Coach Class | Pittsburgh City Paper

Coach Class

Mike Tomlin is off to a promising start heading up the Steelers

It's hard not to like a coach who, after his first loss, says things like, "Believe it or not, I expected to lose a game. And it may even happen again." To that charm, add erudition, good looks and an easy smile, and it's easy to embrace rookie Steelers coach Mike Tomlin -- even though we won't develop a real assessment of his coaching for many years.

We're just beyond the quarter pole in his inaugural season, and if I can torture the car analogy, it feels like we've given the Tomlin Era's tires a good kick, and played with the stereo and sunroof -- while barely leaving the lot. The first few games have been a test drive; after the bye week, the divisional schedule heats up, and we'll get a real glimpse of Tomlin's style.

Sometimes, what you hear is not always what you get: "Mission Accomplished" and "I did not have sex with that woman" leap to mind. So too, does the usual head-coach BS about special teams being one-third of the game, and just as important as offense and defense.

If there was one consistent negative to Bill Cowher's coaching tenure, it was deadly special-teams miscues. Back in the 1970s, the kicking game gave the Emperor Chaz fits, too. Which just goes to show that football coaches sometimes say one thing and do another, particularly when the less-than-glamorous special teams are involved.

Freshly introduced, Tomlin said special teams were a priority. A collective yawn went up: Yeah, right.

Turns out, coach Tomlin wasn't bullshitting. After providing directions out of town for the weak-limbed Chris Gardocki, he and GM Kevin Colbert drafted a punter in the fourth round. Many people snickered. Others cursed. The experts said, "A punter! In the fourth round?"

Now, with rookie Dan Sepulveda stranding opposing offenses inside their own 20s with half of his punts, he looks like a pretty good use of that pick.

Not satisfied with upgrading the punt game, Tomlin turned his attention to the return unit. Due to the inexplicable ineptitude of Willie Reid and the indifference of Cedrick Wilson (who at least secured the ball in preseason), it was looking like we might see a reprise of last season's frightful return game. So coach went to his GM and asked him to get Allen Rossum.

Going into the bye week, Rossum ranked third in the NFL on kick returns, averaging 30 yards per. He's not been quite as productive returning punts, where he averages just 4.2 yards, but he doesn't fumble -- a tremendous improvement over last year's follies.

Couple that with increased usage of the tight end, and the one thing we have learned is that when coach Tomlin says that he's going to address a particular area on the team, he means it.

In just five games, tight end Heath Miller has 17 catches, two of them for touchdowns. Jerame Tuman has one catch for a touchdown. And despite being injured for two games, rookie Matt Spaeth is a touchdown-catching machine, with two of his three receptions going for scores.

By comparison, through September 2006, Miller had just seven catches and Tuman only one.

It's not all perfection. Tomlin's use of the coach's challenge has been murky, at best. And his injury reports seem a little less candid than those furnished by Cowher, who was known in national circles for closely approximating honesty. Could Tomlin's early indication that both the injured Casey Hampton and Troy Polamalu would be fine for the Seattle game be chalked up to genuine over-optimism? Or was he baiting his next opponent, Mike "Clock Management" Holmgren, into preparing for the Steelers' best defensive players? Just because he's charming doesn't mean he's not capable of a little gamesmanship.

Maybe the most interesting thing about Tomlin is his comfort with delegating. Despite his youth, he seems preternaturally secure, turning the defense over to the great Dick Lebeau entirely. OK, maybe not entirely ... the Steelers did run a traditional Tampa cover-two against the Seahawks, rather than Lebeau's more familiar fire-zone/cover-three. Maybe that's Tomlin's input. Either way, it worked.

For the most part, though, it appears that Tomlin expects his coaches to coach and his players to execute. And then he gets out of their way so they can. Hey, wait a minute ... just what is he doing on the sidelines during games?