Before Sunday night’s 31-28 victory against the mediocre Packers, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin looked ahead to the New England game Dec. 17.
During the game against the Packers, his team almost did as well.
On the NBC pregame show, Tomlin, in a stunning departure from the usual NFL coach refrain of “one week at a time,” said this about his club’s pending showdown versus the Patriots:
“I’m going to embrace the elephant in the room. It’s going to be fireworks,” Tomlin said. “It’s probably going to be part one, and that’s going to be a big game. But, probably, if we’re both doing what we’re supposed to do, the second is really going to be big.”
To be clear, Tomlin was addressing a game three weeks in advance. Furthermore, he is implying that an AFC championship game rematch to that Week 15 game is likely.
As a 16-year-old, I’d have sooner expected my parents to tell me on a Saturday night, “Sure. Take the car. Drive fast. Take chances. And whatever you do, make sure you stay out way past curfew.”
That’s about as anti-Mike Tomlin of a quote as I could conjure. I would’ve expected something like, “The Patriots are a great team. We acknowledge that. But you know how we operate around here. We are singularly focused on the task at hand. This week, that’s the Packers.”
You can almost hear him saying it, right?
After the last-second win, Tomlin doubled down on his statements about the Patriots contest.
“Everybody in America knows it’s a big game,” Tomlin reiterated in his postgame news conference. “We couldn’t deny it if we wanted to. You guys are going to ask us about it between now and then, so I stand by the statement.”
The candor is great. But these are Tomlin’s Steelers we are talking about. They long have been a team notorious for losses to vastly inferior teams.
And even in this 9-2 season the Steelers have shown a propensity to do so again. They lost to a bad Chicago team. They got hammered by a Jacksonville team that had no hype but proved worthy of more. They only beat the Browns by a field goal and needed last-second walk-off kicks from Chris Boswell to beat the lowly Colts and this wounded Packers outfit.
The last group of players in the world that should be hearing a message about a game 21 days away are these Pittsburgh Steelers.
Tomlin’s quotes are refreshing. But they are also evidence bolstering many complaints about teams under his watch.
That they get up for the big games but overlook bad teams. That they are unfocused during preparations when they are big favorites. That they look ahead on the calendar.
Even Tony Dungy, whom Tomlin referred to as “an old friend” when referencing the NBC interview, said during the broadcast that he noticed lots of blown coverages and dropped passes during the Steelers’ Friday practice .
That manifested in three pass plays allowed of 39 yards or more, five to six Steelers drops, a missed extra point and three turnovers Sunday.
The fans and media can be as consumed with the Patriots as we want. That’s part of the fun of following a team best positioned to at least challenge the defending champs.
But the players and the coaches can’t be.
In the race for the conference top spot, a loss to Cincinnati or Baltimore before the Patriots game likely would force the Steelers to have to play their starters through the last two weeks of the season even if they beat New England. Or it’d likely eliminate any chance of surpassing them if New England should gift back a loss after a potential win at Heinz Field.
“I can’t look ahead in this league. I just can’t,” offensive lineman David DeCastro said. “When we are playing the Cincinnati Bengals, don’t you think they want to kick our … well, beat us really badly?”
I’ll finish your thought, David. Yes, they do want to kick you there. And with Vontaze Burfict on the field, I bet he tries to kick you elsewhere, too.
“I think right now we just need to pay attention to the next week,” defensive end Stephon Tuitt said. “Eliminate the explosion plays on defense. And pay attention to the things that will get us better.”
Tuitt raises a good point. When Tomlin was looking ahead to the Patriots game, was Tom Brady actually playing in it? Because if an erratic first-year starter like Brett Hundley can go off for three TDs and a 134 passer rating Sunday night, imagine what Brady will do to the Steelers.
Actually, you won’t have to imagine. We’ve all seen it a bunch of times before.
The fact that the Bengals are next on the Steelers’ schedule makes the irony of Tomlin’s comments too much to ignore. Honest and fresh though his comments might be, the smarter thing to do would’ve been to bottle the bravado and taken a page from Bill Belichick’s playbook by simply saying:
“We’re on to Cincinnati .”
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.