On a Friday afternoon in late December, just days before the Steelers were set to take on the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Coach Mike Tomlin threw his players a curve, changing things up.
It was something that truly isn't seen much in the NFL, because Friday practices are a rather standard final game prep, a lighter practice than the ones the previous two days for teams.
But on this day, Dec. 30, things were a little different on the field at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.
Practice was in pads.
The reason was simple for Tomlin. Any game against the Ravens is going to be a physical one, and after losing to them a few weeks earlier, the focus was clearly on physicality.
"It's not fun going out with pads on a Friday, but it was for a reason," said tight end Pat Freiermuth. "Most coaches wouldn't be able to do that because they don't have the trust in the locker room that one would want from a coach and a player aspect. But everyone in the locker room believes in his ways and believes in the coach he is. And there's always a reason behind it.
"Credit to him for having the trust in the locker room and the players to be able to pull something off like that."
In the Week 14 meeting against the Ravens, the defense allowed 215 yards rushing, while the offense was only able to muster 65 yards on the ground. After the game Tomlin said the Ravens won the 'war of attrition' and the pile fell in the favor of the Ravens.
Tomlin was sending a message to the players that this game needed to be different. That AFC North football meant a physical battle and they had to be ready.
"We knew it was going to be physical and that we needed to set the tone," said linebacker T.J. Watt. "It came from up top, from Coach T, and that carries a lot of weight. And obviously AFC North football, we know it's always going to be physical. We knew we didn't play well against the Ravens the first time with the run and it kind of set the tone that we're doing everything we possibly can to set you up in the right position to win this game and put you in great spots.
"The reaction was funny in some ways. A few guys wondered if it was a typo on the board when they saw pads. I think for the most part we understood that we were young, we needed those days."
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It all paid off.
On Sunday Night Football, in front of a national television audience, the Steelers came out on fire, holding the Ravens to only 120 yards rushing, while compiling 198 yards, including 111 by running back Najee Harris, in a game they won in the trenches, where physicality is a must.
"We saw it come into fruition when we beat the Ravens and we played very physical," said Freiermuth. "It was very calculated that he wanted to do that. Obviously, he was thinking about it for a couple of weeks, and it paid off. Credit to Coach T for pulling it off."
That comment, 'Credit to Coach T,' is something that was a staple at the end of last season. After the Steelers turned around the 2022 season, going from a 2-6 start to a 9-8 finish, players talked frequently about what sparked the turnaround.
And every time they pointed to one person – Coach T.
"It was all about resiliency," said Watt. "I think that was the hot word we said and it's a credit to Coach Tomlin for being as steady as he was through all the ups and downs. No one blinked as he likes to say.
"Whenever we have our first meeting of an offseason, getting ready for what's ahead, he always says I'm going to say the same things. Nothing's going to surprise you. And a lot of the young guys think that's cliché. It's not. The last week of the season in the meetings, he's literally saying the exact same things he said all year long. All the cliché comments, the eight pounds in a five-pound bag, the don't blink, all that stuff. And it's true. He's been saying the same stuff. Nothing's changed. He's not a moving target. You know how to reach him. You know how to talk to him. If you have a question, he's going to be transparent. He's going to tell you exactly what he thinks. He's just a great leader of men and a guy that you want to play for. When he walks in the room, he commands the attention of everybody. And it's just a credit to him.
"When the seas aren't very steady, he finds a way to steady the water. And when the water is steady, he finds a way to keep it steady."
You hear the 'Tomlinisms' all the time, many which he rattles off during press conferences, many which he saves for inside the meeting rooms.
They are motivational, not just because of the words, but because the man behind the words.
"I remember at the bye week when we were sitting at 2-6 and it just felt like no hope," said tackle Dan Moore Jr. "He was giving us motivation every single day to show up, keep fighting, keep encouraging us to keep doing what we're doing and even do more. That's really hard when it kind of feels like you're not playing for anything at that point. We started stacking W's on the schedule and chips started to fall in our direction. Before we knew it, we were in the playoff picture.
"I think the intensity that Coach brought every single day, the expectation that he brought for us as a group, as a unit, as a team. He kept challenging us and our goal every week was to meet his challenge."
One thing player's often say about Tomlin is he is a 'player's coach.' And in the case of Tomlin, the moniker isn't just words. It's a standard that has been set that helps build relationships with the players that has them believing in the process even when the chips are down.
This is the first year veteran cornerback Levi Wallace got to experience what he heard from a distance about Tomlin, and he wasn't disappointed.
"You hear stories around the league, just the type of coach he is and how guys want to fight hard for him, how guys want to play hard for him," said Wallace. "You never know until you're in the midst of it. He is a people person. You can talk to him about anything. He cares about your development off the field and on the field. Having that type of leader makes you want to continue to work hard and play for him.
"His leadership, he never folded, never blinked. He never thought twice about it. He believed in us to get it turned around. He just didn't blink."