PITTSBURGH (AP) — Mike Tomlin is ready to talk about the New England Patriots.
The fact the Pittsburgh Steelers coach can include cornerback Joe Haden in the discussion is a bonus.
Haden will attempt to practice for the AFC North champions this week, barely a month removed from a fractured left leg that appeared to put his season in jeopardy.
While Tomlin will wait to make a decision on whether Haden will be available on Sunday when the Steelers (11-2) host the Patriots (10-3), the fact it’s even up for debate is promising.
The Steelers signed Haden on the eve of the regular season precisely for this situation. Tom Brady dominated Pittsburgh’s secondary in the AFC championship game 11 months ago, picking apart the Steelers’ zone defense while throwing for 384 yards and three touchdowns in a 36-17 romp that wasn’t even that close.
Tomlin and defensive coordinator Keith Butler made playing more man-to-man coverage a point of emphasis during the offseason and the Steelers had the second-ranked pass defense in the NFL before Haden left during the first half of a victory over the Colts on Nov. 11.
The results during Haden’s absence have been uneven at best, though it hasn’t stopped Pittsburgh from taking an eight-game winning streak into perhaps the most highly anticipated game of the regular season.
The Steelers clinched their third division title in four years last Sunday night with a 39-38 victory over Baltimore, meaning Haden will be heading to the playoffs for the first time in his career.
“It was probably one of the most rewarding images I saw in the locker room Sunday night after the game: Joe Haden in his AFC North champion hat and T-shirt,” Tomlin said.
“He was excited about it and rightfully so. Hopefully we’ll get him back into the land of competing so he can be back in the fold with us, but only if he’s ready.”
A little bit of Haden could go a long way against Brady, who is 7-2 against the Steelers with 24 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Getting pressure on him would help, and if Pittsburgh wants to blitz it needs to go man-to-man effectively.
The Steelers are second in the NFL with 41 sacks and their 13 picks are tied for seventh.
“I feel like we’re in a better position to (play man-to-man), and we have practiced it more, globally speaking, over the course of a 12-month calendar,” Tomlin said Tuesday. “We’ll see what it looks like.”
While Haden could return, the Steelers are still adjusting to life without linebacker Ryan Shazier. The 25-year-old Shazier injured his spine in the first quarter of a 23-20 victory over Cincinnati on Dec. 4 and remains in the hospital recovering from spine stabilization surgery.
The team has been tight-lipped about Shazier’s long-term prognosis, but placing him on injured reserve means he won’t be back at any point this season, if he returns at all.
Still, Shazier remains very much a part of the team. Several players visited him in the hospital shortly after Chris Boswell’s winning field goal against the Ravens.
Tomlin has stopped by too, with Shazier frequently steering the conversation toward the team’s status and not his own.
“I go see him, he wants to talk about the game plan, how the guys are doing, what’s transpiring in practice settings and so forth,” Tomlin said.
The reality of how difficult it will be to move forward without Shazier came into stark focus against Baltimore. The Ravens rolled up 413 yards as Tomlin shuttled between Arthur Moats and Sean Spence at Shazier’s inside linebacker spot, with uneven results at best.
“Shay’s a special guy with a lot of talents, not only physically but mentally and from a leadership standpoint,” Tomlin said. “It’s not a realistic discussion to talk about one guy replacing him.”
Either way, the Steelers must move on.
Tomlin understands the hype surrounding the meeting between two teams that have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl 10 times in the past 16 years. Rather than run from it, he’s running towards it.
“I love it,” Tomlin said. “It’s good to be in big games than be in ones nobody’s watching. We better be appreciative of this spot and not resist it in any way. This is what we’ve been fighting for since March. Why would you fight that? It’s an awesome thing.”