The Pittsburgh Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, and everyone knows it has the feel of an elimination game because probably only two teams (at best) from the AFC North can earn a playoff berth this season.
And Sunday’s loser is going to find itself in that unhappy third spot.
The game is more important for the Steelers than the Bengals because they already lost a game to the Bengals and also lost last week to the Los Angeles Chargers. So a loss would do all sorts of damage to Mike Tomlin’s team.
And this is where a typical NFL head coach might choose to relieve his team of any undue pressure. This is where that coach would talk about preparing for this game just like any other week or refuse to acknowledge the high stakes that are so obvious to everyone else.
Except Tomlin is not your typical NFL coach.
Mike Tomlin, you see, is bold and real as (bleep). So this is his approach this week:
“This is a big week for us,” Tomlin said to greet reporters Tuesday afternoon, “and I think that’s one of the approaches we’re gonna take this week. We’re not gonna play it cool and pretend like it’s not or downplay it.
“This is significant AFC North football for us — very similar to the circumstances that we were in a couple of weeks ago when we were readying ourselves to go to Cleveland. These games are big. They are.”
Got your attention? Good, because there’s more.
Many NFL coaches — yes, I have some names in mind — habitually avoid talking about the stakes of a game by talking about the importance of the moment. They limit discussion about the weight of an upcoming game by discussing only the importance of the upcoming practice or walk-through or meeting.
It’s as if the attention to the now supersedes the importance of winning a game that’s days away.
Tomlin’s vision is not so myopic. On Tuesday, he addressed the significance of Sunday’s game and its relevance to the playoffs well down the road.
“You’re not gonna backdoor your way into the single elimination tournament,” Tomlin said. “You’re not gonna backdoor your way into division significance. You’ve gotta go on the road and win games in this division, and that’s just the reality of it.”
And soon Tomlin was discussing revenge as a motivation.
It should be said here that many coaches publicly run away from the idea of revenge as a motivating factor because it somehow suggests to them they’ve run out of 21st century motivational tools such as, let’s see, radiating positivity or some similar garbage.
But revenge is and has always been a legitimate motivation for reaching a goal.
Disagree? Ever hear of Pearl Harbor? The Maine? Sept. 11?
Revenge can be a mighty driver of people.
And Tomlin sure enough summoned some revenge talk Tuesday.
“The sugar on top is obviously, earlier in the season, [the Bengals] were able to come in to our place and win,” Tomlin said. “It’s a big game for us, it’s a big game for them. There’s positioning relative to it, and so we’re not gonna play it cool, we’re not gonna pretend like it’s not.
“What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna acknowledge that and then we’ve gotta be at our best. We’ve got to put together a good plan.”
Tomlin was just getting started because this was the first time he addressed Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Chargers with the benefit of having studied the game tape and having evaluated both players and his coaching staff.
“We came up short in the game,” Tomlin lamented. “Like I also mentioned after the game, I take responsibility for that. Looking back at it, I felt that way instantly after the game, and I still feel that way.
“With the configuration of the people that we had available to us on defense, we probably should’ve done some things differently, more out of our personality, to be quite honest with you.
“Drawing inside the lines when you’ve got significant people missing at every level,
we weren’t able to be as good as we desired to be and win those moments versus a well-balanced group like that.”
So Tomlin basically said he and his assistants made tactical mistakes in their approach to the game, given the injuries Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt and others were dealing with.
And then he elaborated.
“We weren’t good enough to keep the quarterback in the pocket with our four-man rush,” Tomlin said. “Under normal circumstances, our four-man rush probably is good enough to keep quarterbacks in the pocket. Buffalo, for example.
“It was not good enough in those circumstances with some of the people that we were missing. Not only Watt, but [Isaiahh] Loudermilk has given us good quality reps in recent weeks, and so I thought that was a factor in the game.
“We were less aggressive in maybe some of our blitz game. We felt like we needed seven people in coverage and so we didn’t get after [Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert] as much as we would like, some of those things. It was just one of those games that was something to learn from, particularly from a coach’s perspective.”
Yeah, enough of last week. How about more on the Bengals, coach?
“They’re familiar with us, we’re familiar with them,” Tomlin said. “That’s one of the things
that makes divisional play awesome, so I’m not telling you anything earth-shattering here. They can say similar things about us in terms of their knowledge of who we are. That’s what makes these games exciting.
“We’ve got to go into the stadium. We’ve got to be on the details. We’ve got to be at our best, anticipating and assuming that they will be. And again, like I mentioned, there’s a lot at stake.”
One last thing: This unvarnished approach is the same one Tomlin uses with his players. And that’s one reason they love him.
Follow on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero