In a week in which a second NFL coach was fired for his team's failings, Mike Tomlin quietly showed once again why he might be one of the best young coaches in the history of the game.
Tomlin smoothly navigated the Pittsburgh Steelers through what could have been a troublesome week with a series of bold decisions, displaying a keen sense for the pulse of his locker room, something often lacking in other organizations this season. Coming off a dispiriting performance against New England at home in Week 10, Tomlin faced the challenge of quickly redirecting the energy of his ballclub, with a bit of panic setting in around Pittsburgh that this group might fade in the second half. Instead, Tomlin's moves -- jettisoning a high-profile kicker; juggling his offensive line; marshaling his players through more tough practices; restoring an emphasis on the run game and physical football -- culminated in a thrashing of the Raiders on Sunday that catapulted the Steelers back into the Super Bowl conversation.
"We all knew how big this game was for us," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the 35-3 victory. "We had to get back to playing our kind of football."
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley said: "Coach was saying it was time to get back to playing Steeler football. He kind of laid down to us that it was time to get back to playing physical football."
A loss to Oakland, or even a lackluster performance in a victory, would have been a setback. Early in the week Tomlin stressed the need to play Steeler football, to display more urgency on defense and adopt a more direct approach on offense. He drove the point home by putting the team in pads Wednesday, a rarity for teams as accomplished as this bunch.
"It was different for us, and there was more contact," Woodley said, "but at the same time it was still under control. It was smart."
Tomlin's message carried through the week.
"Coming off that New England game, we kind of went out there and embarrassed ourselves," Woodley said. "On defense, we couldn't stop them; on the first series they marched the ball on us and they put up all kinds of points on us and controlled the game and ran the ball on us.
Tomlin, 38, often appears to be very much like his players. He's close in age, dealing with similar life experiences. He walks and talks like them. But he's also clearly a leader of men, and has shown an ability to deliver a stern hand when necessary. And unlike a year ago, when his vow to "unleash hell" in December fell hallow, Tomlin's actions last week did more than those words ever could.
Kicker Jeff Reed, despite his immature off-field foibles and dip in productivity this season, was well regarded within that locker room based on his prior big kicks. He had kicked on championship teams. The conditions at Heinz Field are among the most rugged in the league, and, up until this year, Reed had handled them with aplomb. So, even despite his untimely remarks about fans following the loss to the Patriots, cutting the veteran the next day certainly read like a statement to the entire team.
"A lot of us were surprised by that," Woodley said. "I definitely was surprised he got let go."
Tomlin also took a proactive approach to the offensive mindset. Trai Essex, when healthy, had been a regular starter the past two seasons. But Tomlin benched him for the Oakland game, with second-year reserve Ramon Foster getting that spot at guard. The Steelers ended up run blocking better than they had in weeks, particularly to the right side, and, whereas the Patriots were assaulting Roethlisberger all night, the Raiders' big defensive line didn't sustain much pressure until deep in the game.
The will to run the ball was also there, another factor born of the more physical practices. The Steelers' first scoring drive -- while trailing, 3-0 -- was a testament to that. This was quintessential Pittsburgh football -- 14 plays, 85 yards, 8:06 time of possession. Six of the final eight plays were rushes by Rashard Mendenhall, including the touchdown, and the Raiders never quite recovered.
The Steelers regained their swagger as the game went on. Things turned chippy early, with Chris Kemoeatu going at it with Richard Seymour and then Seymour ultimately getting ejected and fined $25,000 for punching Roethlisberger in the head after a play. So it was no surprise that Roethlisberger continued to look for Mike Wallace deep downfield even with the game out of hand, and Tomlin opted to play many key veterans very late into the blowout.
There was plenty Tomlin still wanted to get on film for the rest of the league to see. Pittsburgh football is never without a hint of intimidation, and this was no time to show mercy to an inferior opponent. Raiders quarterbacks Jason Campbell and Bruce Gradkowski could never get comfortable, and the beating spanned all spheres, from the mental to the physical to the emotional.
But having already lost to the Ravens (on a last-second drive) and Patriots at home, Tomlin and the Steelers know that only so much can be proven in November. A Week 13 trip to Baltimore looms with the AFC North on the line. However, with a meeting against the offensively potent Bills next, you can guarantee Tomlin is railing against any signs of complacency.
Carolina on my mind
But it's also just as certain that Marty Hurney will remain as general manager, according to league sources. Owner Jerry Richardson shares a strong relationship with him, and believes a young core of players will emerge. The draft remains their lifeblood and ownership values Hurney's drafting acumen.
I continue to hear it's most likely the team goes with a veteran, established coordinator for its next coaching hire. It won't be super splashy, but two candidates league sources are pointing to above others are Arizona assistant head coach Russ Grimm and San Diego defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. I would not be surprised at all if one of them ends up landing that job.
For as dismal as the Panthers are, particularly at the QB position, imagine if they enter next season with Andrew Luck and Jimmy Clausen on the roster? The running backs should stay healthy and Mike Goodson is showing now exactly why Hurney has rebuffed overtures for him for so long. The running game should return and the offensive line will be much improved with Jeff Otah back next season. They will also get Thomas Davis back to anchor the defense.
It seems bleak now, but things can change in a hurry, particularly in that division, where Atlanta came out of nowhere a few seasons back and Tampa is doing the same right now. As for Fox, I don't suspect he will be out of work long. If the Browns falter and make a move, I see him in contention there. Spots like Buffalo and Jacksonville, which looked like possible vacancies a few weeks back, might not open up now.
» Another week, another miracle from Cardiac Mark Sanchez. What he and Santonio Holmes are doing late in games is truly phenomenal. Despite all of those heroics, though, I found it surprising Sanchez has just a 64.3 passer rating in the fourth quarter overall this season (completing 47.8 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and two picks). Regardless, the kid is nothing if not clutch. …
» Logan Mankins and Marcus McNeill missed an awful lot of football, but both are making a big impact on their respective teams now. Each is helping anchor their offensive line and rounding into shape after prolonged holdouts. And don't forget, the other member of that holdout trio, Vincent Jackson, is eligible to play for the Chargers this week. …
» Raiders coach Tom Cable made the right choice in pulling Campbell from the debacle against the Steelers, where he had no time to operate, and giving Gradkowski some reps, but still going back to Campbell this week. There was nothing to be gained by leaving Campbell out there to get pummeled and benching him under those circumstances would have been unfair. As bad as that beating was, with a 3-0 record against the AFC West, the Raiders can continue to make a push for that division as long as they keep it up against San Diego, Kansas City and Denver. …
» The Jaguars continue their stretch of unreal finishes, led by David Garrard. To win despite six turnovers is unfathomable. But I become more of a believer every game. Over the last five weeks, only Jamaal Charles (430) and Adrian Peterson (427) have more rushing yards than Maurice Jones-Drew (415 yards); and Jones-Drew has played one fewer game than them in that span with his bye. They are getting it done going smashmouth and running between the tackles. And couple that with the fact that Garrard is the highest-rated full-time starting QB in spread formations (four receivers or more), and you have a winning combination, at least on that side of the ball. Garrard has completed 44-of-62 attempts from four-wide or more (71 percent!) with eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 119 passer rating. …
» While Carl Peterson will not be a part of the Dolphins front office despite his 25-year friendship with Miami owner Steve Ross, he remains one of Ross' closest confidants. They share an office down the hall from each other in New York City, and Peterson attends Dolphins games with some regularity. Peterson told me a front-office job is not intriguing to him now. "I have no interest in a football-guru type role," Peterson said. He does, however, give his opinion and insight to Ross when asked for it, and Peterson is a big Jeff Ireland guy. He hired Ireland before Ireland became a part of Bill Parcells' cartel, and still feels like Ireland can build a winner there. And Ireland seems pretty committed to Tony Sparano as the coach. So I wouldn't expect much big change in Miami even with the Dolphins sputtering. …
Week 12 picks
Rallied to go 11-5 last week bringing me to 98-62 on the season. This week, give me the Patriots, Saints, Jets, Steelers, Vikings, Texans, Giants, Browns, Packers, Chiefs, Raiders, Rams, Ravens, Eagles, Chargers and 49ers. Happy Thanksgiving to all. Hope the turkey is moist, the gravy is thick and the football is entertaining.