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Does Mike Tomlin deserve to win Coach of the Year?

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Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin’s season couldn’t have got off to a worse start this year. In the season opener, the team lost longtime franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for the season in a defeat to the New England Patriots. They then proceeded to drop the following two games to the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers.

Without their veteran signal caller, the offense has been DOA all season. Before Sunday night’s tilt against the Bills, lead running back James Conner has only managed to put together 390 rush yards on 102 attempts and presumptive number one wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster has managed just 524 rec yds. The team’s leading receiver is James Washington with 611 yds. It’s fair to say the team’s offensive unit, which has been the hallmark of this team over recent season, isn’t exactly lighting it up.

All this meant the Steelers sat at 2-4 when they hit their bye week in week 7. Replacement quarterback Mason Rudolph was struggling to carry the load and the rushing attack behind Conner could easily be keyed in on and stymied by opponents.

However, since the bye week the team have gone 6-2, including victories over the Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams and Cleveland Browns. Before Sunday night, the franchise had won its last three games without their top wideout (Smith Schuster) and running back (Conner), as well as with undrafted free agent Devlin ‘Duck’ Hodges under centre.

Given the level, or lack of, offensive production, it is remarkable that the team is at 8-5 and will have avoided a losing record this year, at the very least. Most analysts wrote the team off when Roethlisberger went down, and it is testament to Tomlin’s abilities as a head coach that he currently has this injury riddled team in the 6th seed playoff spot in the AFC.


Much of the success this year has been driven by the Steelers proud tradition of a suffocating defense. This unit has stepped up in the offense’s stead, harkening back to the recent years of James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. Pass rusher T.J. Watt has 12.5 sacks and 2 interceptions; outside linebacker Bud Dupree has 9.5 takedowns of opposing quarterbacks; whilst defensive end Cam Heyward has 8.

The duality of that pass rushing trio, combined with a talented defensive backfield, has paid off for all involved. Cornerback Joe Haden has 4 interceptions and Minkah Fitzpatrick, acquired from the Miami Dolphins for a first round pick has 5 takeaways. In fact, Fitzpatrick is joint first in the league with Marcus Peters and Devin McCourty for individual interceptions.

The performances of the defense are even more remarkable given that Pittsburgh ranks 20th in the league of average time of possession on offense, meaning the defense spends a lot of time on the field. Despite the toll that takes on a unit, the defense is 2nd in the league in turnovers behind the Patriots and leads the league in sacks.

Against all odds, Tomlin has led this team back to the postseason. That is really something given the recent loss of offensive centrepieces Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, as well as all the disruption this franchise has faced this year when players have been bit by the injury bug. No-one would have expected Pittsburgh to be looking at a playoff berth at this time of year, but Tomlin’s veteran nous and ability to motivate his players has been crucial in producing a winning record so far this season.

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