Tomlin fends off pressure

The Sports Xchange writes a syndicated column, but uses major reporters from every NFL city to report on his appropriate team. Here's the latest on the Steelers:

Mike Tomlin stood firm and retained offensive coordinator Bruce Arians despite pressure from Pittsburgh's front office to fire him.

Tomlin instead fired offensive line coach Larry Zierlein and will look for a new quarterbacks coach after Ken Anderson retired one month short of his 61st birthday.

Arians has become a lightning rod in Pittsburgh as the Steelers' offense transitioned from one that leaned heavily on the run to one that now features Ben Roethlisberger and the passing game.

The Steelers boasted the NFL's seventh-best offense in 2009, based on yardage, and had a 4,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers and a 1,000-yard rusher. Roethlisberger set the team record with 4,328 yards passing.

However, they ranked just 19th in rushing and despite all those yards were only 12th in scoring. They ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks per pass play, and Roethlisberger's 50 sacks set a personal high and were the second most of a Steelers quarterback ever.

The Steelers want to protect their $100 million quarterback, who has been sacked 189 times, more than any other quarterback, over the past four seasons. Their inability to do that likely cost Zierlein his job. He is the first coach Tomlin has fired after keeping his entire staff intact for three seasons.

The attention paid to the offensive coaches was curious because it was the decline on defense that likely cost the Steelers a chance to defend their Super Bowl championship. That defense blew fourth-quarter leads in five of seven losses and a tie in a sixth loss. They allowed two passes over 40 yards in 2008 and nine in 2009. They slipped from the No. 1-ranked pass defense to 16th in 2009.

Tomlin, though, is not likely to make major changes on the roster, even though many fans and even players expect as much. Linebacker James Harrison, the team's MVP in 2007 and 2008, predicted there would be major changes. If what Tomlin did to "rearrange" his coaching staff is any indication, the changes won't be wholesale for 2010.

"I don't approach making major changes in response to our record or anything," Tomlin said. "I like to use the term 'appropriate change.' And those aren't knee-jerk reactions, those aren't quick decisions.

"It's built over time as you evaluate what it is that we put on tape. It's a process, starting (Jan. 4). We're at the infancy of that process, if you will. My mentality is and always will be to make appropriate changes, so big changes are not something that I necessarily buy into. Appropriate changes are."

He had a long meeting with Arians on Wednesday before it was reported that Arians would return. He likely wanted to feel out his offensive coordinator about possible philosophical changes, such as returning the fullback to his scheme and trying to develop a better running game. Tomlin acknowledged a few weeks ago that he was not satisfied with the short-yardage results.

The Steelers lost every one of their seven games by seven points or less, two in overtime.

"There's a fine line between being 12-4 and 9-7, or 7-9, for that matter," Tomlin said. "That's why you desire to be dominant. The more dominant you are, the more you keep yourself out of harm's way of a play here or a play there. That's what we desire to be first and foremost. I don't know that we were dominant enough in '09."


* More drama from the quarterback? Ben Roethlisberger could be seen favoring his right arm and shaking it toward the end of the season finale in Miami. There apparently was no injury.

Said Tomlin, "No, I don't think that it is, but I don't have specific, detailed information regarding it. But I don't think it's anything that's going to require a medical procedure of any kind."

* The Steelers again failed to make the playoffs after winning two Super Bowls in four seasons.

"What it boils down to is it's hard to win a championship back-to-back," linebacker James Farrior said. "Teams are going to give you everything they have and if you're not up to that challenge every week, you're going to be in trouble."

* Free safety Ryan Clark, who can become a UFA, wants to return.

"I definitely don't want to finish this way, have my last game not even making the playoffs. It's a great place to play. I think the Rooney family runs the team the way an organization should be run. I want to come back and make it right too. I want to come back and play with Troy (Polamalu), get all our guys back and make another run at it."

QUOTE TO NOTE: "From my perspective, you learn more in failure than you do in success, I acknowledge that." - Coach Mike Tomlin, apparently more learned now than a year ago.


Pittsburgh's pass defense took a hit in 2009 and they will try to shore that up for next season, particularly in the secondary, which could have at least two new starters. They also had trouble running the ball when they wanted or had to, and that might be more of a philosophical change they need to make. Mike Tomlin is meeting with his coaches at the end of the week and some changes could occur there.


Cornerback: William Gay played so poorly that he was benched in favor of graybeard Deshea Townsend at the end of the season. They need to find a good, young corner to go with Ike Taylor.

Defensive linemen: Despite drafting end Ziggy Hood on the first round last year, they need to replenish an aging line that could lose Pro Bowl NT Casey Hampton in free agency.

Offensive linemen: Their line is below average, Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 50 times and they do not blow anyone off the ball. A quality player at any of the three positions would be welcome.

MEDICAL WATCH: No impending surgeries yet. Troy Polamalu was rounding back into shape after missing the final seven games with a sprained PCL; he will not have surgery. DE Aaron Smith is well ahead of schedule from the torn rotator cuff that ended his season Oct. 11. G Chris Kemoeatu did not play in the final three games because of a wrist injury; no word on possible surgery. WR Hines Ward finished the season with two injured hamstrings that will require rest.

(This article was authored by a reporter who covers the Pittsburgh Steelers, but one who does not work for this website.)

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