Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the rivalry game with the Cincinnati Bengals takes competition to the level every team should strive for in the NFL.
When asked during a conference call with Cincinnati media if last December’s game in Cincinnati crossed a line between being physical and reckless, Tomlin chalked it up to the “hotly contested” nature of the games.
That matchup in particular featured two serious injuries that stemmed from hits made by Steelers players – JuJu Smith-Schuster concussed Vontaze Burfict with a blindside block and Ryan Shazier injured his spine trying to tackle Josh Malone. However, Tomlin didn’t believe anything malicious occurred.
“There is a lot at stake,” Tomlin said. “Those guys understand that. They are playing extremely hard but everyone is playing to win and playing to win means playing within the rules because penalties don’t help any of our causes. I never felt that way. There were some unfortunate things that occurred in the game. That happens when you play football but largely when these two teams come together they represent what professional ball is about from a competitive standpoint and particularly fighting in divisional play.”
Here is a look at five other key things Tomlin discussed with the Cincinnati media:
1. There is no secret to success
The Steelers have won the last six games and nine of the last 10 against the Bengals but Tomlin said there is no secret to that success.
“We’ve just focused on the next opportunity, and I think that’s probably key to any equation that you ask in that way,” Tomlin said. “We don’t care about the past games. We can’t hang our hat on any of that. Many of the significant contributors to those games don’t play for us, don’t play for them. We have to be focused on the tools we have, the people we have, and the opportunities we have waiting on us at 1 o’clock on Sunday.”
The same can be said of any game. Pittsburgh made big strides last week with a 41-17 win over Atlanta but Tomlin attributed that to simply cashing in on opportunities that presented themselves in all three phases, including a blocked punt by Roosevelt Nix that put the Steelers on the Falcons’ 18-yard line in the third quarter.
2. Conner shining in new role
Running back James Conner has filled in nicely for Le’Veon Bell, while he’s been holding out for a contract, and Tomlin said he is making the most of the opportunity. Bell has said he won’t play until Week 8 against Cleveland, so it will be interesting to see what happens with Conner after that, but Tomlin seems to have a lot of faith in him now.
“He’s just taking advantage of the opportunity given,” Tomlin said. ”It’s not about anybody’s absence or the reasons why he’s given the opportunity, it’s about taking advantage and stepping through an open door. He’s put himself to do it by coming in in great shape, and he’s done it by being productive.”
3. Big expectations for second-year players
Conner was expected to handle more of a workload in his second season regardless of Bell’s situation, but that is the case for guys like Smith-Schuster and linebacker T.J. Watt, as well, as they all had high expectations placed on them after productive rookie seasons.
“We ask a lot of our second-year guys, not only because they have been in our program a year but also, they have been professionals for a year,” Tomlin said. “They understand the riggers of the job, what the week-to-week challenges present to them, so it’s reasonable to expect (Conner) to be ready for an increased workload. It’s reasonable to expect T.J. Watt to take significant steps. It’s reasonable to expect JuJu to do the same so we treat all those guys very much the same, and we expect those guys to be significant contributors.”
4. Big Ben improving with age
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been a thorn in the Bengals’ side since 2004 when he came into the league out of Miami University. He is 21-7 against Cincinnati and hasn’t dropped off with age. Roethlisberger is 36.
Tomlin said he’s still growing as a player even now. He ranks third in the league with 1,664 yards passing.
“He’s continually adapting to the things he has to meet the needs of the demands of the job,” Tomlin said. “He’s grown in a lot of ways. There is a natural thing that occurs in terms of age — it happens in all players — but along the way he’s improved in so many ways it minimizes that and probably in a lot of instances makes him even more effective.”
5. Offensive line sets the tone
Tomlin has been pleased for the most part with the offensive line’s performance this season. Pittsburgh ranks in a tie for seventh for fewest sacks allowed and the Steelers have their most success rushing right.
“They are doing a good job,” Tomlin said. “Those guys want to be the reason we’re successful. They want to have an opportunity to control the game. Sometimes game circumstances dictate otherwise, but largely I’ve been pleased with their performance. They are a veteran, prideful group. They have an urgency about them that’s reflective of where they are in their careers, so they bring that urgency to the entire team.”
Steelers at Bengals, 1 p.m., WHIO-TV Ch. 7, Ch. 12, 700, 1530, 102.7, 104.7