View Full Version : Tomlin no stranger to 6-2

11-21-2010, 04:08 AM
On the Steelers: Tomlin no stranger to 6-2
Sunday, November 21, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin was 18 months old when Chuck Knox, a steelworker's son from Sewickley, took over as head coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 1973. In their first season under Knox, the Rams started 6-2 and went on to win the NFC West title with a 12-2 record -- the beginning of a four-year span in which the franchise would win three division titles and make three appearances in the NFC Championship game.

Knox is known in these parts not only for being one of nine Western Pennsylvania natives since 1970 to be a head coach in the National Football League but also for often having his name confused with Chuck Noll, who more than once was referred to as Chuck Knoll.

Now, 37 years later, it is Tomlin who has his name linked in the same sentence with Knox. This time, though, for historical achievement.

When his team defeated the Cincinnati Bengals, 27-21, on Nov. 8, it marked the fourth year in a row since Tomlin became coach that the Steelers started the season with a 6-2 record. No other NFL head coach has started his career with a 6-2 record or better in each of his first four seasons since Knox performed the feat from 1973 to 1976 with the Rams.

The Steelers have taken several divergent paths in each of the previous three seasons when they started 6-2, none more rewarding than the 2008 season when they went 6-2 in the final eight games and ended up winning their sixth Super Bowl trophy; none more frustrating and puzzling than 2009 when they followed a five-game winning streak with a five-game losing streak that included defeats to three of the league's bottom-feeders -- Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.

And yet, here they are again, having followed their 6-2 start with a 39-26 pounding at the hands of the New England Patriots, wondering which direction they will go in 2010. Adding to the curious sense of foreboding is that the Oakland Raiders (5-4), one of the teams who ambushed them during their five-game losing streak last season, will return to the scene of the crime for today's 1 p.m. kickoff in Heinz Field.

"We need to get this seventh win," said defensive end Brett Keisel, who aggravated his hamstring injury against the Bengals and is not expected to play against the Raiders. "This is a big game against a team that's on he rise and the guys have to really knuckle down and prepare as we approach December football. Doing the little things, having attention to detail, that's what Super Bowl teams do."

It is the third year in a row the Steelers have followed their 6-2 start with a defeat to start the second half of the season. While the historical trend will have little bearing on how the Steelers will finish their season, it nonetheless has put them in the same position to decide which of the three previous paths they will choose to follow -- 2007, when they lost three of their final four games and were eliminated in the wild-card round of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars; 2008, when they were beaten by four of the best teams in the league but still went on to win the Super Bowl; or 2009, when a victory in any of one of those embarrassing losses would have put them in the postseason.

"To me, it really doesn't matter until it gets to a point where you have to have some wins to get into the playoffs," said outside linebacker James Harrison. "Right now, our focus is to play Oakland and beat Oakland, and if you get enough of this week in and week out, you have the opportunity to get into the playoffs. Once you get into the playoffs, it doesn't matter who you beat or who you lost to."

"You're excited any time you can get a win," safety Ryan Clark said. "Some would say the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are a good team and we blew them out. And you look at Cincinnati, some would say they're not a good team and they almost beat us. You can't look at it that way. You got to take every win as a positive."
Losses all the same

Bothered that the Steelers lost to the Baltimore Ravens, who share the same 6-3 record in the AFC North?

Or that they lost to the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, who are also 6-3?

Or that they were humbled by the New England Patriots, one of two teams with an NFL-best 7-2 record?

Concerned it means they're not good enough to beat the better teams?

Don't be.

When they won the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, all four of the Steelers' regular-season losses were to playoff teams -- the Philadelphia Eagles (9-6), New York Giants (12-4), Indianapolis Colts (12-4) and Tennessee Titans (13-3). Two of those teams -- Giants and Titans -- were No. 1 seeds in the postseason.

"They were good teams," Clark said, recalling the path the Steelers took two years ago after a 6-2 start. "It doesn't mean the teams that beat you are that much better than you or that you can't accomplish that. It just means that that day, they outplayed you. With this league, and with the parity of teams being so even, you have to execute every week."

Without question, teams get a confidence boost when they beat one of the top teams in the league. Conversely, when they lose to a top team, there is never the same sense of despair that comes with a loss to a team that sits at or near the bottom of the league, which the Steelers painfully discovered last season.

"It definitely builds your confidence and gives you a positive attitude when you beat one of the better teams," said inside linebacker James Farrior.

But, as the Steelers discovered two years ago, en route to their victory in Super Bowl XLIII, losing to the top teams in the league in the regular season isn't always a precursor to what might happen in the postseason.

"Not at all," Farrior said. "A win is a win, a loss is a loss. It doesn't matter who you're playing or what the team's record is. It still hurts the same."

Perhaps. But some losses hurt more than others.
Same story, different endings

The 2009 season actually took a different path from the one that led to the Super Bowl a year earlier.

After a 1-2 start in which they blew fourth-quarter leads in Chicago and Cincinnati, the Steelers rebounded to beat the San Diego Chargers by 10 points in Week 4, the unbeaten Minnesota Vikings (6-0) by the same margin in Week 7, then went to Denver and posted an easy 28-10 victory against the 6-1 Broncos -- their fifth victory in a row.

After beating three teams with a cumulative 14-2 record, the Steelers were 6-2 and seemingly on track to recapturing their Super Bowl form.

Then it happened.

It wasn't so much an 18-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field that seemed troublesome, even though it ended the Steelers' five-game winning streak. But when they blew a 17-7 halftime lead in an overtime defeat on the road to the Kansas City Chiefs, who were 2-7 at the time, it marked the beginning of one of the worst collapses in franchise history, a five-game meltdown that would only get worse in subsequent weeks.

"It was definitely something that was uncharacteristic of our team," Farrior said. "To lose five in a row, it was just tough. I can't put my finger on what happened and why we were losing, but it seemed in every game we lost it came down to the end of game and we couldn't stop them."

Indeed, after frittering away a lead in Kansas City, the Steelers did it again the following week in Baltimore, failing to protect a 17-14 lead in a game without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (concussion) and losing in overtime, 20-17.

But neither of those defeats, which dropped the Steelers to 6-5, had the same debilitating effect as the 27-24 loss to the Raiders at Heinz Field, a game in which Oakland scored 21 points with three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. Like the Chiefs, the Raiders had only two victories at the time.

Four nights later, the Steelers went to Cleveland and culminated the five-game losing streak with an embarrassing 10-6 loss to the one-win Browns, a game in which wide receiver Mike Wallace later admitted, "It was like we were there physically, but not mentally."

"We played a lot of teams we should have beat," Keisel said.

The Steelers managed to win their final three games to finish 9-7, tied for second in the AFC North with the Baltimore Ravens, a game behind first-place Cincinnati. A victory in just one of those embarrassing defeats to the league's basement dwellers -- Kansas City, Oakland, Cleveland -- would have put the Steelers in the playoffs.

"You never want to lose any games, let alone five in a row," said Pro Bowl linebacker James Harrison. "I know you can try and do things differently than you did before, maybe hope to prevent it, but you got to go out there and play the game and execute down in, down out, game in, game out. That's the only cure for preventing it from happening."

If so, maybe the Steelers can use their 6-2 start to follow the 2008 path to the Super Bowl.

If not, the Steelers might waste their 6-2 start and have a repeat of what happened in 2009.

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