PITTSBURGH (AP) – Melvin Ingram needed a job. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed depth on the outside linebacker, so they took a …
PITTSBURGH (AP) – Melvin Ingram needed a job. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed depth as an outside linebacker, so they took a flyer about the nine-year veteran and signed it on the night before training camp with a one-year contract in the hope that it would provide quality depth if needed.
Less than four months later, Ingram was gone. Dissatisfied with a lesser role behind star TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith as the trading deadline approached, Ingram effectively sulked out of town.
The Steelers sent him to Kansas City last Tuesday to make a sixth round selection, prompting Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to try a variation on one of his favorite “tomlinisms”.
“It’s better to have volunteers as hostages,” said Tomlin.
Ingram’s abrupt exit underscores an ethos that the Steelers have adhered to for half a century. Better to push through the draft and indoctrinate the players into the organization’s “standard is the standard” culture than throwing wads of money into the free hand hoping to find a quick fix.
“When you do business with guys from the ages 20 and 21, you have the opportunity to participate in their growth and development,” said Tomlin.
“At a young age you get the opportunity to buy into your ball system or your roles in it, and that simply makes the division of labor more fluid.”
Usually the Steelers rely on this fluidity willingly. This year they didn’t have that luxury. A salary cap and the departure of several high profile long-time employees like center Maurkice Pouncey, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner forced Pittsburgh to rely heavily on the draft to find replacements.
After a sluggish start – something suggested by Tomlin to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would be practically inevitable – the Steelers are heading into the midseason with what looks like momentum. Pittsburgh (4-3) brings a winning streak of three games into Monday night with the visit to Chicago (3-5).
The Steelers turned things around in large part thanks to developing an offensive with four rookie starters on running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green.
An offensive that was the last to end in a rush in 2020 is beginning to find some traction. The Steelers have topped 100 yards on the ground in the last three games, intoxicating territory for a unit that has only made it once in the previous 16 games, and for a new-looking line that appeared overwhelmed in September.
No longer so much, a tribute to the way the newcomers have taken on the unenviable position into which they have been forced. They weren’t called up by a team that wanted to slowly and deliberately remodel, but one that tried to do it spontaneously.
All four have been asked to make immediate contributions to a team that believes the Super Bowl window with 39-year-old Roethlisberger didn’t slam. All four attacked the challenge.
It’s not uncommon for Green and Moore and the rest of the Offensive to spend another 10 to 15 minutes working out the intricacies of their job after training. Harris – the NFL’s reigning offensive rookie of the month after an average of 122 yards offensive and a touchdown in four games – will dwell on individual drills long after most of his teammates retreated to the locker room. Freiermuth focuses on the intricacies of blocking, a weakness he tries to turn into a strength.
Your boss noticed all of this, especially the development of Moore and Green. The final proof was last week’s 15:10 win over Cleveland, in which Moore largely asserted himself against Brown’s star defensive end Myles Garrett.
“They are built for (the NFL),” said Tomlin. “Often you work your head off during the design process to find out whether they are built for this or not, but you only really get that confirmed when you work with them. I think we will get a confirmation. “
Tomlin usually does. The then relatively unknown 34-year-old, who was hired for Bill Cowher at the beginning of 2007, has developed into one of the best coaches in the league and hardly seems to give up at 49. He recently resisted idle and largely unfounded speculation that major college programs were targeting him, his “never say never, ever” answer going viral.
He remains committed to the Steelers and the organization’s attitude towards team building. Take them young. Train them. Keep – and pay like Watts – those that fit. Take a chance on veterans to fill in the blanks and let those who want to go – like Ingram and previous years players like running back LeGarrette Blount – go.
It’s an approach that has led Tomlin to two Super Bowls, a title and 149 wins in 15 seasons. It’s a résumé that is almost identical to what Cowher put together during his 15-year stint with the Steelers en route to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Tomlin’s next win will put him second in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Chuck Noll. But he’s hardly in the mood to get poetic about it. The Steelers are back in the mix of AFC North. The rookies who are supposed to meet his high expectations grow into the job. There’s a playoff mooring to chase. Meet standards.
As always for Tomlin. The franchise he works for.
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