Steelers coaches: naughty or nice?

As deserving as Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is of criticism for failing in clock management during the final two minutes of both the first and second halves of Sunday’s 38-31 win in Green Bay, what kind of Scrooge would I be to only write about that on Christmas Day?

Especially when almost everyone — including myself — had written off this group of Steelers following an 0-4 start. The same group that now has a meaningful Week 17 game against Cleveland with a chance — albeit a slim one — to make the playoffs.

So instead, I will pose a question for all of you to think about over a cup of eggnog: Have the Steelers won this year because of coaching or in spite of it?

Now the pre-Christmas bonus Clark Griswold in me would say because of it, since the Steelers have suffered a multitude of injuries on the offensive and defensive lines.

However the Jelly-of-the-Month Club member in me would say in spite of it because week after week it seems the coaching staff — in particular Tomlin — is answering for questionable decisions made during games.

The correct answer is both.

But for those looking for an escape from the usual Christmas festivities, I’ll take both sides of the argument and break down which coaches have been naughty and which have been nice for the Steelers in 2013.

The case for winning because of coaching (Santa’s nice list):

Jack BicknelL Jr.

Most people probably don’t even know who he is, but you should. The offensive line coach is the man who’s used wrapping paper and scotch tape to prop up the best offensive line Ben Roethlisberger has had in a while.

It took until the final third of the season, but the team’s franchise quarterback finally has some time to throw and isn’t getting helped up off the ground on every other drive.

The line also has been creating ample running lanes for rookie running back Le’Veon Bell, who rushed for 124 yards against the Packers to halt the franchise record of 21 consecutive games without a 100-yard rusher.

Roethlisberger was sacked 36 times through the first 10 weeks of the season, but the much-improved offensive line has allowed just five sacks over the last five weeks. Much of their improvement has been because of a conscious effort to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hand more quickly.

Mike Tomlin (the leader)

The NFL season is a marathon not a sprint, which is the good news for the Steelers who didn’t just stumble out of the gate but more or less face-planted. After a winless first month, Tomlin could have easily lost this team.

There were rumors about restrictions put on playing games in the locker room and veterans telling younger guys they need to focus more during the week.

Bottom line is the Steelers were nearing the point of no return, but Tomlin righted the ship and got them headed back in the right direction. For that, he deserves a lot of credit.

The case for winning in spite of coaching (Santa’s naughty list):

Todd Haley

This offense has and always will be better run when Roethlisberger is in complete control. He’s one of the few franchise quarterbacks in the NFL that should be given the keys to the playbook and let loose.

The Steelers’ first scoring drive in the first quarter Sunday — seven plays, 73 yards in 4:01 — was out of the no-huddle scheme. The further offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s hand is from the cookie jar, the better. All season long, the offense has been much more efficient out of the no-huddle than when Roethlisberger is getting the plays from the sidelines.

Add in the notion of the quarterback-offensive coordinator relationship being built on a rocky foundation and it might just be better for both parties if they went their separate ways at season’s end.

Mike Tomlin (the coach)

I’ve made it this long without bashing the one man in charge of the entire operation, but let’s not kid ourselves. Tomlin has succeeded in his duties as a leader, but failed when it comes to making decisions — especially in clock management.

Whether it’s only coming away with a field goal at the end of the first half in Green Bay, or scoring a touchdown without attempting to run any time off the clock at the end of the game (giving the Packers one last great chance for overtime), Tomlin has left a lot to be desired in his decision-making.

To compound the issue, he told reporters on Monday that after having time to think about it, he wouldn’t do anything differently.

This Steelers season has been far from perfect and there’s plenty of blame to go around. However a win Sunday over the Browns — along with a Baltimore loss, a Miami loss and a San Diego loss — would give the Steelers the sixth and final spot in the playoffs.

Talk about a Christmas miracle.

Kevin Connelly is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at and follow him on Twitter@Connelly_Vindy.

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