Kovacevic: Is Tomlin right for franchise’s future?


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Fans stream out in the fourth quarter Sunday at Heinz Field. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Terrell Edmunds stood with me, eye to eye. Didn't once blink with those big eyes. Didn't speak.

Couldn't speak.

He'd just finished with the formal interviews, the cameras and microphones scattering away from his stall after he'd explained the pivotal pass interference called on him and, of course, this ensuing Russell Wilson dagger to DK Metcalf over his head ...

... that wound up deciding the Steelers' 28-26 loss to the Seahawks on this Sunday at Heinz Field.

We'd been talking, Edmunds and I, about a lot these past few months, mostly about breaking out, about being that difference-maker everyone expects of a first-round pick. So I shared a couple observations with the kid. Like how he led the defense with 11 tackles, eight solos, plus a fine left-handed pass breakup. Like how that interference, one that required a review to overturn, wasn't much of a call since the receiver, Tyler Lockett, had to contort toward an uncatchable ball. Like how it took a pristine throw from Wilson and an equally pristine route by the prodigy Metcalf to beat ... wow, equally pristine coverage?


He forced the smallest version of that familiar smile, offered a polite thanks and headed for the door.

Across the room a little later, I tried cracking a joke with Devin Bush.

About this ...

Huge fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. Almost a touchdown. Great, uplifting stuff for the latest first-rounder, on top of his seven tackles.

But come on, tell me he doesn't appear to be briefly disoriented and running toward the wrong end zone. You know, Jim Marshall-style.

"No," Bush came, barely audible, when I brought it up.

Not even for a second?

"I was just looking for some space. If I went back, I thought I'd have it."

Tough loss, dude?

"So tough. This hurts. It really does."

He'd been sitting alone on a stool, staring into space, as I'd approached. I thanked him for his time and let him get right back to that.

Mason Rudolph couldn't be left alone. He became the starting quarterback the moment Ben Roethlisberger went down with an elbow injury. He might be the starter next weekend in San Francisco — or beyond, for all we know. So once he was all buttoned up, he was ushered over to the press conference platform to stand behind a podium for his questioning.

Like Edmunds and Bush, he'd acquitted himself well on the field -- 12 of 19 for 112 yards, and two touchdowns that included this improvised ingenuity with Vance McDonald ...

.. and a wholly undeserved interception -- and he sounded a similarly mature note afterward.

Someone asked if he had any idea what might happen in the days to come.

"No. You have just as good an idea as I do," he came back without hesitation, before adding, "We'll figure it out. We just lost. We have to play better as a team."


The future of the franchise is fine. It's the present that's worrisome.

The Steelers are 0-2. Seems like a smart place to start.

Over the past dozen years, only 12.2 percent of NFL teams have reached the playoffs after losing their first two games. That's daunting. It can be done -- the Texans and these Seahawks did it just last year -- but 10 or 11 total wins are generally needed, so that'll take quite a roll, beginning with beating the 49ers in what's now essentially an elimination game.

Worse, in losing these two games, not a semblance of identity has been established.

Not in any of the three phases but most pointedly not on offense, where they continued Sunday to flail in Antonio Brown's absence. Oh, McDonald was involved again immediately, righting maybe the greatest wrong from Foxborough, but JuJu Smith-Schuster put up another No. 2 wide receiver performance -- five catches, 84 yards, still no touchdowns -- on a team that desperately needs a No. 1. James Conner stayed stuck at his opening level, as well -- 45 all-purpose yards on 15 touches -- before a knee injury put him out.

Worse still were all of those injuries. It was Roethlisberger and Conner, but also lost were Vince Williams (hamstring), Sean Davis (shoulder) and Anthony Chickillo (heel).

If New England felt like rock bottom, this was rock bottom's moldy basement.

Something's got to change.

Wait, let me try that again: Something's got to really, really change. Because, based on all of the above, it's feeling like the bridge between the present and that promising future should be further along in its construction than Mike Tomlin's currently got it.

Case in point: Donte Moncrief.

I mean, if this guy isn't released by Monday morning ...

... then it'll be worth replaying that Tomlin, as part of the opening statement in his postgame presser, spoke this unsolicited: "A ball went through our hands for an interception."

I don't care that Moncrief was the big free-agent signing or that Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will look foolish once he's gone. I do care that Moncrief was internally labeled a team leader early in the time at Latrobe and, seemingly flying in the face of that, hasn't given suitable effort in a bunch of these drops, including that one up there. He doesn't come back to the ball. He doesn't stiffen for it in any way.

Lack of confidence can be forgiven. Lack of heart can't.

And yet, Moncrief and Ryan Switzer, who's got a huge heart but can't gain a solitary inch after the catch, have been slotted ahead of James Washington and Diontae Johnson even though not a soul in the Steelers' employ would deny the latter two have the greater ceilings.

Washington's been targeted seven total times through two games, Johnson five. And this was Johnson's catch in this game:

I get going slowly with Johnson. True rookie. Not Washington. Definitely not both. That's the mindset of a head coach who's far too set in his ways rather than focusing on the retooling that's more necessary at wide receiver than any other position.

Case in point: Defending the middle.

Edmunds and Bush are both talented, both smart, both aware. But even with an openly discussed awareness that Wilson and the Seahawks would look to exploit the grass beyond the linebackers, Tomlin and Keith Butler stuck stubbornly with their base 3-4 defense -- nose tackle and all -- without lifting a pinky to support Edmunds and Bush on such routes, particularly the two touchdowns to the big tight end, Will Dissly.

It stopped being 2009 a long time ago, gentlemen. Multiple-DB sub-packages aren't a gimmick anymore. They're mandatory.

Case in point: Anthony Chickillo's whiff.

He did whiff, too, big-time, on Rashaad Penny's 37-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He committed too early and too hard to the inside, Penny sprinted right by an arm-tackle try, and see ya:

Go ahead and bury Chickillo, but know this: He was in a walking boot after the game, and he told me it was to protect a heel injury he had going back to Foxborough.

So why was he on the field rather than ... wow, T.J. Watt?

Because Tomlin and Butler decided going into this season they'd make more of an effort to keep their front seven more energized. That's got merits -- the defense logged far too many snaps at 73 -- but not in the third quarter of a close game and, for crying out loud, not to spell the team's best overall player. Watt was right back in the game after that, so he wasn't hurt.

But hey, as long as he was being replaced, there'd have been no harm in going with Ola Adeniyi, a young, dynamic defender who's proven reasonably effective at stopping the run. Oh, and he was healthy.

Case in point: Vinnie got the green dot.

For anyone who doesn't know, that's applied to the helmet of the defender getting radio signals from the sideline. Watt wore it in Foxborough and, though Tomlin acknowledged it was unusual to assign that to a player aligned so far left, he didn't sound like he regretted it, either. Then, for these warmups, Williams came out with the green dot, a more logical choice for his perspective from the inside.

One problem: Bush was then stuck on the sideline.

So it wasn't until Williams was lost in the second quarter to a hamstring injury that the prized prospect was put back on the field, thus sparing Tomlin at least a slice of the criticism ... he'll receive anyway. But one gets the idea.

Case in point: Dan McCullers' personal foul.

OK, not really. Big Dan was hit with a flag on a Seattle field-goal try for making contact with the head of the long snapper, setting the stage for the Seahawks' first touchdown. It looked and sounded like typical Tomlin/Danny Smith special teams lack of discipline, but McCullers and Cam Heyward both animatedly explained this one to me, and I'm buying: McCullers was assigned to go at the guard, which he did, but that contact knocked him into the center. The rule, a new one in the NFL, is aimed at protecting the snapper from getting "plowed," as David DeCastro described it, and not from any and all contact. So this official overreacted.

As did the fan base, I'm sure, at least in terms of turning that on Tomlin.

He deserves the heat, as I've illustrated here in explicit terms. But the tension, the lack of trust between those who love the team and the head coach has never been higher, to such an extreme he'll be blamed for just about anything. And in all walks of life, perception blurs into reality. Whether fans are tired of him for three playoff wins over the last eight seasons, whether they're tired of him for the abject failure to create accountability, whether they still see him as central to all the recent drama, whether it's something infinitely uglier -- let's never pretend race isn't an issue in our society -- they're just plain tired of him.

My goodness, all those people leaving early in a close game ... in the home opener ... that's legitimately alarming.

That's another part of what stinks about this. About all of it. The aftermath of AB's exit felt like a shot at a fresh start. For everyone involved, Tomlin included. But all he's done with it to date, in addition to 0-2, is stick with the status quo.

Case in point: He was asked if 0-2 felt like a significant hole.

"No, it just feels like there was a game today that we had an opportunity to win and we didn't. From that standpoint, there is disappointment, but not big picture."

That's been his standard answer forever. Only that day's outcome matters. Even after playoff losses or entering a draft or a training camp, he'll never address any subject that sounds like "big picture."

Right now, I dare say, it's looking like that's the picture that'll matter most.


Listen to these guys ...

I'll match DeCastro and Stephon Tuitt with anyone as fierce competitors, but those conversations and several others I had in that locker room afterward gave off the overbearing impression that this outcome wasn't so much disappointing as it was deflating.

And that's a dangerous place to be.

What's needed in San Francisco is twofold:

1. A win. Duh.
2. That identity thing

Putting this project squarely into the hands of those with the most potential strikes me as a powerfully obvious route, but it sure doesn't seem like the man in charge would agree.


[caption id="attachment_888107" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Steelers vs. Seahawks, Heinz Field, Sept. 15, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]


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