This Sunday, the Houston Texans and Tennessee Titans will face each other for the first of two meetings in the last three weeks, hoping to seal an AFC South divisional title and perhaps one of the two Wildcard spots.
Over in Pennsylvania, there will be one head coach watching closely before his huge Sunday Night Football meeting with the Buffalo Bills. At 8-5, Mike Tomlin has somehow guided his band of misfits to the brink of the playoffs and placed himself on top of the pack when deciding this year’s Coach of the Year.
In 13 years, Tomlin has never had a losing season in Pittsburgh, but despite winning Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, this might be one of his best yet.
Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown left for pastures new and questioning the coach’s leadership qualities. An opening night spanking by the New England Patriots didn’t do much to quell those fears.
Losing Ben Roethlisberger added to their problems, with young players on both sides of the ball asked to step up. It looked like a step too far for Tomlin and his squad.
Juju Smith-Schuster struggled with the attention of being WR1, then injuries to James Conner stopped him from fully embracing his role as the lead back. Ahead of Week 15, 13 different players have registered a rushing attempt for the Steelers this season, with four – one of them being running back Jaylen Samuels – attempting a pass.
Yet, since the Week 7 bye, the Black and Gold have won six games and now sit 8-5 and within touching distance of the playoffs. Wide receiver James Washington, who originally had hope when Mason Rudolph was given the start (they played together at Oklahoma State), has thrived under undrafted rookie QB Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges.
In his natural habitat 🦆 pic.twitter.com/0a2vNVMsCs
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) December 2, 2019
Winning the role after Rudolph’s turnovers proved costly, the Samford graduate, since Week 8, is third in the league in yards per attempt, just behind Matthew Stafford and Ryan Tannehill.
From Week 8 onwards, only three WRs with 10 catches or more average more yards per reception than Washington. He has gone for 471 yards and three touchdowns. Maybe Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham should have gone on a hunting trip this season.
Tomlin has had to deal with injury after injury, multiple changes at the QB position and “helmetgate”, all while trying to build this team and keep them motivated through the bad spells.
— Devlin Hodges (@DevlinHodges10) November 26, 2019
“Hey, I’m sorry but people don’t give Coach Tomlin enough credit,” veteran guard Ramon Foster told DKPittsburghSports.com.
“The things he’s doing to keep this team together … I’ve only ever been with one coach, but for me he’s one of the best in the NFL. He’s kept everybody focused. He’s kept everybody together.”
While it’s this togetherness which has kept the offence ticking over, the real success story has been the defence. Relying on young stars like T.J Watt and Devin Bush, then the addition of Minkah Fitzpatrick – which looked questionable at the time – took the secondary to another level.
In the last seven weeks, Blitzburg lead the NFL in sacks and interceptions and their influence was evident to see on Sunday. Kyler Murray had the ball in his hands within two minutes with a chance to win the game. Pittsburgh sacked him twice, then forced an interception.
The #Steelers are a defensive monster 1️⃣st sacks (48)
2️⃣nd ints (18)
2️⃣nd passes defensed (86)
2️⃣nd force fumbles (18)
2️⃣nd fumbles recovered (15)
2️⃣nd fumbles returned for TD (2)
— Adel Burton (@SteelersAdel) December 10, 2019
Tomlin has managed to keep veterans like cornerback Joe Haden on side, while integrating newcomers who had only recently played on the practice team.
The Steelers are a unit to be reckoned with, and although taking on the Bills this weekend, put your money on another masterclass from the standout candidate for NFL Coach of the Year.