If it ain't broke
October 11, 2007
By Charles Robinson, Yahoo! Sports
In the most chaotic hours when it became clear Mike Tomlin was going to be the next head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, he reached out to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Knowing he was on the verge of a flurry of questions about scheme and personnel and taking hold of a storied franchise, Tomlin made a crucial decision first: He found LeBeau, and told him he wasn't in a hurry to change anything.
"I wanted to stay in Pittsburgh, so that's all I cared to hear," LeBeau said. "He didn't need to tell me why he made that decision."
Tomlin's reasoning at the time: Continuity. Despite being groomed in a 4-3 scheme ? and facing assumptions that he'd alter Pittsburgh's defensive style ? Tomlin kept LeBeau and the 3-4 defense that had long formed the backbone of the Steelers. And almost one third of the way into the 2007 season, the franchise is reaping the rewards during a 4-1 start.
There have been more popular story lines, from the adaptation of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' spread scheme to the resurgence of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even Tomlin's laid back but sneaky tough coaching style has drawn more attention. Meanwhile, a largely unchanged roster of defensive coaches and players has rounded back into championship form, following a 21-0 shutout of a solid Seattle team on Sunday. Through five games, Pittsburgh's defense is leading the league in total defense (allowing 235 yards per game), points allowed (9.4 per game) and sacks (tied with the Chicago Bears and the New York Giants with 17 apiece).
It's a start that coaches greet with cautious optimism, and praise for Tomlin's lack of action. Many coaches take head coaching jobs and install familiar schemes, fire coaches they view as a threat to their vision, and reshape rosters with their own brand of players. Instead, Tomlin tried a more patient approach. One season removed from a Super Bowl win, he stayed true to the scheme by retaining several key components of the coaching staff. The centerpiece was LeBeau, who is widely considered one of the NFL's best defensive minds and who has spent nearly as many years coaching in the NFL (34) as Tomlin has spent on planet Earth (35).
"The best thing I can say about what Mike did, he was smart enough to realize he didn't have to change anything," said defensive backs coach Ray Horton, who has been a defensive assistant with the Steelers since 2004. "Nothing was broke. All he had to do was steer that rudder to get the boat where he wanted it to go."
By relying on the defensive staff and infusing some young talent into the unit, Tomlin did just that. Pittsburgh spent their first two picks in April's NFL draft on a pair of speedy, playmaking linebackers in Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. And the staff allowed Joey Porter to leave via free agency, opening the way for James Harrison, a hard-hitting outside linebacker who had shown flashes of brilliance for years in a backup role.
Then Tomlin did something that revived the chemistry the defensive group had in 2005's Super Bowl run. He pushed them ? hard. Gone was Bill Cowher's country club atmosphere. Tomlin spent late July and August running one of the roughest, most competitive training camps in the league. His methods: Coach the players up, instill confidence where it was needed, and expect more. One year after the Super Bowl hangover, it has been just what Pittsburgh needed.
"Understanding how to be focused after winning the Super Bowl, I think that was new for everybody, both the coaches and the players," linebacker James Farrior said. "We thought we knew how to handle that success, how to keep practicing hard and not take things for granted, but I think it caught up with us a little bit.
"Keeping coach LeBeau and keeping the defense pretty much intact made it a lot easier for us to bounce back from that. We're running the same stuff we've been running for years. We appreciate coach Tomlin just leaving us how we were and letting us straighten it out."
That success has come despite losing Porter in the offseason ? a defection that forced an adjustment period in the locker room and out on the field. While many teams would downplay such a loss, many Steelers do quite the opposite with Porter, suggesting that his absence hurts, but also served to reveal leaders and talent that was overlooked outside of the franchise.
"Joey was the heart and soul of the defense, and losing him did change a lot," safety Troy Polamalu said. "We would be better overall if he was here. That would give us more depth at (the) linebacker spot. But James Harrison is doing an excellent job there. As a matter of fact, he's probably doing just as good a job as Joey would be doing. But yeah, of course we would be better if Joey was here."
You might not know it on the field, where Harrison is leading the team in tackles (28) and pairing with Farrior to give Pittsburgh arguably the NFL's best 3-4 linebacker tandem (yes, possibly even better than the New England Patriots' Rosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas). In fact, Farrior is looking five years younger playing next to Harrison. And he's putting up Pro Bowl numbers, too: 26 tackles, four sacks (leading all AFC linebackers) and four passes defended. And he's doing it with a relatively quiet leadership ? at least compared to what Porter once brought to the outside linebacker spot.
"We know that you don't necessarily need someone to be loud to be great," safety Deshea Townsend said. "You just need guys who care about success and their teammates. Even if you have that guy who is a badass and is out there screaming at the 50-yard line like Joey, the bottom line is still that he cares about those things."
And in many ways, the Steelers defense has remained elite in the quietest of fashions. The defensive line has played solidly, getting penetration this season while also keeping the inside linebackers free to flow to the football. The linebackers have been consistent, particularly when it comes to executing LeBeau's trademark blitz packages. And the secondary has been making plays, something that didn't always happen last season.
A testament to Tomlin's approach of coaching players hard while also coaching their confidence has been cornerback Ike Taylor. Considered a rising young talent going into last season, his miscues, including several dropped interceptions, landed him in Cowher's doghouse. But after playing what LeBeau called his best game of the season against the Seattle Seahawks, Taylor has begun to regain the form that earned him a five-year, $22.5 million contract extension before last season. And Horton pointed to Taylor as a prime example of a player who has been helped by Tomlin's decision to stick with coaches who were familiar with the Steelers' defensive talent.
"During the Super Bowl year, Ike was here every day during the offseason and we worked exclusively with him," Horton said. "Every day we were doing something technique-wise or watching film. And he had his best year. I think what happened last year was human nature struck him. He had an interception in the Super Bowl, he's got his name on a tavern down here, and he's on TV commercials. I think he believed some of what he was reading.
"I never saw him during the offseason, so we didn't work. He came back last season and I think he had a different swagger of 'I'm good now, people know I'm good, so I don't have to work hard.' After going 15-1 (in 2005) and then wining the Super Bowl the next year, he thought he had arrived. And he hadn't arrived. He went through a bad year and the team went through a bad year. This year, he's back and working hard and taking coaching again. Sometimes it takes a lesson like that. He's growing up. I think we all grew up, even the coaches, knowing what it's like to go through the season after a Super Bowl."
Undoubtedly, the Steelers would like that chance again. And with one of the staunchest defensive starts in club history ? despite injuries to players such as Polamalu and nose tackle Casey Hampton ? they just might get it.
"Keeping the coaches, and keeping the players together, that's helping so far," Polamalu said. "But we're only five games into the season. Who knows what can happen? Things can change fast. We could end up giving up 30 points a game the rest of the season. And then you'll be here for a different story."
Barring a spate of long-term injuries, it seems unlikely. While it was an offseason of change at the head coaching spot, this is still a tale about what stayed the same. And for the Steelers, that has made all the difference.