Mike Tomlin is a coach who likes catchphrases, who believes in using them to deliver messages to his players, to paint a picture for them that reinforces a message, to create a mnemonic that triggers instant recall of an important fundamental principle.
Next man up. The standard is the standard. Injuries are as much a part of football as blocking and tackling. Thoughtfully non-rhythmic. I know what you're capable of, but what are you willing to do?
But the one he came up with to describe the Steelers-Ravens rivalry has a visceral, nail-on-the-head quality to it that makes it one of his all-time best.
Two trains, one track.
The first meeting of this annual home-and-home bare-knuckle brawl takes place Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, and beyond the normal attraction of any game between these two teams comes the added allure this year of the Steelers being 6-0, and the only undefeated team remaining in the NFL, and the Ravens being 5-1, with their only loss to defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City.
"We're back in the kitchen. It's AFC North ball, and you know we like that," said Tomlin during his weekly news conference via Zoom from the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We respect it. It's cool to be in, what we believe, is the game of the week for the third week in a row. We're humbly honored to be in that. We like to show that respect by how we prepare and ultimately by how we play."
In the previous two weeks, the Steelers had hosted the one-loss Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field on Oct. 18, and then last Sunday they traveled to Nashville for a game against the also-undefeated Tennessee Titans. In five days, they will have a date with the Ravens, and nobody would be surprised if what happens starting at 1 p.m. registers on the Richter scale.
"You know what the Ravens games are about," said Tomlin. "They are a top-notch organization and football team. They have talent across the board. They're familiar with us. We're familiar with them. There's continuity within schematics and both staffs and core players and things, and I think that's what adds to the intrigue. We should anticipate it being a physical and rough-and-tumble game because history tells us that, and how the two teams are playing this year also gives you that indication."
For their part, the Steelers' players haven't been shy about expressing their low opinion of their performances even after victories. Over the course of this season, Tomlin consistently has preached the message of: "It wasn't a clean game by us by any stretch, but it's good to win while you learn."
The Steelers needed a missed field goal in the final seconds to avoid overtime in Tennessee last Sunday; they trailed the now 1-6 New York Giants, 10-3, in the first half of the season opener; and they were clinging to a two-point lead in the fourth quarter against an Eagles team that's 2-4-1. The Steelers' first three of their six wins this season came against teams with a combined 5-14-1 record (.275).
"I think we're doing enough just to get out of stadiums (with a win)," said Tomlin. "We desire to play better, obviously, but I'm thankful we have enough competitive spirit, that we believe in each other enough, that we have enough guys who want to be the reason why we're successful, that we can make enough plays to persevere sometimes in the midst of adversity, and sometimes in the midst of adversity that we create. I don't think any of us in the National Football League view ourselves as finished products at this point. Our perspective on where we are is probably not a lot different than the 31 other teams'. We're all working week in and week out trying to win that particular game, but also understanding we need to get better in the process because significant challenges usually lie ahead."
Because it's Ravens week for the Steelers, that means a significant challenge lies on the immediate horizon.
"I don't have any concern about their focus, or over-confidence, or anything of that nature," said Tomlin about his team. "We have respect for the Baltimore Ravens and AFC North football and playing ball in their venue this week. We have enough veterans on our team who know and understand that and that history, and so we look forward to getting to work (on Wednesday)."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"In-game injuries from last week: Chris Wormley had a knee injury that's being evaluated as we speak, an MRI. I don't know what his availability will be. Jordan Dangerfield has a quad injury that may limit him in the early portions of the week, and we'll let his availability (for practice) and the quality of his work be our guide in terms of him being available for the game. We have a couple of guys who have positioned themselves to work their way back into action. They're scheduled to practice, those guys being Mike Hilton (shoulder) and Derek Watt (hamstring). We'll assess their health and performance throughout the course of the week and make prudent decisions in that regard. The rest are bumps and bruises along the way. I'm sure those may limit a guy or two in the early portions of the week, but we don't worry too much about that."