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December 10, 2012

MIKE KOVAK | Blame Tomlin for latest setback

— Mike Tomlin has accomplished more since becoming Steelers coach in 2007 than many in his position who’ve been around a lot longer get done in their careers.

In less than six full seasons, Tomlin has won 67 games against only 34 losses. He’s coached in two Super Bowls, winning one, and owns five career playoff victories during his short tenure leading the NFL’s most decorated franchise of the Super Bowl era.

He’s respected by players and coaches. Tomlin’s unique use of the English language and his personal spin on tired-but-true sports cliches has put him on the short list of personalities that can parlay a post-NFL career into a cushy gig as a television studio analyst. Given Tomlin’s apparent disdain for all things media, that possible career path wreaks of irony.

Clearly Tomlin’s credentials place him in the upper echelon of coaches, but that doesn’t mean he’s above criticism.

And he deserves plenty of it for Pittsburgh’s puzzling 34-24 loss to San Diego Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.

The most headscratching in-game decision came after Mike Wallace caught his second touchdown of the game – an 11-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger with 6:07 remaining in the fourth quarter. The touchdown trimmed the Steelers’ deficit to 34-16. An extra point pulls the Steelers within 17 points – a three-possession game. A two-point conversion, if made, gives San Diego a two-point lead.

That’s a two-possession game.

Tomlin’s explanation of the decision was arguably more bizarre than kicking the extra point.

“Until we stopped them, it was going to be insignificant. I was holding the two-point plays for that reason and that reason only,” Tomlin said. “Now, we still have them in our hip pocket. Those specialty plays we didn’t want to put on tape unless we had an opportunity to close the gap. As you can see, we didn’t.”

Huh?

As difficult as that statement is to decipher as a reason not to try for two, it’s worth trying and the best guess here is Tomlin and his staff weren’t coaching to win the game at that point.

Which is why Troy Polamalu should not have played late in the fourth quarter. Ditto for Ben Roethlisberger. Yet, both were out there in the game’s closing minutes.

Tomlin’s in-game decisions and occasional lapses in clock management are cause for concern, but the biggest worry should be with the staff’s inability to prepare players against lesser opponents.

Yes, San Diego has Pro Bowl-talent at several positions, but the Chargers entered Heinz Field with a 4-8 record for a reason.

Coming off last week’s win at Baltimore, an improbable victory considering the Steelers started Charlie Batch at quarterback and played at a venue where visiting teams rarely prosper, a letdown is natural.

To play like the Steelers did for two-and-a-half quarters with their playoff status anything but assured, is inexcusable. The finger for that can be pointed at Tomlin.

In what’s become an all-too-familiar theme, Pittsburgh falls flat after a big win. Losses against Oakland, Tennessee, Cleveland and San Diego suggests this team isn’t championship-caliber.

The crazy thing is, for all the blame Tomlin deserves for the San Diego loss and a couple others, this year has been one of his better coaching efforts.

Had someone told you before the season started that the Steelers would be in playoff contention without Polamalu, Roethisberger, Rashard Mendenhall, Ike Taylor, LaMarr Woodley, Marcus Gilbert, Mike Adams and Antonio Brown for significant portions of the schedule, would you have believed it?

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