Labriola on the win over GB, Tomlin

Posted Nov 27, 2017

Mike Tomlin spoke his mind in an interview that aired before the game vs. Green Bay.

The Steelers won their sixth game in a row, a 31-28 last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers last night at Heinz Field to run their record on the season to 9-2. In doing so, Ben Roethlisberger posted his 41st career come-from-behind victory, and if not for five clearly dropped passes by his receivers he would’ve finished the game 38-for-45, which is a ridiculous 84.4 percent, for at least 400 yards with no fewer than four touchdowns. In the same game, Le’Veon Bell accounted for 183 yards from scrimmage, Antonio Brown made one ridiculous play after another, and Chris Boswell nailed a career-long 53-yard field goal as time expired to help them pull out the victory.

But that wasn’t the big news of the day. Neither was the fact the Steelers defense now has allowed six passing plays for touchdowns of 50-plus yards, with five of those six coming in the last 14 days.

All of that will pale in comparison to what Mike Tomlin said to Tony Dungy in an interview that aired as part of NBC’s pregame show in advance of Steelers vs. Packers. And since Tomlin said it to Dungy via a hot microphone in a room with cameras rolling, he in fact said it to the entire National Football League and millions of pro football fans.

Dungy is the man who brought Tomlin into professional football when, as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he hired him to coach his defensive backs. Now retired from coaching, Dungy is a major part of NBC’s Football Night in America studio show, and his long relationship with Tomlin made him a perfect person to conduct this interview.

After requesting that Tomlin refrain from engaging in typical coachspeak, Dungy asked him how good these Steelers can be.

“Oh, we can win it all. We should win it all,” said Tomlin. “I sense that about the group. In terms of talent, in terms of having enough competition, depth, I think we check all those boxes. But checking the boxes doesn’t run the race.”

Essentially, Tomlin said what everyone has been thinking and writing and talking about for months: that the Steelers are Super Bowl contenders, and since the entire Steelers organization – from President Art Rooney II to General Manager Kevin Colbert on down – freely admit the goal each and every season is to win the Super Bowl it shouldn’t have been surprising to hear the coach say that about a team entering the final weekend in November with an 8-2 record.

But what made this different, what made it bulletin-board material in the eyes of many, is when Tomlin went into more detail about what everyone has been thinking and writing and talking about for months: that the Steelers and the New England Patriots are the class of the AFC, and the franchises that played in last season’s Conference Championship Game most likely are headed toward another postseason clash of the titans to provide the AFC with its representative in Super Bowl LII.

Sure, there were a few weeks time early in the season when it seemed as though the Kansas City Chiefs might crash the two-team party, and way back in the summer there was some thought to the Oakland Raiders, with a healthy Derek Carr, making their presence felt. But the Chiefs and the Raiders have fallen by the wayside, and for the past month, month-and-a-half, it’s been the Steelers and the Patriots in the AFC. Not even Al Davis’ ghost would argue with that.

And so Tomlin, having been through similar situations with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008 and 2010 when the outcome of the regular season matchups determined nothing but the venue for the third meeting, went there. When Dungy asked about Dec. 17 at Heinz Field, which is the date of the regular season game between the Steelers and the Patriots, Tomlin stated the obvious.

“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room,” Tomlin said. “There’s going to be fireworks. But it’s probably going to be part one.

“You’ll burn more fuel trying to pretend like that doesn’t exist than just to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Man, that’s going to be a big game. But probably if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second one is really going to be big, and what happens in the first is going to set up the second one. It’s going to determine the location of the second one. You know?”

The automatic assumption is that either Tomlin was looking past the Packers and is doing the same thing with the upcoming Monday night game in Cincinnati against the Bengals as well as the Dec. 10 visit to Heinz Field by the Baltimore Ravens, or he was giving his players permission to look past those opponents. Which isn’t true, but there isn’t any way to convince those who believe that, and so the results will just have to play out, and then we all can do what Tomlin himself does and judge something by the ultimate outcome.

Listen to what he said after the victory over the Packers for an insight into what actually will be going on inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex this week.

“Really, there are two ways to look at this thing,” said Tomlin in his postgame press briefing. “One way we will probably look at it (Sunday), we persevered in the face of adversity. We made necessary plays. We overcame adversity. Big plays by them, turnovers by us and all of those things. We didn’t blink. We stayed together and made the necessary plays to win. (Monday) when we evaluate it, when we get into the evaluation phase of it in terms of working to get better for our next opportunity, obviously we did things that made it difficult to win. You can’t be minus-3 in turnover ratio and give yourself a chance to win. You can’t give up chunks on defense and give yourself chances to win. We were able to overcome those things. We were probably fortunate, but it’s also probably a good sign of the group in terms of we’re a good enough team to kind of overcome those things. We got enough togetherness to stay on task, but obviously we got to minimize some of those things. Some of those things have been issues for us in multiple games, particularly the big plays of late, so obviously that has to stop (immediately). We’ll work at it, but we’ll work at it being 9-2 and that’s a beautiful thing.”

That’s what Tomlin will be telling his team this week, and the focus of the classroom work and on-field practice sessions will be geared toward the Bengals. They will talk about A.J. Green and Vontaze Burfict and Geno Atkins, but the fans and the media will talk about what the Steelers are doing and who they’re doing it with, and whether any of that will be good enough to defeat the Patriots, first on Dec. 17 and then in the playoffs. And if anyone believes there is some way to shield those players from that reality in this age of social media, well, the word that comes to mind immediately is delusional.

Part of the Steelers’ job at this stage of the season is to focus on each individual opponent while also acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses in their own performance and continuing to strive to improve those weaknesses. But things are too far along now to try to ignore the obvious.

Where individuals come down on the appropriateness of what Tomlin said to Dungy will fall along the same lines as what those individuals think of Tomlin’s style and personality as a coach. He has said often that he perceives his job is to give his team what it needs at any particular time, and so maybe he sees this group as needing a shot of the kind of confidence that can come from its coach publicly expressing his belief in the group. From the time he was hired, Tomlin has been an aggressive, play-to-win coach, with some of the notable examples being the 2010 AFC Championship Game victory over the Jets when he had Ben Roethlisberger throwing for the game-clinching first down instead of running the ball to burn the opponent’s timeouts, and that 2015 game in San Diego when he put Le’Veon Bell in the wildcat and went for the win-or-lose touchdown on the final play of the game instead of settling for a field goal and overtime.

That’s Mike Tomlin, and if you dissect what he said to Dungy it was that he expects his team to compete for a championship and he believes the pieces are in place to accomplish that goal; and that the upcoming game(s) against the Patriots are going to be extremely significant. Bill Belichick would never have done that, but Mike Tomlin trying to be Bill Belichick would be a recipe for disaster, just as it always has been for a coach to forsake his own personality and try to mimic someone else’s.

“He asked for non-coachspeak, so I was having a conversation with an old friend,” said Tomlin after the win over the Packers. “You know I have respect for this process. We have a good football team. I got a great deal of confidence in them. Everybody in America knows that’s a big game. We couldn’t deny that if we wanted to. You guys are going to ask us about it between now and then, so I stand by the statement.”

Yes, the big news is what Tomlin said in an interview with Dungy, and whether you like that he said it or not depends on whether you like Tomlin as a coach or not. The guys in the Steelers locker room like him as a coach.

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