Kevin Gorman: Steelers-Patriots turning point for Mike Tomlin |
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Kevin Gorman
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin talks with defensive end Cameron Heyward in the second half against the Chargers on Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018.

Cameron Heyward heard the catcalls from Pittsburgh Steelers fans for the firing of Mike Tomlin this past week, and the defensive captain couldn’t believe it was even a consideration.

But three consecutive losses sent Steelers Nation into a panic. The sudden threat of missing the playoffs for the first time in five years has fans in a firing frenzy and Tomlin the target of their frustration.

“I think it’s a goofy thing to even think about,” Heyward said of the Steelers’ 12th-year coach. “The dude’s never even had a losing season. We’re fighting for his job every year. It’s crazy. … It’s unfortunate, but it’s up to us to play for everyone in this locker room and this staff.”

That makes this the perfect week to play the New England Patriots, the team that best represents Tomlin’s shortcomings with the Steelers. Where Tomlin has won two AFC titles and a Super Bowl since 2007, the Patriots have won five conference titles and two Super Bowls, their last one at the Steelers’ expense.

“As we prepare for New England and looking at the challenges they provide,” Tomlin said, “obviously they provide significant ones.”

This is the inescapable truth for Tomlin: He has to prove he can beat Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Although Tomlin’s .653 regular-season winning percentage ranks second among active coaches to Belichick (.680), Tomlin is 2-7 against the Patriots and has lost to them in the regular season each of the past three years, twice at Heinz Field.

The Steelers also didn’t have to go through New England in the playoffs in either of their Super Bowl appearances under Tomlin, and they lost to the Patriots in the AFC championship game two years ago.

Essentially, the Patriots are to the Steelers in the past decade what the Steelers were to the rest of the AFC in the 1970s.

This is either going to be Tomlin’s finest hour or the turning point in his tenure. Tomlin responded to back-to-back 8-8 seasons with four consecutive years of 10-plus victories. But the standard for the Steelers is the Super Bowl, and it’s been a decade since they won a ring. In that same span, the Patriots have played in four and won two NFL titles.

“He’s been in the heat before. This is not his first rodeo, as you would say,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said of Tomlin. “All of us get bothered by freaking losing. Our jobs are dependent on winning and losing. The more you lose, the more of a chance you have of not keeping your job. Nobody likes that crap.”

Tomlin was second-guessed for his clock management and defensive letdowns after a disappointing defeat to the Oakland Raiders, problems that have been a recurring theme for the Steelers. But he has remained steadfast in accepting blame while “actively seeking victory.”

“That’s why we respect him,” Heyward said. “It’s not like he’s switching up. He’s going to be firm. He’s going to hold his ground. And he’s going to inspire the team that we’ve got to win this game.”

Another home-field failure against the Patriots could put the Steelers in jeopardy of missing the playoffs and do further damage to the perception of Tomlin in Pittsburgh. For all of his regular-season success, Tomlin is 8-7 in the postseason and has three playoff wins since the Steelers lost in Super Bowl XLV to the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers firing Mike McCarthy didn’t help Tomlin’s cause, proof even the most respected organizations run out of patience. The Steelers consider it a badge of honor they have had only three coaches since 1969, but it’s rarely mentioned the revolving door they had with more than a dozen in the previous 36 years.

Stability has been a secret of the Steelers’ success, and firing Tomlin would break from the blueprint. The Steelers know they are playing not only for their playoff lives but also for the security of their coach. There’s something Heyward wants to remind Steelers fans about Tomlin, who is more revered than reviled by his players.

“That he’s a human being and he’s a damn good one,” Heyward said. “He holds everybody accountable, and he holds himself accountable more than anything. There are many times when I’m beating myself up after a game, and I’m texting and calling him and he’s right there with me. The guy wants to win. That’s the type of coach I want to play for.

“The standard is the standard, and he leads that way. You’ve got to appreciate it. What better way to set yourself up. You want success. If you’re playing for anything other than success, then that’s not the job for you. We’re going to try to win a game and he’s going to try to lead us.”

It’s time for Tomlin to lead the Steelers to the standard. Beating Belichick and the Patriots at Heinz Field on Sunday would be a good start and the best way to avoid any goofy thoughts.

Hey, Steelers Nation, get the latest news about the Pittsburgh Steelers here.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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