LATROBE, Pa. — Mike Tomlin was back with the punters Saturday afternoon. When you ask those who’ve been around him for years, you always hear, Tomlin coaches the whole team. In the middle of Saturday’s training-camp practice, his focus was incumbent punter Pressley Harvin III and Cameron Nizialek.
“Let’s go!” Tomlin yelled with Harvin poised to boot. “For us, 5.0’s the standard!”
He meant a 5.0-second hang time, which would be exemplary; the average hang time for the league’s top 10 punters in 2021, per Pro Football Focus, was 4.27 seconds. Maybe the standard is 5.0, or maybe that’s the dream. Whatever, Tomlin boomed it out, and Harvin responded with a Ray Guy-like rainmaker down the right side. Great punt.
“The standard!” Tomlin said. “Five point oh!”
Nizialek’s turn. He’s not likely to beat out the vaunted Harvin, the 2021 seventh-round draft pick, but he’s competing. Nizialek took the snap and duck-hooked the punt low down the left sideline, out of bounds. “Ooooooooh,” the crowd responded. Yikes. Not going to make this team, or any one, punting like that.
Tomlin didn’t say anything (at least that I heard). The drill went on. Why is it important? Harvin and Nizialek know it’s a big deal when the head coach takes 12 to 15 minutes to focus entirely on the punters among the 90 players in camp. This isn’t just a July drill to Tomlin. He wants to know what happens when the pressure is on. If you shank one in Latrobe with all the fans loving on you in July, how will you perform with the bright lights on you in Baltimore in a very big game? In this one moment, Harvin passed the test and Nizialek didn’t. So Tomlin could chalk up some mental evidence in one small roster battle.
Tomlin’s usually good theater at this time of year, but I was especially focused on him Saturday because of what’s at stake. With two of the organization’s most important people, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and GM Kevin Colbert, retired since the Steelers last suited up, this is a year of change, a year of what’s-next for one of the league’s top franchises with only one immovable force remaining—Tomlin, entering his 16th year as coach.
In his first 15 years as head man, Tomlin’s never had a losing season, a remarkable run of competitiveness in the dog-eat-dog NFL. (For comparison, Bill Belichick had five losing years in his first 15 as a coach.)
Tomlin didn’t like my post-practice line of questioning about what has been lost here, at one point asking, “You’re hoping that we’re mediocre?” I said no—but this is a year that people look at the Steelers and have no idea what to expect.
I could feel the heat from behind his sunglasses.
“Bring it on,” Tomlin said. “Bring it on.”
“You like that?” I said.
“Bring … it … on. Quote me.”
I think Mike Tomlin loves this setup. Just loves it.
My story in Latrobe begins with a Benedictine monk.
Father Paul Taylor, the president of St. Vincent College, watched practice from the sidelines Saturday in his flowing brown robe. Father Paul is also the Steelers’ team chaplain and priest, and says mass for any players, coaches or staff who wish to attend every Sunday morning. He knows Tomlin well.
“What makes him a great leader is he rises above the fray,” Father Paul told me at practice. “He knows what’s important in his job. And he’s such a good communicator. I think he can see inside the players’ heads.”
Two players told me Tomlin has a good rapport with the players because he’s blunt with them and never hides the truth. That’s important this year, because obviously the major story in camp is life without Roethlisberger, and choosing a successor. A former quarterback here, Charlie Batch, told me as we watched the QB battle play out in front of us: “I think Mike will be totally honest in the team meetings. He’ll tell the team: We have a quarterback battle here. Everyone will get a chance, and the film will speak for itself. Three dogs, one bone. Let’s see what these guys can do. Let’s see who wins the job.”
So the monk and the former quarterback point to communication and honesty about the process of retooling the team. When I relayed the Batch theory about how he’d handle the quarterback battle with the team, Tomlin said it was spot on.
“That’s very accurate,” Tomlin said. “I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room. Our ability to put together a winning formula that allows us to go into stadiums and step out with victory is what it’s about. We’re going through a transition at that position so our formula is going to change to a degree. Our strengths may change, what we lean on, what we work to minimize. That’s just team building. It requires discussion and direction. And [Batch] is right.
“I don’t run from that. I run to that.”
“What’s the newness like? When you’re dealing with some new and important people?”
“I don’t really seek the comfort of a veteran group,” Tomlin said. “I approach building a team the same every year. That’s how I’m wired. I understand the question, but it’s just not my style.”
That’s what I’d want out of my head coach. Roethlisberger’s gone. Okay. Who’s up? And will we throw it 60 percent or run it to hide whatever zits we have in the passing game? Can Najee Harris handle a 300-carry load if need be? Those are the things Tomlin tries to figure out this year—but they’re the things, at different positions, he’s tried to figure out every year.
It’s too early to draw any conclusions on the quarterbacks six weeks from opening day. But there was one major clue about how it’s trending on Saturday: In an early passing period of practice, in the tight red zone, the reps were split 4-2-1, Trubisky–Rudolph–Pickett. From what I gleaned, the opening-day assignment, Steelers at the Super Bowl Bengals, is Trubisky’s to lose.
Of course, things like this period factor into the ultimate decision. Trubisky was one of four, and Pickett nailed his one chance with a perfect touch throw for a touchdown to free-agent wideout Tyler Vaughns. “We’re at the very early stages of this. Everyone’s gonna get an opportunity to show their capabilities, for sure,” Tomlin said. As it should be.
“Coach Tomlin is very transparent about the situation,” Trubisky said. “Ever since I got here, it’s been really impressive to me how he leads the team as a football coach. He’ll even tell you. It’s not an accident that he gets the results he does because he’s such a great leader. I’m just trying to soak in all that knowledge so I can be the best player I can be and we can continue to go out and win games for the Steelers.”
The quarterback position will get the attention. The run defense might be more important. Last year, the Steelers had the worst run defense in the league, and there’s no way they’ll contend this year without fixing that. The retirement of a good two-way lineman, Stephon Tuitt, hurts. And surrendering 5.0 yards per rush is so incredibly un-Steelers-like. Both T.J. Watt and Cam Heyward said that was job one in camp this year—be sure that gets fixed. This is the highest-paid defense in the league, collectively, and they’re relying on a couple of rugged mid-level free-agents, defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi and linebacker Myles Jack, to defend the run significantly better this year.
I think a huge part of this team’s fate relies on something boring: field-position football and clock management. Harvin, the booming punter, has to be better than his 42.6-yard average last year (26th in the league). Pin teams back, play clockball, defend the run lots better, run it for 4.4 yards a clip and keep Najee Harris upright. Those things are vital to making it 16 straight non-losing seasons for Tomlin.