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Mike Tomlin: From on the hot seat, to Coach of the Year

NFL power rankings: Pittsburgh Steelers
Dec 8, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin reacts following the game against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Tomlin and his Pittsburgh Steelers started the season out 0-3. They lost future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2.

The demise of this “once-vaunted” organization was upon us. Or so we thought. Pittsburgh has won eight of 10 since those dark days in September. The one common denominator being head coachMike Tomlin.

Off the top: Tomlin found himself on the hot seat as recently as Week 3’s loss to the San Francisco 49ers. It’s a game Pittsburgh lost despite forcing five turnovers.

Things have not been the same since. Drama has engulfed the organization. Injuries, too. Despite this, Pittsburgh continues to play smart and great football under Tomlin. It has him going from hot seat to Coach of the Year candidate.

Let us explain.

It started in March: Pittsburgh lost two All-Pro performers and potential future Hall of Famers in the height of their careers. That’s something no team in modern league history can say.

  • After sitting out the entire 2018 season, running back Le’Veon Bell bolted Pittsburgh for a lesser team in the Jets. He went full Rod Tidwell “show me the money.”
  • Star receiver Antonio Brown’s spat with Big Ben led to Pittsburgh trading him to the Oakland Raiders in a deal that wouldn’t have even been approved by “Madden.”
  • The end result was these Steelers having to rely on two players in James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster who have shown flashes but have not been the true No. 1 options in their NFL careers.

It has not gone swimmingly: Some figured that Pittsburgh would not lose a beat with Conner and Smith-Schuster as the focal points on offense. They have been proven wrong.

  • Conner has dealt with myriad injuries in his first season as Pittsburgh’s unquestioned No. 1 back. He’s already missed four games and has put up a grand total of 390 rushing yards heading into Week 15.
  • That’s a far cry from Conner replacing Bell to the tune of 1,470 total yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.
  • Smith-Schuster has recorded all of 38 receptions for 524 yards in 10 games. More than anything, he seems to be impacted by Roethlisberger’s absence.
  • Remember, the former USC standout tallied an absurd 111 catches for 1,426 yards during a Pro Bowl performance as a sophomore last season.

Picking up the pieces: No one could have envisioned Pittsburgh having success with Conner and Smith-Schuster both injury plagued and in the midst of down seasons.

  • Benny Snell? Jaylen Samuels? Trey Edmunds? These are the three backs Pittsburgh has been relying on with Conner struggling to remain on the field.
  • Snell is a rookie fourth-round pick. Samuels was selected in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL Draft. Edmunds went undrafted out of Maryland back in 2017.
  • At receiver, Pittsburgh has been forced to rely on rookie third-round pick Diontae Johnson a whole lot with fellow young receiver James Washington struggling.
  • This is the supporting cast that has helped the Steelers win eight of 10 and inch closer to a playoff spot.

It’s about the quarterback, dummy: Big Ben had been a rock for this organization over the better part of the past two decades. It led to questionable decision making from general manager Kevin Colbert.

  • Pittsburgh decided against adding a veteran behind the aging Big Ben this past offseason. Instead, it decided to rely on second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph and undrafted rookie free agent Devlin Hodges.
  • Given the hits Roethlisberger has taken and his advanced age, this did not seem like a great decision from Colbert.
  • In fact, the Steelers’ unwillingness to spend a high-round pick on a quarterback in recent years has led to some criticism of an otherwise robust front office philosophy.

Making do: Despite rostering two unproven signal callers behind an aging veteran, Tomlin has worked wonders with the quarterback room.

  • Once Big Ben went down in Week 2, all seemed to be lost for the Steelers. Some figured an organization that’s boasted the most continuity in the NFL over the past half century was about to fall flat.
  • Enter into the equation a head coach in Tomlin who did not panic. Despite obvious limitations, Rudolph went 5-3 as a starter before being benched for Hodges. That came after the ugly Week 11 incident in Cleveland.
  • All Hodges has done as a rookie is post a 3-0 record as a starter with limitations himself.

The bottom line

Duck Hodges, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell and Diontae Johnson. These are the unknowns Pittsburgh threw out there in winning its eighth game in 10 tries last week against Arizona.

At this point, it seems that the Steelers’ widespread success can be linked to Tomlin’s coaching ability and the environment he’s built in the Steel City.

To a lesser extent, it’s similar to Bill Belichick in New England. Insert X player into the scheme and watch him shine. Le’Veon Bell’s struggles with the Jets add another layer to this.

This has been the story for these Steelers over the past several decades. It’s an organization that has boasted a total of three coaches since the end of the 1968 season.

No matter what happens over the final three weeks of the regular season and potentially into the playoffs, don’t expect this to change come January.

Not only has Tomlin earned his stripes in Pittsburgh, this has been his best-ever coaching performance. It’s not close. And it could lead to a shocking Coach of the Year award.