Lacking A Champion's Class

The Steelers aren't defending their title with the same class their forefathers displayed in the 1970s. But Mike Tomlin still has time to impose his will.

This offseason past, Mike Tomlin reviewed tapes of the 1975 Steelers because he wanted to get a feel for how opponents would approach games against his defending champions.

Tomlin should've instead paid attention to how those defending champions approached their opponents, particularly those with losing records.

In 1975, the Steelers beat the (2-12) San Diego Chargers 37-0, the (3-11) Cleveland Browns 42-6 and 31-17, the (6-8) Denver Broncos 20-9, the (4-10) Chicago Bears 34-3, the (4-10) Green Bay Packers 16-13, the (5-9) Kansas City Chiefs 28-3, and the (3-11) New York Jets 20-7.

The first thing you should notice about that list is its length, and you should wonder where today's defending champs can procure such an easy schedule.

But one should also notice the complete and utter domination displayed by those defending champs. Against teams that eventually finished with losing records, the Steelers' average margin of victory that season was 21.3 points.

And don't think it was a fluke, because from that era's first playoff season, 1972, until its fourth championship season, 1979, the Steelers lost exactly one game to a team that finished with a losing record.

Even during that 1979 loss to the division-rival Bengals, Coach Chuck Noll blistered his team at halftime and asked them: "Are you guys throwing this game?"

It was a brutal insult, but it revealed the level of incredulity that those champions took to their first bad loss in eight years.

These champs, on the other hand, have endured two such losses in nine games.

Of course, finding a way to win on a bad day is a problem for any team that relies so heavily on its passing game.

Through the first part of this season, the Steelers' franchise-low 41-59 run-pass play-call ratio had been understandable. After all, a consistent running game requires a young, healthy back who can hit it up between the tackles and move the chains. The Steelers haven't had that since Jerome Bettis limped off the field on Dec. 2, 2001 as the NFL's leading rusher. I contend he was never the same back after that groin injury, and that his replacements, Amos Zereoue and Willie Parker, weren't of the move-the-chains ilk.

The Steelers stuck to the formula for parts of the next six seasons until pretty much giving up on it last season – and they won another Super Bowl.

While winning a championship without a true run game has been proven possible, defending a championship without one is next to impossible, if only for matters of physical consequence. The 2006 Steelers found that out, and these Steelers weren't even interested in re-learning the lesson.

And then along came Rashard Mendenhall.

In what may have been his finest bit of coaching, Tomlin benched and then cajoled and then motivated his previous year's 1st-round pick into becoming the physical, between-the-tackles chain-mover he's desired since being named head coach.

However, the offensive game plans have not kept up with this evolution of talent.

It should now. The Steelers came one first down away from disposing of the Chiefs in overtime Sunday, and they were only two yards from said first down. But instead of hammering Mendenhall, these too-clever defending champs tossed wide to their slowest back behind a pass-catching tight end being used wrongly at fullback. The Steelers lost yardage, lost the game, and lost a share of first place.

It was a shameful experience that's still being debated. Certainly the talent-depleted secondary can be blamed for this loss, as could defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for not fixing a flaw in his third-down "mixer" defense that quick-snapping Brett Favre twice exposed a month prior. And certainly Tomlin can be pinned down for setting an awful special-teams tone this year when he cut last year's leading ST tackler, Anthony Madison, in order to keep an experienced but physically useless 7th corner in Keiwan Ratliff. Yes, that would've been Madison out there on the left wing instead of the flat-footed, lunging Ike Taylor for the opening kickoff.

But, truly, this game came down to the one play: the disastrous 3rd-and-2 call. And players such as Hines Ward, who said after the game that "the coaches have to evaluate themselves as much as we do," know this game – as many games do – came down to one play.

Now, some will point to a montage of potential game-changing moments, such as the opening kickoff, or Heath Miller's drop, or Ben Roethlisberger's red-zone interception, or any number of physical mistakes that were made against the Chiefs. But players make physical mistakes all the time. It's an accepted part of the game. That's why coaches only seethe over mental mistakes. And that's why coaches, who are never in position to make physical mistakes, can't make mental mistakes with the game on the line. It's not their job to win games with a call, but it's certainly their job not to blow one with a brain cramp.

Certainly Tomlin will recognize that this one play represents a philosophical flaw in his team's thinking, and that there's still time to use this error as a learning experience.

In fact, it's the perfect time for Tomlin to recapture the "Offense by Attrition" mantra he brought with him to Pittsburgh. He now has the running back to do so, and he only needs to change the culture back to what he knows deep in his heart works best.

At the very least, it'll help the Steelers win the games they should win. At the very best, it'll help these Steelers defend their title with the class of their forefathers.

( publisher Jim Wexell has authored three books on the Steelers, including his most recent, "Steeler Nation".)

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