Mike Tomlin doesn’t care who suits up on special teams Sunday in Atlanta when his Pittsburgh Steelers take on the 5-7 Falcons.
He expects them to perform better than they did Monday night.
During the Steelers’ 24-17 win over the Colts on Monday Night Football, the Steelers’ special teams unit struggled in kickoff coverage.
Specifically, the group allowed an 89-yard kickoff return to Dallis Flowers to open the second half. That led to a Colts touchdown and tightened the score, cutting significantly into the Steelers’ 16-3 halftime lead.
Tomlin doesn’t want to see that again.
He made that point abundantly clear Tuesday afternoon during his weekly press conference at the Rooney Complex.
“The negative components of play [vs. the Colts], man, I just thought –– like I mentioned last night –– I just thought our kickoff coverage was not good,” Tomlin said.
Taking it a step further, Tomlin noted that injuries kept some significant special teams players off the field.
He also noted that fact doesn’t really matter moving forward.
And “moving forward” brings arguably the best kick returner in NFL history –– Cordarrelle Patterson –– front and center for the Steelers to stop next.
“We were missing Miles Boykin and Robert Spillane, but, boy, it’s unacceptable,” Tomlin continued. “Particularly because of where we’re going this week and matching up against Patterson, who is the best there is at that.
“And so we got some work ahead of us and preparation on a short week to shore up that component of play, and we can’t chalk it up solely to players available or unavailable.”
Steelers linebacker Myles Jack buys into that sentiment.
“We try to step up and replace everyone,” Jack said after the Colts showdown. “That includes Rob. We did a good job, but you look even on kickoff, we have to step up in all areas when we have guys out. It’s next man up.”
Now, the task for that special teams unit is clear: Stop Patterson. Don’t let him affect the game with splash plays.
It won’t be easy.
Recently, Patterson became the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return touchdowns with nine.
Tomlin isn’t shy about recognizing greatness.
“I’ll talk about Patterson and what a dynamic return man he is,” Tomlin began. “The field-position component of play, his resume, what he has been, man, needs no endorsement from me. It’s just been nothing short of special.”
Tomlin didn’t stop there.
“And the things that he’s able to do on offense as well,” Tomlin continued. “I remember going to his pro day over a decade ago –– or a decade ago –– and really just thinking what a special athlete he was. At that time, Tennessee had used him a little bit on some toss-sweeps and stuff exclusively out of the backfield. He’s been a return man and, you know, some wide receiver screens and things of that nature.
“But to watch those talents evolve over the last decade and be the dynamic playmaker that he has been as a wide receiver, as a running back, as a starter-capable runner, as a dynamic return man, I just [got] a lot of respect for him. And boy, we gotta minimize his impact on the game –– and that’s no easy task.”
It might not be easy, but that’s now priority No. 1 for this Steelers unit as they march into Mercedes Benz Stadium in search of their fifth win of the 2022 NFL season.