The circus came to Pittsburgh.
Mike Tomlin’s players looked unprepared and unfocused in the first half of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ upset of the Steelers on Sunday. Tomlin only has himself to blame. The Steelers coach has created a laissez-faire environment where players can say and do whatever they want.
The result was a disorganized group of highly talented players who couldn’t get their act together for a Super Bowl run.
It all started when Tony Dungy and Tomlin sat down for an interview on NBC in November. Tomlin told Dungy there would be “fireworks” against the Patriots in Week 15. The Steelers coach promised the game would be the first of a two-part series — with the second being the AFC championship. He said all that before a Week 13 game against the Bengals, which the Steelers nearly lost, 23-20.
The writing was on the wall — Tomlin just didn’t read it.
That interview set the tone for the season. When players began talking incessantly about the Patriots in the regular season and the postseason, they followed their coach’s leadership. Tomlin said it was “ridiculous” not to acknowledge the obstacles on the way to their goal: a Super Bowl win. The Patriots, presumably, would be in the Steelers’ way. Meanwhile, New England would make no mention of Pittsburgh after the Week 15 win. Not even the Patriots’ signing of James Harrison, the Steelers’ franchise sack leader, could encourage chatter about Pittsburgh.
During the AFC divisional round, Mike Mitchell was emphatically promising a win over the Patriots in New England. Because, apparently, he wasn’t taking the Jaguars seriously. And the Jaguars took it to the Steelers for that exact reason. Steelers offensive lineman David Decastro, a Stanford man, did not approve of his team’s obsession with the Patriots.
“We played like crap, and we want to talk about New England?” David DeCastro said after the game Sunday. “I don’t know what to say about that. It’s just stupid. It’s just not what you do. You don’t need to give a team like that more bulletin board material.”
Sounds like a direct shot against Tomlin’s philosophy. Did I mention DeCastro went to Stanford? He seems like a smart guy.
But the Steelers’ decision to look forward was not the only issue they’ve had in this playoff run and in past years.
Le’Veon Bell threatened retirement over his contract last week. You can see his logic: the Patriots game is the important one, so let’s settle this contract now during the unimportant game.
Bell’s selfish decision seemed a lot like Antonio Brown’s decision to broadcast on Facebook Live in the Steelers’ locker room last year. After the Steelers beat the Chiefs, Brown appeared on Facebook smiling and posing with teammates. Eventually Tomlin began speaking to the players, and he discussed — who else? — the evil Patriots. This time it was justified. The Steelers were slated to play the Patriots in the AFC championship. But the video became an enormous distraction before a Steelers loss.
The Steelers have a behavioral and preparation problem, not a talent problem. NFL analyst Ross Tucker posed an interesting question: How many Patriots players could start for the Steelers? The answer: Not many. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Devin McCourty are the obvious ones. A few others are arguably in the mix.
The Steelers are the vastly superior team. And yet they lost to the Patriots at home during the regular season and they lost against the Jaguars, which ended their shot at a rematch at Gillette Stadium.
Tomlin clearly doesn’t know how to get the best out of this Pittsburgh team. When the biggest games of the year roll around, the Steelers forget to show up. His inability to focus his team has been the Pittsburgh’s downfall.