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Old 11-20-2011, 09:38 AM   #1
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Default Tomlin steers Steelers through tough times

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Tomlin steers Steelers through tough times

By Ralph N. Paulk
Sunday, November 20, 2011

Mike Tomlin has had to make some tough calls this season. The Steelers fifth-year coach shifts personnel like pieces on a chess board, knowingly making moves that could easily alter the delicate balance of a team with an evolving identity.

Traditionally, the Steelers are a run-oriented team. But injuries to the offensive line necessitated a tweak in philosophy. Like most NFL teams, the Steelers rely heavily on their speed at the flanks.

Predictably, their success has mostly depended on a veteran defense - albeit alarmingly inconsistent this season compared to its record-setting performance in 2010.

Baltimore's Joe Flacco looked like Joe Montana in marching the Ravens 92 yards to saddle the Steelers with a 23-20 defeat after winning four straight games. Then, a week later, cornerback William Gay sealed a 24-17 victory in Cincinnati with a rare interception that hoisted the Steelers atop the AFC North.

Amid the ebbs and flows, Tomlin appears calm and resolute. Yet, he is hardly satisfied with the team's 7-3 record - including a 1-2 start against division opponents.

"I'll take it," Tomlin said after the Steelers beat the Bengals. "I wouldn't necessarily say I'm pleased. I'd be pleased if we were 10-0, but we're not. We are what we are."

The Steelers are a playoff-caliber team. But it remains unclear if they are a Super Bowl contender, mostly because their victories have come against teams with a combined record of 26-38 - including a last-second victory over winless Indianapolis (0-10).

However, they have posted impressive wins against New England (6-3) and Cincinnati (6-3) to lessen the blow of being swept by rival Baltimore.

"As long as we're winning games, that's all that matters," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said following Wednesday's practice. "Hopefully when we do hit it full stride and we're actually playing really well -- who knows where we'll go."

The Steelers were 7-3 at this point last season. The defense yielded only 10.2 points in the final six regular-season games to set the stage for a playoff run that ended with a loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XLV.

Clearly, this has been an unpredictable season in which Tomlin has sometimes relied on unconventional wisdom. He has kept the Steelers afloat despite the absence of several key players, including linebackers James Harrison, James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley.

"I think the entire coaching staff has a way of putting people in position to be successful," cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "It trickles down from the top to the bottom. Sometimes, you have to make tough decisions - and Coach T has done that."

Tomlin could have inserted McFadden back into the starting lineup after his hamstring healed, but he stuck with Gay. He could put Doug Legursky back at right guard, but he's likely to stick with Ramon Foster.

"Such is life in the NFL," Tomlin has said repeatedly. "When those guys step up and are given an opportunity and play at a high level, than you are not going to fix it if it's not broken."

Tomlin, too, could have browbeat his players after the season-opening 35-7 debacle in Baltimore. Instead, he deferred to his veterans the challenge of lifting the spirits of a team that had been slapped silly by the Ravens.

"It's kind of who he is, and I don't think it's been hard for him," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "I think what makes him a good coach is that he turns it over to the players.

"We have a lot of veteran guys who knows how to rally the guys. It's not to take anything away from Coach T, but one of the strengths of being a good coach is letting us take care of that stuff.

"When we're down, he knows we have guys who know how to deal with stuff," Roethlisberger added. "When we're up, our guys keep things at an even keel - something I think reflects on the coaching staff."

Nothing, however, reflects on a coach like wins and losses. And Tomlin took plenty of heat for the Steelers being unprepared in the season opener and was criticized for exposing his cornerbacks in man coverage during Baltimore's game-winning drive at Heinz Field.

"I don't worry about what they say, to be honest with you," Tomlin said. "We are just trying to play within our strengths and be prepared to do what is necessary for us to win football games."

The Steelers, it seems, are situated to march into the playoffs unchallenged. Aside from San Francisco (8-1) and a rematch with Cincinnati, the Steelers will face three teams with losing records - including two games against Cleveland (3-6).

More importantly, Roethlisberger has had time to mend a broken thumb. Also, Woodley appears ready to test his hamstring next Sunday at Kansas City.

Now, the challenge before Tomlin is getting the Steelers ready for another stretch run to the Super Bowl.

"(Tomlin) has kept us grounded during the high times, and he's kept us motivated during the low times," Legursky said. "He has kept us at a steady pace, and we're getting better. I think that says a lot about the job he's done this season."

Ralph N. Paulk can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923 .

Read more: Tomlin steers Steelers through tough times - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsbur...#ixzz1eGCtqwQL
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