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Old 01-13-2009, 08:50 AM   #1
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Default Tomlin stirs in unpredictability

Tomlin stirs in unpredictability
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The Ravens absorbed a live, intensely personal demonstration of Steelers capabilities less than a month ago, in a game that produced one touchdown by both teams over 60 blunt-force minutes, but the Steelers team now on display in Baltimore's updated video library is something quite different.

It's not in combative attitude or competitive philosophy, but in something the Steelers came to in dispatching the white-hot San Diego Chargers from these AFC playoffs Sunday. Specifically, Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff reached another level of unpredictability. Whether that connotes an ascent or a descent doesn't much matter early in the week of the AFC championship game, but from one play to the next, there is very little about these Steelers that Baltimore can count on.

Ben Roethlisberger, for example, might punt.

With his left foot.

Because while he's right-handed, he's ambipuntrous.

Santonio Holmes, for another, might run back a punt 67 yards, or 61 more than the average Steelers return, then might not even appear on the field the next two times the opposing punter does.

Because he ran too far with the first one, I guess.

Tomlin said he felt as though San Diego punter Mike Scifres would punt for some distance, and indeed the one Holmes cashed in traveled 53 yards through the sky, but in explaining in the postgame his plan to turn Chargers strengths into evident weaknesses, the head coach deployed a memorable turn of phrase.

"We felt ??? if we hustled and got bodies on bodies, we would have some vertical grass with Santonio."

Wasn't it some of the ol' vertical grass that got Holmes kicked off the team for a week in October? He wasn't smoking dope in his SUV when Pittsburgh police stopped him in the lower Hill that day, but informed the authorities that he was a day earlier. The guy's just so helpful.

In addition to Holmes' special teams touchdown, the Steelers got three more 6s in the ground game Sunday, which is something the Ravens have not seen them do this season. In that Baltimore video archive, you've got to go back more than 10 quarters, to a Najeh Davenport dive Dec. 30, 2007, to find proof that the Steelers can get a rushing touchdown against the Ravens.

Who would have predicted though, that the Steelers would run three, four, even six times in a row against the Chargers. That they would sting San Diego with something so elegantly simply as a quick pitch left to Willie Parker, who ran for a season-high 146 yards?

"We got back to where we're two-dimensional again," tackle Max Starks said as the Steelers reported for a new workweek yesterday. "We were more as a complete team than we were at midseason."

And at the same time, they were more capable of the unanticipated, and even of the inexplicable, which is not by itself a bad thing.

Long snapper Jared Retkofsky, for still another example, might not snap long to punter Mitch Berger, but rather short to Ryan Clark, who lost 4 yards on a faked punt near midfield in the first half. The result was a shortened field for a Chargers offense that converted a field goal for its second lead of the game.

"I was going to be aggressive," was Tomlin's position on that. "I want our football team to know that I have a great deal of belief in them, and that we are not going to play scared. We are going to play to win."

Tomlin's even got belief in Carey Davis, a sometimes fullback who got four touches in this playoff game and gained 7 yards. He caught a 6-yard pass on third-and-8, a 1-yard pass on third-and-2, a no-yard pass on second-and-8, and then, on fourth-and-1 from the San Diego 1, answered with a no-yard run when Tomlin should have run Jeff Reed out there to take a 24-10 lead.

Tomlin's aggression likely cost the Steelers six points, three after the punt fake and three via the eschewed field goal, but to his credit and that of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, they were no more predictable as the game solidified. Up, 28-17, with 9:04 left, they threw deep to Nate Washington and an audacious out pattern to Hines Ward on a play that came within a pick six whisper. With three minutes left and the cushion stuffed to 35-17, they had backup bomber Byron Leftwich whip one mightily to Limas Sweed, who had the good manners to drop it.

In the previous game, the meaningless regular-season-ender against Cleveland, Tomlin coached it straight up, dismissing any suggestion of caution, much less experimentation. In his inaugural playoff victory, he faked punts, ran reverses and sent Sweed deep late, like it was August and he was trying to give some other staff something to worry about once the regular season starts.

He's now totally unpredictable and reliably effective, and those things are not necessarily unrelated.

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