Kevin Gorman: Steelers' victory over Patriots was Mike Tomlin's finest hour
Mike Tomlin walked into Heinz Field on Sunday with blind faith, believing this was a big game not so much because it was against the New England Patriots as it was about the Pittsburgh Steelers addressing their failure to finish in the previous three games.
The Steelers put their postseason hopes in a precarious position with successive losses to the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders, and needed to beat an arch-nemesis to maintain their half-game lead over the Baltimore Ravens and fourth-place standing in the AFC playoff picture.
Tomlin talked about the Steelers needing a no-blink approach, and believed they could run with Jaylen Samuels, that Chris Boswell could make a kick when it counted and that the embattled defense could hold a fourth-quarter lead when needed.
“You have to — that’s just the nature of this thing,” Tomlin said. “It’s easy to display faith and talk about the camaraderie stuff when things are going well. Sometimes, you’ve got to cut your eyelids off when you want to blink, when it gets thick. We talk openly about that.”
Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots blinked.
With Steelers fans fuming and calling for him to be fired, Tomlin never batted an eyelid in delivering a 17-10 victory over the Patriots that should hush his hot-seat talk for the time being.
This was his reminder that Belichick wasn’t the only Super Bowl-winning coach on the sidelines.
“It’s easy to come here with a smile on your face when things are going your way,” Steelers safety Morgan Burnett said. “You see the true character of someone when they’re hit with adversity and how they respond to it. He’s always had confidence. He’s the leader of this team. You could tell walking into the building he had no sense of doubt.”
Tomlin left no doubt with the decisions he made from the start. The Steelers won the coin flip and elected to receive instead of their customary deferral. It was rewarded with an 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive that saw a tight end score a touchdown, a good omen against the Patriots.
The Steelers leaned on Samuels, the rookie fifth-round pick who was replacing the injured James Conner for the second consecutive game. Samuels was coming off a 28-yard performance against the Raiders. He rewarded Tomlin’s faith by rushing for 142 yards rushing on 19 carries, adding two catches for 30 yards. Tomlin also showed his belief in rookie receiver James Washington, who had been benched after his drop at Denver, and he had three receptions for 65 yards.
The Steelers defense had been living life on the edge by blowing fourth-quarter leads. They led the NFL in sacks but knew they wouldn’t have time to get to Brady. That put the pressure on his secondary, and Tomlin replaced cornerbacks Coty Sensabaugh and Mike Hilton in the starting lineup with Artie Burns and Cam Sutton, going for pedigree over performance.
That move appeared to backfire when Brady hit Chris Hogan for a 63-yard touchdown pass on the Patriots’ third play, which saw Burns, Joe Haden and safety Sean Davis all following Josh Gordon over the middle while Hogan was left all alone near the Steelers sideline.
But the Steelers still didn’t blink.
“Coach T does a really good job of keeping everybody level,” Haden said. “He never gets too up when we win or too down when we lose.”
The Steelers only sacked Brady once, but the Patriots converted only 3 of 10 third downs, failed on their lone fourth-down attempt and were 0 for 3 in the red zone. New England also had 14 penalties for 106 yards, including a flag for holding on first-and-goal at the 5 in the fourth quarter.
That’s when the Steelers came up with their biggest stop of the season, while clinging to a 14-10 lead against the game’s greatest quarterback. With the pocket collapsing, Brady lost his mind. He threw off his back foot toward the Steelers sideline and Haden high-pointed it for an interception at the 4-yard line with 7:43 to play.
That led to Tomlin’s gutsiest call of the game. The Steelers went 66 yards on 13 plays before facing a fourth-and-6 from the 30. The prudent move would have been to punt. The bold move would have been to go for a first down. Instead, Tomlin sent Boswell out for a 48-yard field goal. Never mind that Boswell had missed seven field goals this season, including a chance at the tying points in Oakland that prompted the Steelers to conduct tryouts this week.
What did Boswell do? He drilled it through the uprights for a 17-10 lead with 2:30 remaining.
That left the greatest challenge of the game: The Steelers defense had to stop Brady, who passed the Patriots downfield in no time. But the Steelers stopped Brady on four consecutive passes to end the game, restoring their confidence and rewarding the confidence of their coach.
“Our jobs are always on the line — the NFL means Not For Long — but we ride with our coach,” Steelers defensive captain Cameron Heyward said. “He supports us, and we support him. He’s hard on himself, just as we are. We wanted to get this W, not only for him but for us.”
This could have been Tomlin’s final hour with the Steelers.
Instead, it will rank among his finest.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.