While the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense is largely attempting to grow with the same pieces they had last year, the defense has a newer look. A slew of free agents brought in to replace outgoing players. CB Patrick Peterson for Cam Sutton, LBs Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Kwon Alexander for Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and Myles Jack, NCB Chandon Sullivan for Arthur Maulet, SS Keanu Neal for Terrell Edmunds.
With so much change comes bumps in the road. Growing pains. Things we talked about all offseason. New faces on defense, especially at those “hubs” of communication like inside linebacker, slot corner, and strong safety, would require an adjustment period.
During the summer, Mike Tomlin didn’t seem too concerned. In fact, he brushed it off as a literal “non-issue.” In July at the start of camp, he said the veteran experience of those names would smooth over any communication problems.
“I’ll be very blunt, we’re not concerned about the new faces on defense,” Tomlin said on July 26. “They’re veteran guys, they’re smart guys. It’s gonna be a non-issue for us by the time we’re stepping into stadiums.”
Yeah…that didn’t happen. Pittsburgh was routed by San Francisco 30-7 in Week One and while there may not have been any mega-obvious coverage busts, players running truly wide open downfield, Tomlin cited communication issues as one of many factors why the defense struggled. Players agreed and said it had to be cleaned up. In a recent conversation with Bob Labriola, published every gameday, Tomlin confirmed those problems in the opener. A stark contrast to what he had said six weeks ago.
“We can just do a better job of communicating,” he told Labriola. “We had a lot of new people, new to Pittsburgh, in that group. Understanding what it means to play defense in our home venue, there’s no substitute for experience, and they better grow from last week’s experience because it gets no easier with Monday Night Football in this venue this week.”
Suddenly, Tomlin went from “new people won’t be a problem” to ‘well, we had new people, of course we had a problem.” He changed from “we’ll be ready for stadium play” to “you can’t replicate communication inside stadiums until you actually do it.” A total 180.
Now, he’s the coach and he’s going to be optimistic coming into the year. His plan wasn’t to struggle as much as this unit did. And what happened last Sunday is natural and frankly, expected. We noted the likelihood of early growing pains in our “Ten Things I Think I Think” article published right before the season began. So far, that’s proven true.
Can things get better? Of course. Will they? Likely. It’ll come with time, with reps, with mistakes and working things out. That is the benefit of a veteran group, as Tomlin pointed out, and the learning curve gets accelerated compared to a young group like Pittsburgh’s offense of a year ago, needing until after the bye to find solid ground. Unless injuries ravage them more, it shouldn’t take as long to get on the same page.
But it’s interesting to see the shot/chaser nature of Tomlin’s quotes, brushing it off as a total non-story to something he regards as a key reason why Pittsburgh came out flat in Week One. Hopefully it doesn’t happen again tonight.