Sunday’s triumph over Buffalo was Mike Tomlin’s 100th win as Steelers coach. He accomplished the feat in his 10th season as a head coach, becoming only the eighth coach in history to join the 10/100 club.
That the feat was received, generally speaking, with more fanfare nationally than locally was anything but surprising. One hundred wins in your first 10 seasons? That kind of performance is a base level expectation for the head coach of the Steelers.
At the national level, such a performance is seen for what it is, which is supremely impressive, and a testament to resilience, professionalism, consistency and a host of other admirable qualities.
In Pittsburgh, that level of accomplishment is often summarized thusly: “They haven’t won a playoff game in five years!”
If not that, there’s the always popular, “Tomlin won a Super Bowl with Cowher’s players!”
Never mind the fact that Bill Cowher only won one Super Bowl with his players. Winning a championship in his second season somehow has been twisted into damn near a negative for Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin was under siege about a month ago, having presided over a four-game losing streak against primarily mediocre competition, one that dropped his team to a perilous 4-5. He didn’t have control of his players, he had lost his team, he was never that good of a coach to begin with, et cetera.
Again, all this for a guy yet to have a losing season in 10 years, a guy who, for all the legitimate complaints that could be laid at his feet, is awfully good at winning football games.
Tomlin presided over what amounted to an on-the-fly rebuild of the Steelers’ defense, and while it has been a bumpy transition, and the presence of Ben Roethlisberger is probably the chief reason that the Steelers never sank below 8-8 in the midst of so much turnover, things are starting to take shape quite nicely.
After whiffing on several high picks, like Ziggy Hood and, more recently, Jarvis Jones, Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have seen their drafts yield more fruit. Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave, this year’s first three choices, have all blossomed into starters as rookies. Not only are they starting, they’re making a big impact.
Ryan Shazier is healthy — for now — and terrorizing opposing offenses. Stephon Tuitt has been a linchpin on the defensive line, doubly so since Cam Heyward, presumed to be the team’s best defender, was lost for the year. The early returns on Bud Dupree, finally back from injury, have him looking like more of a hit than miss, especially after he notched two of the Steelers’ five sacks of the nimble Tyrod Taylor.
These reinforcements on the defensive side of the ball have been a big factor in four straight wins, albeit against some limited offensive clubs, and have helped vault the Steelers back to the top of the heap in the AFC North.
It’s a novel concept, having young players make an instant impact on the defensive side of the ball. For years, it was an article of faith among fans that the Steelers’ defense was just too complicated to learn quickly, that Dick LeBeau’s defensive calculus required at least a year of study before it could be mastered.
With Keith Butler in charge, and Tomlin’s schematic and philosophical influence more directly exerted, the class feels more like remedial math, and that’s a good thing. Players are quite clearly picking up the defensive playbook much faster, and that’s creating a unit that flies around, acts decisively, and makes plays.
Can they do it against better competition? Can they do it in the playoffs? Can they do it if they make it all the way to say, an AFC Championship tilt in Foxboro? Only time will tell.
I’ll say this much, though. If current trends continue apace, I won’t be shocked if Tomlin adds a second Lombardi Trophy to his mantel this February.
If that happens, there will be no doubt as to whose players, and whose team, got the job done.