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Mack: Is Tomlin Ready For Patriots?

Another Chess Match With Belichick, Brady Awaits

Chris Mack
September 04, 2019 - 8:18 am

It doesn't take an extensive search to find the storylines going in to Week One's Steelers/Patriots match-up. You can practically hear the voiceovers for Sunday Night Football in your head already, and they more-or-less write themselves.

Big Ben! Tom Terrific! Two Super Bowl-winning, future Hall of Fame quarterbacks duel in Foxboro in Week One!!  

If you go back to Week 15 last December though (and the last time the New England Patriots lost a game), you can look at the box score and see neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Tom Brady had what would qualify as a great game by their standards. A pair of interceptions smudged Roethlisberger's report card, and while Brady threw the ball to the Steelers just once, it was a crucial, 4th quarter, red zone pick.

It was Joe Haden who came down with that interception, elevating over Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski to halt a New England drive and provide anywhere from a 6-10 point swing, as a Chris Boswell field goal followed just over five minutes later.

Whether it's Brady vs. Ben, Haden vs. New England's receivers, even Pats' rookie Chase Winovich vs. the hometown team that passed on him in the draft, they all make for compelling dramatic arcs during a primetime broadcast. Ice the content cake with a 6th banner-raising for the champs and the remnants of Pittsburgh's AB & Lev-aren't-here-anymore/Ben's-trying-to-be-a-better-leader drama, and you may be hard pressed to remember what this game will be about, and what nearly every Steelers-Patriots game for the past decade has really been about: Mike Tomlin vs. Bill Belichick.

Tomlin is already downplaying the idea of this being a chess match, though. Tuesday afternoon he instead he's choosing to focus on the continued development of his own team, rather than any out-scheming of Belichick.

“In Week 1, if you focus more on your opponent, there is more gray (area) because there is no establishment of those things,” Tomlin said. “We need to focus on the establishment of ours, and I’m sure New England is focused on the establishment of theirs, and the quality with which we do that will determine the quality of our play.”

That's where Tomlin is wrong. And he's been bested by Belichick often enough that he should know better. The Patriots are preparing for the Steelers. They're breaking down personnel, studying their tendencies,  and analyzing their strengths and weaknesses. They'll then attack what they've identified as the soft underbelly.

While the near-consensus greatest football coach of all-time will be analyzing the chess board, thinking about how he'll be using his pieces, Tomlin will be sitting down at the other end of the board trying to figure out which pieces he's even going to use. To the point of insisting that Devin Bush may not necessarily be ready for his NFL debut.

"We've got to manage some of that, some of the Devin Bushes of the world, and guys like that who have a chance to be big components of what we do," said Tomlin during his Tuesday meeting with the media. 

chance to be a big component?

Bush roamed training camp and preseason fields like a hungry lion on the Serengeti in search of his next meal. He looked every bit the part of an NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate before a single regular season snap. He immediately, from the moment he first trucked fellow rookie Benny Snell in a backs-on-backers drill at St. Vincent, appeared to be exactly what you want in a guy you traded up in to the Top 10 of the First Round to acquire.

If there's a rookie ready for a "baptism by fire," and a team to unleash him on, it's Bush against the New England Patriots, a team that's carved up the middle of the Pittsburgh defense with ease for the better part of the last decade.

"But you have to balance that," said Tomlin, "with the fact it is their first time stepping in a stadium.”  

Nevermind the fact that Bush played in front of at least 100,000 fans more often than not at Michigan. Nevermind the fact that Tomlin and others on the South Side have already praised Bush's readiness due to not just his experience as a Wolverine, but his pedigree as the son of an eight year NFL veteran.

It may be that Tomlin really does understand that a Sunday night battle plan against Belichick starts in Tuesday's press conference with some purposeful misdirection regarding his personnel decisions. Here's hoping that's the case.

If you're a Steelers fan though, you should be more concerned that Mike Tomlin, rather than focusing on the Patriots and finding a way to beat them, is more worried about the preparedness of a guy who was his best player on defense in the month of August. It's an indicator he's entirely too focused on the wrong team, the team that he should already know everything he needs to know about, and the team that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are already focused on: The Pittsburgh Steelers.