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Kingerski: Why Penguins Coach’s Challenges Succeed but Steelers Fail

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This article originally appeared on Pittsburgh Hockey Now.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has never had a losing record. In 11 seasons, the Steelers head coach has consistently won everything, except coach’s challenges. Tomlin’s abysmal record with coach’s challenges has never been more apparent than his 0-for-10 record challenges since January, 2017. Across the river, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has won three straight challenges and four this season.

It’s about process. The Penguins have one. Apparently, the Steelers do not.

The Penguins have a set of dedicated eyes in the sky which belong to Andy Saucier.

“Sauce is an all-star,” said Sullivan on Dec. 15 after yet another successful challenge which denied the Penguins’ opponent a goal.

Last Sunday, Tomlin refused to challenge an incomplete pass which likely would have been overturned to a turnover in the Steelers favor. Tomlin reasoned, “(the officials) were definitive about it and we moved on.”

Oh, well if the stripes say so. By all means, trust the same referees which took the ball from the Steelers via erroneous pass interference calls after the Steelers defended crucial fourth down attempts, or as Tomlin put it, “won the situation.”

Sure, trust those guys.

NFL games have between 12 to 20 cameras which are able to show blades of grass bend beneath tapping toes and slightly deflected footballs which would otherwise negate pass interference, all in high definition and super slow motion.

And yet Mike Tomlin’s gut is more than an arbiter weighing input from specialists. Tomlin’s gut seemingly is the Steelers replay team.

“(Saucier) is terrific at breaking down those situations because we don’t get a good enough look on the bench,” said Sullivan. “We sat as a coaching staff before the season started and we defined a criteria on what we’re going to challenge and what we’re not.”

“And so we try to define a criteria as clearly as we can. And now everybody has a role and a responsibility,” Sullivan continued. Some of those responsibilities fall on Penguins goaltending coach Mike Buckley who weighs in on goaltender interference. Other challenges such as offside fall on Saucier to quickly review tape and communicate with the coaches and Sullivan.

But Mike Tomlin’s wishful thinking and a jumbotron are OK, too, right?

Baseball teams have numerous monitors each with numerous angles set up in the clubhouse for replays. Challenges are not left to the whims or hopes from the bench. As Sullivan admitted, the view from the bench and certainly the sidelines sometimes over 50 yards away isn’t good enough.

Goaltending interference is every bit as confusing or nebulous as the NFL catch rule(s), so each sport has its potential reviews without a clear answer, but the Penguins have managed to win four of their last six challenges, regardless.

The Penguins have won playoff games because they’ve taken opponents’ goals off the board. It is easier to wonder if Tomlin were just 1-4 instead of 0-5 this season if the Steelers would be resting starters, Sunday instead of playing and hoping for their playoff lives.

“I just think (Saucier) is an all-star,” repeated Sullivan. And the have Penguins reaped the rewards in big moments and small. Despite not having the tens of millions of dollars which flows through NFL teams at their disposal, the Penguins not only have a system in place but a video replay setup, too.

And imagine, Mike Sullivan’s success rate is only in the middle pack in the NHL. Somehow, NHL teams with far fewer cameras and grainy looks at the play are overturning calls and setting right the games. Conversely, the Steelers rely on emotion and perception from 150 feet away, which is just not good enough.

Nor is taking the officials word for it.

That is why the Penguins challenges have been successful, and the Steelers are 0-5 this season and 0-10 over the past 23 months.

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Saunders: T.J. Watt Not among Long List of Steelers’ Issues this Offseason

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Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt, unhappy with the way the 2020 season ended, chose not attend his exit interview with the team, according to a report on Monday by WXDX-FM host Mark Madden.

Watt denied the report, saying that he had in fact met with Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator and de-facto outside linebackers coach Keith Butler before leaving the city at the close of the season.

Let’s make no mistake, the Steelers have a lot of problems this offseason.

• They chose not to retain three coaches and another retired. The general manager, head coach and defensive coordinator are all working on year-to-year contracts.

• Tight end Vance McDonald has already retired. Center Maurkice Pouncey looks like he’s leaning that way.

• Starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hasn’t made his decision public yet, but he’ll either retire or return and contribute to a salary cap crunch that already has the team operating way in the red.

• And that’s before any of the Steelers’ 19 free agents gets a chance to re-sign. 

All told, at least a half-dozen starters are unlikely to return along with several key rotational players. 

Regardless of whether he did or didn’t attend his exit meeting with the team last week, T.J. Watt is not one of those problems.

The all-everything linebacker was the best player on one of the best defenses in the league all season, is scheduled to return for his fifth season in black and gold in 2021 and is the player most likely to be offered a long-term extension by the club between now and then.

Even despite the loss of cohort Bud Dupree and sitting out a meaningless finale in Cleveland, Watt led the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits, he was named a first-team Associated Press All-Pro and voted Steelers MVP by his teammates. He remains the odds-on favorite to become the NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Watt is coming back, he’s still going to be really, really good, and nothing said or not said in an interview would have changed that.

The rest of the team? 

Who knows.

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Saunders: Steelers’ ‘Standard’ Makes for Tough Evaluations

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PITTSBURGH — “The standard is the standard.”

Of all of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s unique sayings, that might be the most ubiquitous.

It’s also the one that’s just as much about the place that Tomlin coaches than it is about his particular style.

In Pittsburgh, the standard is the Super Bowl. That’s a standard that was set long before Tomlin arrived in the Steel City and will likely remain long after he’s gone. 

When you’re the franchise with the most Lombardi Trophies, anything short of adding to that case is a disappointment.

On Sunday, the Steelers suffered that disappointment, in somewhat spectacular fashion, giving up four first-quarter touchdowns to before dragging their way back to a respectable final score in a 48-37 loss to the Cleveland Browns.

That is, respectable anywhere else. Not in Pittsburgh, where first-round playoff losses, even on the heels of 12-4 regular seasons, draw ire and not adulation.

While that standard is a well-earned one when it comes to the level of play that the football team has shown it is capable of achieving, it’s not a particularly good one when it comes to evaluating the participants.

On Sunday, the Steelers’ first play of scrimmage saw center Maurkice Pouncey snap the ball 20 yards over the head of his quarterback and into his own end zone for seven Cleveland points. If it wasn’t so horrifying to watch for the Steelers faithful, it would have been hilarious. You couldn’t even make such an absurd way to start the game.

As the game went on, and the Steelers defense faltered time and again on the way to giving up 48 points on the day, it was undrafted rookie corner James Pierre and outside linebacker Cassius Marsh, freshly plucked from Indy’s practice squad, playing big roles, as injuries and COVID-19 conspired to leave the once-ridiculously strong defense a feeble parody of its former self.

Those aren’t excuses. Every team has dumb and weird things happen. Every team has injuries and absences. Truly great ones find a way to overcome those things in the big picture.

On the small scale, though, that’s more than enough to cost a team one game. And in the playoffs, you don’t get a mulligan. So while the focus on this season-ending Monday is rightfully on the team’s 0-1 playoff record, the 12-4 regular season probably provides a better picture of how good and how successful this truly team was.

One-game playoffs are by their nature very random events. It doesn’t take a lot for a good team to be beat a great one or a mediocre team to beat a good one.

“You know, it’s always a cumulative body of work,” Tomlin said. “One performance can put an exclamation point on decision making and things. We also assess the cumulative.”

So when Tomlin was asked after the game how he should be held accountable for failing to win a playoff game in his second straight postseason appearance, he leaned on another one of his pet sayings.



“It is what it is,” Tomlin said. “Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”

The record is what it is. The Steelers had a wildly successful first three-quarters of the season, stumbled down the stretch, and face-planted in the postseason. That means that in Pittsburgh, the team failed to meet the standard for success, and that has many talking about Tomlin’s future.

Fortunately for Tomlin, the Rooney Family also seems to have a pretty keen understanding about the volatile math of the playoffs. After all, grading every season on a Super Bowl or bust, pass-fail grading scale, would involve a lot of failing grades. But the Steelers have had more stable leadership than any other NFL team, with just three coaches going back to the 1960s.

Chuck Noll went four years without winning a playoff game twice, once from 1980-83, going 0-2 and didn’t make the playoffs at all from 1985-88. Bill Cowher missed the postseason three straight years from 1998-2000. Tomlin is on his second such four-year span, going 0-2 from 2011-14 and now 0-2 from 2017-20. That’s a lot of failing, and a lot of guys that kept right on with their jobs.

The standard may be the standard in the fans’ eyes, but it’s clear that in the evaluation of coaches, the Rooney family has other methods. Perhaps Tomlin has failed in some of those areas, as well. His strategy on Sunday was questionable in many facets and in-game management has never been a strength. The way the game started, with a 28-point deficit and the fact that it came at the hands of the Browns likely did Tomlin no favors.

“There’s pain associated with where we are right now,” Tomlin said. “Ain’t no running away from that. That’s football and that’s life.”

There are many questions about what the Steelers team will look like after an offseason that is sure to be full of turmoil and turn over. It’s possible that may include change at the head coach position, but it seems overwhelmingly more likely that it will not. It’s hard to argue with what has led the Rooneys and Steelers to so much success. It’s part of why the standard is the standard.

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Steelers Now Staff 2020 Season Predictions

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Here are our Steelers Now staff predictions for the 2020 season. Think you know better than we do? Leave your prediction in the comments.

NICK FARABAUGH, STEELERS NOW ANALYST, REPORTER

The Steelers boast an impressive defense. They return most of the guys from last year except Javon Hargrave and Mark Barron, but they do add back in Stephon Tuitt. This is still a defense that has playmakers at every level. From T.J. Watt and Heyward to Devin Bush to Minkah Fitzpatrick and Joe Haden, this is a defense that offensive coordinators do not want to face, period. This team had an astonishing 38 turnovers forced last year, and I have to think while they may not repeat that number, they’ll get close to it. It was a nice depth signing to bring on Sean Davis as well in case of any injuries to the safety group. I don’t see this defense taking much of a step back.

However, the offense should take a step forward. After a year without Ben Roethlisberger, he is back and by all reports looks great. The additions of Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool give him an even more expansive group of weapons than he had coming into last year. The offensive line depth looks fantastic thanks to the signing of Stefen Wisniewski and picking Kevin Dotson in the 4th round. This team has a lot of schematic flexibility. With Matt Canada bringing his motion and play-action concepts with him as well, this offense has a lot of upside to it. I think this offense takes a big step up this year, especially in the red zone.

The Steelers prediction is not too tough on paper. The NFC East is an OK division, and while the NFC South has some tough teams, the Steelers are very capable of winning all those games. Not pulling the Chiefs is a pretty nice bonus, too.

Season Prediction: 11-5

Three other predictions that I will throw out:

• Eric Ebron will lead this offense in receiving touchdowns. He’s going to be a huge threat in the red zone for this team.

• Steven Nelson gets 3+ interceptions this year. It was a bit of a down year in terms of ball production for him last year, but that changes this year.

• James Conner stays healthy enough and gets his first 1,000-yard rushing season.

ALAN SAUNDERS, STEELERS NOW MANAGING EDITOR, BEAT WRITER

With a very, very weird offseason, I think the beginning of the 2020 season is going to be tough, even for good football teams. We’ve already seen that through Week 1, with the San Francisco 49ers dropping a game to the Arizona Cardinals and the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles finding ways to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Washington Redskins.

But the Steelers have been blessed with a very light open to their season. They’ll get the New York Giants, fresh off a coaching change, followed by the listless Denver Broncos and DeAndre Hopkins-less Houston Texans, setting the team up for a potential 3-0 start before facing a pair of playoff teams in the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Later non-division games at Jacksonville, against Washington, at Buffalo and against Indianapolis all seem very winnable.

Divisional play should also lean the Steelers’ way, as Cleveland has not significantly improved, and while Cincinnati will be much better, they were so bad last season, it would hard to be worse. They should be favored in four of six division games.

From a team standpoint, they certainly got better than last year, simply by the addition of Roethlisberger. If this defense can drag the offense to an 8-8 record without Roethlisberger, how good can they be with him? Truly, the sky is the limit, as there isn’t a single game on the Steelers’ slate that seems unwinnable at the outset of the season.

The lone stumbling block will be a Baltimore Ravens team that defeated Pittsburgh twice last year and also got better in the offseason, adding defensive lineman Calais Campbell and five top-100 draft picks from the 2020 NFL Draft. The Ravens are the best team in the division, and even Roethlisberger won’t be a sure thing to change that math in the Steelers’ favor.

Season prediction: 11-5, No. 5 seed in AFC, loss in AFC Championship Game

Bonus Steelers predictions:

• Diontae Johnson will be the team’s leading receiver.
• Three Steelers will have more than 10 sacks.
• Chase Claypool will score more than four touchdowns.

Bonus NFL predictions:

• The New England Patriots will have a better record than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
• The New York Jets will finish in last place.
• Joe Burrow will win Offensive Rookie of the Year.

MIKE VUKOVCAN, CO-FOUNDER

12-4. The Steelers will win the AFC North and will play the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl. The team’s biggest offensive weapon will be Ebron.

MIKE ASTI, DIGITAL CONTENT MANAGER

11-5. I have Steelers winning AFC North because of actual stability at quarterback and another year together for the defense. Roethlisberger will also be more efficient than he’s been because of the addition of Ebron in particular, who will be among best offseason additions throughout league.

CALE BERGER, DIGITAL CONTENT PRODUCER

11-5. Win AFC north. lose to Chiefs in AFC championship. Defense will be stellar. Diontae Johnson team MVP

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