zone for a touchback, citing the play when talking about Roethlisberger’s turnovers.
Tomlin even said he was a proponent of the rule that awards a touchback for a goal-line fumble through the end zone, even after it proved to be a turning point in the defeat at Denver.
His logic: There is an “urgency of the responsibility of possession of the ball, particularly in that area of the field.” Simple and plain, Tomlin said the Steelers have to “put the ball in the end zone.”
“I’m a result-oriented guy. This is a result-oriented business,” Tomlin said. “My position is get the ball in the end zone.”
If so, it makes you wonder why Steelers tight ends, in particular, have had so much trouble maintaining possession of the ball at the goal line the past two seasons.
3. First things first
Tomlin credited the Chargers for the “damage” they are doing on first-and-10s, noting they are one of few teams averaging more than 7 yards per attempt.
“It’s because of the latitude, autonomy and the intelligence Philip Rivers has, and the way they are able to utilize it in attacking people,” Tomlin said, citing Rivers’ ability to get out of negative plays.
Where the Chargers are averaging 7.37 yards on first-and-10, the Steelers are averaging 6.26. On first-and-10s, Rivers is completing 72.9 percent of his passes, has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions and has been sacked four times for minus-25 yards. Roethlisberger is completing 64 percent, with eight touchdowns and five interceptions and has been sacked six times for minus-40 yards.
“Forget possession downs,” Tomlin said. “They’re getting you on first-and-10.”
No need to remind Roethlisberger that Rivers was in the same 2004 NFL Draft class, selected seven spots ahead of Big Ben. Roethlisberger has two Super Bowl rings. Rivers has none.
But the first-and-10 stat might have been a needle.
4. Almost perfect
Rivers isn’t just coming off the most accurate game by a quarterback in NFL history, having completed 28 of 29 passes (96.6 percent) with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Arizona.
The Chargers quarterback was 19 of 19 in the first half and completed his first 25 attempts.
Rivers, two weeks shy of turning 37, is putting up the best numbers of his career. As Peter King reported in his Football Morning in America column, Rivers had a career performance on Thanksgiving 2017 at Dallas, passing for 434 yards.
In the past 17 games, Rivers has completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 5,120 yards, with 37 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Chargers are 13-4 in that span.
“He’s a guy you’re excited to be competing against because you know he’s duly prepared. You know he’s extremely talented. He’s a unique competitor,” Tomlin said. “He’s just one of those guys. He needs no endorsement from me. I think we all in this business understand who he is and what he’s capable of.”
5. Ready for a rematch?
As it stands now, the Steelers and Chargers could be on a collision course for another meeting in the playoffs.
The Steelers (7-3-1) are in fourth place in the AFC behind Kansas City (9-2), New England (8-3) and Houston (8-3). The Chargers are in fifth place, ahead of Baltimore (6-5).
As of now, the Chargers would play the Steelers in a wild-card game at Heinz Field. But the Steelers have games remaining against Oakland, New England, New Orleans and Cincinnati, and the Chargers play the Bengals, Chiefs, Ravens and Broncos.
Sunday night’s outcome will have playoff implications, including the possibility of the Steelers playing in L.A.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.