In the offseason, Pittsburgh watched All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell leave in free agency. Antonio Brown was traded to the Oakland Raiders. The roster was trending down in talent.
In Week 2, future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger left with an elbow injury. Tests were done. So was Roethlisberger.
After beginning the season 0-3, Pittsburgh was forgotten and buried. Tomlin then gave us the best coaching job of a decorated career.
To replace Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph stepped in. To be blunt, he was underwhelming. Rudolph was fine to start, but only got worse as the season has gone on. Things hit rock bottom on Thursday Night Football, against the Cleveland Browns, when he tossed four interceptions in defeat. Then he was assaulted on the field by Myles Garrett, and the hideous performance was overshadowed.
The following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Rudolph started out poorly. Tomlin didn’t wait around, replacing him with Duck Hodges in the must-win game. Hodges hit a big touchdown pass to James Washington, the Steelers won 16-10, and now own the sixth and final seed in the AFC playoffs.
Many coaches would have waited it out with Rudolph. Tomlin was proactive any may have saved the Steelers’ season.
Inarguably, this is Tomlin’s greatest performance. Only a few months ago, Tomlin was on the hot seat. There were reports he’d likely be coaching the Washington Redskins next season. With Bell and Brown gone, and Roethlisberger hurt, Tomlin appeared out of answers after missing the playoffs despite a 7-2 start last year. His back was squarely against a wall.
Now? Pittsburgh is a top five defense in yards allowed, sixth in points allowed (just 18.8 per game), and a top 10 pass defense. The Steelers made a key trade with the Miami Dolphins to acquire defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Tomlin integrated him into the system seamlessly.
Losing Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and James Conner could have submarined the offense. While it’s a poor unit, Tomlin has gotten by despite ranking 28th in total yards. Despite it all, the Steelers are 7-5.
The best part of Tomlin’s coaching is the teaching of fundamentals that’s led to game-breaking plays. The Steelers lead the league in takeaways. They have 15 interceptions and 15 fumbles recovered. Lucky? A bit, but it still comes down squarely on good coaching.
It’s been a decade since Tomlin coached in a Super Bowl, but this season’s performance showed he is still one of the better coaches in the league. Without Tomlin, Brown can’t keep an NFL job after almost a decade of dominating the league. He wins on the field and helps off it.
The Steelers are on the cusp of making the playoffs. If they get in, Tomlin could outcoach his opponent to one of the biggest upsets we’ve seen in a long time.