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Steelers Commentary

Saunders: Mike Tomlin Failed to Learn His Own Lesson



Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin
Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 15, 2024. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Pittsburgh Steelers made an improbable run to get to the 2023 postseason, winning their final three games and getting the help they needed to get in after the New York Times gave them just a 4% chance of Mike Tomlin and his squad making it to the playoffs.

There were a lot of things that were different about the team down the stretch. Co-offensive coordinators Eddie Faulkner and Mike Sullivan seemed to find their stride after taking over from Matt Canada mid-season. The offensive line and running game played their best ball over the final quarter of the season.

Then there was the revelation that was the play of third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who was clearly superior to the players above him on the depth chart when he finally got his chance.

But it wasn’t just the players or the Xs and Os that changed down the stretch. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin seemed to change, too. He seemed to embrace a “what do we have to lose?” energy that included doing things like starting the No. 3 quarterback.

Tomlin was caught on video calling for a pass play to win the game against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 17 when conventional wisdom suggested a run was in order. He also went for multiple fourth downs in that game in places where he has punted in the past.

RELATED: Did Mike Tomlin Learn a Lesson about Being Aggressive?

It seemed that Tomlin was embracing the desperation of the situation. “Scared money don’t make money” was how he described it and that became a rallying cry for the team down the stretch.

Then the Steelers got to the playoffs, and all of that seemed lost.

The Steelers’ offensive playcalling against the Buffalo Bills was extremely conservative. The Bills came out in a single-high look, with loaded boxes, but the Steelers still plowed Najee Harris into the line over and over again. He ran 12 times for 37 yards — 3.1 yards per carry.

Even Harris was wondering what the Steelers were thinking.

Steelers RB Najee Harris

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris is swarmed by Buffalo Bills defenders on Jan. 15, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

“You know when you run into loaded boxes, there’s going to be runs like we saw today,” Harris said. “Obviously it was an agenda for a team like them to come in a play one-high. That’s why we didn’t get going in the run game. …

“They’re typically, and we thought they would be more 22 man and more two-high, but first play they came out in one-high, and them throughout the game, even when they were up, they were still playing one-high. I was going to Coach T asking if they were still in it. I came into half and they were still in one-high.”

Late in the first half, the Steelers finally got a spark from a big play from special teams when Montravius Adams blocked a field goal. The long carom off Adams’ facemask set the Steelers up with solid field position — that Rudolph and company were able to take advantage of — and furthermore, Bills punter Sam Martin was injured attempted to corral the loose ball and keep Nick Herbig from scooping it up for a touchdown.

On the ensuing possession, the Bills took over with 1:39 to play. The Steelers had all three timeouts. The Bills did not have a healthy punter and were deep in Pittsburgh territory. The Steelers didn’t call any time outs until there were two seconds left in the half. They didn’t even try to get the ball back.

What happened to aggression? What happened to sacred money not making money? It’s like all the lessons that Tomlin learned on the path to the playoffs, the devil-may-car attitude that clearly helped the team, went away. 

It was back to conservative Tomlin, and it was back to losing.

Steelers HC Mike Tomlin

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 15. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

When the Steelers scored a touchdown to draw within eight points in the fourth quarter, anyone that has even a moderate grasp of modern NFL analytical strategy would say the right move would have been to go for two.

The math figures a 50% chance of making a two-point conversion and a 100% chance of making an extra point. Given the windy conditions — the Bills missed two field goals — there was probably a far lower chance of making the extra point.

The idea of playing for the two-point conversion first is to try to put the team in a position to win the game with scores, with the option of going for two again as a fall-back if the first try fails. A team has to go 0 for 2 for the strategy to backfire.

But he didn’t even try it. He played for the tie, sending Boswell out for the extra point.

There are plenty of things that have made Tomlin a great coach over the course of his career. His ability to get the most out of his players, to manage personalities, and his consistency over time are noteworthy.

But his tendency, despite his catchphrases, is far too often to live in his fears. His money — reportedly $12.5 million this year — is far too often scared. He’s never learned to be the kind of aggressive coach that most often has success in the modern NFL.

Tomlin deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Steelers together and getting them into the playoffs. He’s a big part of the reason for the team’s end-of-season winning streak and 10-win record. He’s also a big part of their playoff failure, and that’s a story that’s been repeated all too often in recent history.