How did the Steelers completely turn their season around?
Do you remember what you were doing on Sept. 15? Me neither, but that was the day when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season supposedly ended. That was the day Ben Roethlisberger busted his elbow, the team fell to 0-2, and thoughts in central Pennsylvania turned already to next season.
The logic was solid. Pessimistic, sure, but not without good reason. Even with Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh had been roasted by the New England Patriots in the season opener. Questions abounded about not just the team’s scoring ability in his absence, but a suddenly uncertain defense.
So how is it, exactly, that in mid-November we’re seeing a string of wonderful things happening to the Steelers: a four-game winning streak; the playoffs looking within reach; Mike Tomlin being touted as an NFL Coach of the Year candidate?
And with Thursday night’s clash with the Cleveland Browns (FOX, 8 p.m. ET) being one where the Black and Gold’s opponents are the ones with all the problems hanging over them?
According to FOX NFL analyst Jay Glazer, the Steelers’ surprising success begins with the mindset of Tomlin, who took the franchise to a Super Bowl title in his second year and got them back to the championship game in his fourth, but has started to hear rumblings of discontent a decade into his tenure.
“This is probably the best job he has ever done — and this is a team that has won a Super Bowl under him,” Glazer told me via telephone. “He’s done a masterful job with that mantra of ‘next man up.’ Some coaches say it and it’s kind of cliché; with him, it isn’t.
“They have this attitude over there of, ‘Alright, this one is done; next one up, let’s go.’ He’s unflappable, and that’s probably his best quality. He’s the same dude whether they’re really high or really low, and that’s one of the things that separates him from others.”
Who will win tonight's game on FOX?
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) November 14, 2019
Next man up? No kidding. The Steelers’ season would get worse before it got better, and when a road game at the Chargers went down a month and a day ago, it all looked hopeless. They had slipped to 1-4 with third-string quarterback Devlin Hodges was pressed into action, Roethlisberger’s deputy Mason Rudolph having sustained a concussion the week before.
Yet Hodges held his nerve, the defense truly began to flex its muscles, and, in truth, the Steelers benefitted from what would be the start of the implosion of the Chargers’ season. That was followed by three more wins, none more impressive than last Sunday’s effort against the Los Angeles Rams.
Led by early-season acquisition Minkah Fitzpatrick terrorizing opposing quarterbacks with his thirst for interceptions, the Steelers D has the second-most turnovers in the league. They got four of them against the Rams, while holding Los Angeles to 1-of-14 on third downs.
Tomlin has never fielded a losing team. If the season were to end today, Pittsburgh would occupy the Wild Card spot in the NFC. A lot of people are starting to believe.
“I think they’re a playoff team,” FS1’s Colin Cowherd said on The Herd. “By the way, Mike Tomlin has had to coach a lot of games without Big Ben. Do you know what he is without Big Ben? 15-10.
“If you look at their remaining schedule: winnable games. This is an offensive line story. Only 11 sacks allowed. In a weaker AFC, they’re going to end up winning against the Browns, and they will make the playoffs.”
There most certainly are winnable games coming up on the docket, especially if recent history is anything to go by. The Steelers have been utterly dominant against their divisional rivals the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, going a combined 17-0-1 against them since 2015. Between now and Thanksgiving weekend, they will play Cleveland twice and the Bengals — currently 0-9 — once.
Will the Cowboys make the postseason?
— Herd w/Colin Cowherd (@TheHerd) November 13, 2019
At 5-4, with that slate of games to be followed by a trip to play the Arizona Cardinals, the Steelers are in a better position than they could have dreamed of just a short while ago. When no one else believed, Tomlin’s players bought in, while working within their limitations.
Rudolph’s greatest asset is that he has been a steadying influence and hasn’t been fazed. Tomlin kept his team on track when even the fan base had lost faith.
“Mason’s doing some really good things,” Roethlisberger told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “It doesn’t matter what comes his way. I think he’s playing awesome.”
In terms of playoff propositions, FOX Bet has them at -143 to make the postseason, and +4000 to win it all. FiveThirtyEight rates the Steelers as having a 56% playoff chance. One underrated factor is that the potentially crucial final game of the season is against the Baltimore Ravens, who are favored to have already secured a playoff position by then.
After everything seemed to fall apart, Tomlin’s pieces now appear to be clicking into place. An hour or so after last weekend’s game he offered up this summation: “We stayed in the fight,” he said.
He was talking about the Rams game, but he might as well have been discussing the season. The Steelers are still fighting, and they’re landing some heavy blows.
1. Intercept Baker Mayfield
2 & 3.❓@dabody52, @TunchIlkin & @missi_matthews deliver their keys to the game ahead of our Thursday night matchup against the Browns.@OurFordStore pic.twitter.com/dMtSlTMfLU
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) November 14, 2019