The 2015 NFL season looms; pretty soon Mike Tomlin's Pittsburgh Steelers will march into hostile territory and take on the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, to kick off the beginning of not just the NFL season, but one of the toughest regular season schedules in the league.
Mike Tomlin will face, in my mind, his toughest season as the Steelers’ head coach this year.
Not only will he will have to take on numerous playoff teams (the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Arizona Cardinals, and the Baltimore Ravens – twice). He will also have to adjust to missing several star players on offense, remoulding a young defense, all the while competing in the toughest division in the NFL, the AFC North.
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Over the years many people have taken Mike Tomlin for granted, they have given him little credit during the good times and hated on him during the bad.
This was evident during the 'down' years of 2012 and 2013, when people were calling for his job as Steelers were going 8-8. Let's clear one thing up, when your worst coaching years result is two 8-8 seasons, you can count yourself lucky.
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I read and listened to people's comments on the Steelers coach during this time and the majority of them followed a similar pattern, people believed that Tomlin's success over the years was a result of players and coaches Bill Cowher drafted and signed.
Players such as Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heinz Ward, Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel, and coaches such as Dick LeBeau were all integral parts of the Super Bowl Mike Tomlin won and the second Super Bowl Mike Tomlin reached.
A fair enough judgement, but a judgement I disagree with. Sure, credit has to be given to Bill Cowher for acquiring those players, but by disregarding Mike Tomlin and saying that he had no impact or effect on the Steelers getting to two Super Bowls - and winning one - is asinine to say the least.
Returning to form
In 2014, Mike Tomlin led the Steelers to an 11-5 record and an AFC North title. As people had credited his past success to players Bill Cowher drafted, the success Tomlin tasted in 2014 was due, in large part, to players he had drafted.
Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell took the NFL by storm, teaming up with Ben Roethlisberger to become the best offensive triplet in the NFL.
Maurkice Pouncey returned from his prior injuries and, on his way to his fourth pro bowl, took command of the Steelers offensive line, along with new offensive line coach (who was hired by Tomlin) Mike Munchak.Martavis Bryant exploded onto the scene as a dynamic, speedster at the receiver position.
The talented Steelers offense has become so successful due to the changes Mike Tomlin has made, not Bill Cowher.
Sadly, the Steelers lost in the wildcard round of the playoffs to the Baltimore Ravens.
The loss highlighted some issues the Steelers had: a weak secondary, a defensive scheme that was becoming less and less effective each passing game, and little to no run game without Le'Veon Bell.
Over the offseason, Mike Tomlin looked to correct these issues. After Dick LeBeau left the team, he elevated long-time linebackers coach Keith Butler as the new defensive coordinator, drafted three defensive backs in the draft, and used his first round pick on one of the top college pass rushing prospects.
He also traded for Brandon Boykin off the Eagles, brought in veteran running back DeAngelo Williams to back up Le'Veon Bell, and with his new defensive coordinator, designed a new scheme to eliminate the consistent big plays they had been giving up the year prior. This is Mike Tomlin looking to make an impact to improve the Steelers.
Now, will those changes pay off? Well, this brings me to why this season will be the toughest year in Mike Tomlins Steelers career.
The defense will most likely be the Achilles heel of the team. Transitioning from Dick LeBeau's patented 3-4 Zone Blitz scheme to a new hybrid style of defense will likely mean the defense will have large growing pains early in the year.
This will result in teams such as the New England Patriots, the 49ers, the Rams and the Ravens getting big plays off versus the Steelers early in the year.
The best case scenario is that the defense comes together quickly under the new scheme and Tomlin's draft picks over the past couple of years make some splash plays.
To bring success Jarvis Jones and Bud Dupree must deliver a healthy amount of sacks while cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant get their hands on some passes at optimum times.
If the Steelers defense can play good situation football and stop teams when it counts, they will be good enough.
The more likely situation is that the Steelers fall to the lower to mid-twenties in the defensive rankings, continue to give up big plays in the running and passing game and fail to generate turnovers, similar to last year.
Hopefully the leadership of James Harrison and Cam Heyward keep that unit together and keep inspiring them to be better.
The Steelers have the league's toughest schedule this year.
They play seven playoff teams two of those being divisional games, they also play a handful of very talented teams who boast top tier defenses or offenses such as the Chiefs, Chargers, Colts and Rams.
This schedule is going to result in Pittsburgh being backed against the wall week after week as they face tougher opponents.
The biggest challenge they face is after their bye-week when they play versus the Seahawks, Colts, Bengals, Broncos, Ravens, and Browns in that order. It is not crazy to think they could lose four of those six games as this part of their schedule could make or break their season.
This is why the Steelers need to get of to a quick start early in the year, starting slow as they usually do, then falling to a number of the opponents mentioned above could result in missing the playoffs.
SUSPENSIONS & INJURIES
The Steelers will be without many offensive playmakers during the early period of the season. Le'Veon Bell is suspended two games, Martavis Bryant is suspended four games and Maurkice Pouncey is out injured for minimum of nine weeks.
I don't buy into the idea that Pittsburgh can easily overcome these losses, I understand they still have Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, they also have a play-making receiver in Sammy Coates, and they having solid lineman who play beside Pouncey, but they are seriously missing some firepower.
Look at the impact Le'Veon Bell's absence had on the Steelers in the wild card game versus the Ravens, their run game was non-existent and the receiving threat he poses out of the backfield was duly missed.
Martavis Bryant has top tier speed matched with height that gives the Steelers a downfield threat that can take the top off a defense on any given play. Take a look at the highlights of him during the pre-season game versus Buffalo, he tore apart the Bills secondary with just three catches.
Maurkice Pouncey is, in my mind, the best center in the NFL. His downfield blocking ability and tenacity make him irreplaceable. Look at what the Steelers offensive line accomplished with him playing all 16 games last year, they gave Ben Roethlisberger the best protection of his career and he rewarded them with the best passing season a Steelers quarterback has ever had. They will miss him.
The defense, schedule, and missing players are the three main reasons why I believe Mike Tomlin will have the toughest season he's ever had.
There is no more Troy Polamalu, no more Dick LeBeau, no more Brett Keisel and all those veteran legends that Steeler fans had become so used to seeing play on Sundays.
Now is the Era of Mike Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger, the legendary Steeler defenses of old should now be an afterthought. If this team is going to win and win big this coming year, it will be due to smart coaching decisions made by Tomlin and Ben Roethlisberger having the greatest year of his career.
Maybe if the Steelers make it back to the post-season again, after going through the adversity they face this year, fans will finally pay coach Tomlin the respect he deserves, but until then he has a tough challenge ahead of him.