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Mike Tomlin Has Pittsburgh Steelers Winning Against All Odds — Again

Mike Tomlin

Mike Tomlin is inevitable.

Every season is another testament to his problem-solving.

Tomlin held together the chaos of the Triple B offense — Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell — for years. He went 3-3 with a guy named Duck Hodges at quarterback. The corpse of Roethlisberger was just as bad toward the end, and Tomlin still found a way to win games.

And last season when T.J. Watt — the Pittsburgh Steelers’ best player — missed half the year? The Steelers were still a dangerous defense, and the team won nine games. Tomlin is football MacGyver.

To no one's surprise, Tomlin is making it happen again this season. The Steelers beat the Tennessee Titans 20-16 on Thursday night in a disgusting slog — a game that felt like a fistfight between two drunks too far gone to land any meaningful punches until the last one. That's kind of how Pittsburgh's whole season has felt.

The win moves the Steelers to 5-3 despite never outgaining their opponents in a game. According to Opta Stats, this is the first time their opponents have outgained a team in their first eight games and still put together a positive record. If that doesn't sound like Tomlin, I don't know what does.

Of course, Pittsburgh is doing all of this with magic. Sorcery. Maybe divine intervention. Whatever it is, both sides of the ball always seem to make a play when the Steelers need it most. But only when they need it most.

Let's start with the offense. For three quarters every week, Pittsburgh is a rancid offense. An eyesore, to put it lightly. The Steelers rank 27th in EPA per play and 31st in success rate through the first three quarters of games. Even that probably doesn't do justice to how nauseating it is to try and watch them move the ball.

The offensive line can't block anyone. Quarterback Kenny Pickett is scatterbrained half the time and misses throws left and right. At the skill positions, there are some useful pieces, but there isn't a real ace you can build the ship around. And that doesn't even begin to dive into how much meat OC Matt Canada often leaves on the bone.

This is an offense without a calling card. The running game kind of works in a high-efficiency, low-explosiveness kind of way, but the Steelers aren't mashing teams like the '90s Cowboys or anything. Pittsburgh is fine; nothing more and nothing less — but hanging your hat on a "fine" running game is no way to live.

But when the fourth quarter rolls around, the Steelers flip a switch. They become a different team. They become aggressive, explosive — and even mildly entertaining. They're a werewolf, and the fourth quarter is their full moon.

In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh jumps to seventh in success rate (45.9 percent) and moves to 11th in EPA per play. And most important of all, the team starts finding chunk plays.

The Steelers are tied for third in plays of 20-plus yards in the fourth quarter with nine. Only the Atlanta Falcons (also weird) and the Philadelphia Eagles (yeah, that makes more sense) have more than them. Someone always finds a way to make a play.

We saw that Thursday night with Diontae Johnson and Jaylen Warren.

On third-and-6 with just under six minutes left in the fourth, the Steelers finally got single coverage after getting two-high shells all night. Pickett didn't hesitate to use that chance to give his best guy a chance. Pickett pulled the trigger on a go ball to Johnson, which he pulled in amid tight coverage.

Warren bounced a run for 22 yards on the next play. A couple of snaps after that, Johnson found the end zone on a cheap flat route, the first time he's scored since the 2021 season.

For whatever reason, this unit figures it out in the fourth quarter. It's not really a schematic trick or any one player constantly churning out game-changing moments. Johnson, Warren, Najee Harris and George Pickens just take turns doing something ridiculous, and Pickett randomly pulls himself together enough to let those guys shine. Again, this is some Tomlin-specific magic.

Pittsburgh's defense is feeding off that same mysterious energy. Except for the defense, it's not about coming alive in the fourth quarter. Instead, it's about being turnover machines despite some uneven play otherwise.

The Steelers’ defense leads the league in EPA generated on turnovers. The unit has churned out 70.42 EPA on turnovers, nearly double the 44.3 league average and nearly nine full points better than the second-place Buffalo Bills at 61.45.

There's not a singular force for all these turnovers, either. It's a collective effort. Six different Steelers have at least one interception this season, yet CB Levi Wallace is the only guy with two. It's the same deal with forced fumbles: Nine different Pittsburgh players have forced a fumble this year — Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Cole Holcomb are all tied at the top with two apiece.

Some guys are pulling their weight more on a down-to-down basis, but when it comes to play-making, everyone on this defense is doing their part.

Now, you might think all of this has to end at some point. The offense getting hot in the fourth quarter doesn't feel sustainable and high turnover rates on defense are notoriously fickle. They can't keep getting away with it… right?

Well, maybe they can. This is Tomlin we're talking about. If anyone can continue to do the impossible with a team that isn't actually any good, it's this guy.

The schedule is going to help the Steelers out in that regard. Outside of the always-contested AFC North games left to play, Pittsburgh will face the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks. All of those teams are extremely beatable, save for Seattle.

Better yet, all those teams are in flux at the quarterback position. Jordan Love is a mess for the Packers right now. Kyler Murray will be starting for the Cardinals by the time they play the Steelers in December, but he'll still be knocking off rust. Both Mac Jones for the Patriots and Gardner Minshew for the Colts are weak-armed, turnover-prone quarterbacks whom Pittsburgh's defense can absolutely feast on.

So, yes, I know it feels wrong: The Steelers are getting away with murder by winning this many games. It's a crime.

But just accept it. Embrace that this team isn't very good and doesn't make sense — and will continue to win games anyway. It's easier that way. Tomlin will find a way to keep this team above .500, whether we like it or not.

That's what he does.

Derrik Klassen is an NFL and NFL Draft film analyst with a particular interest in quarterbacks. Klassen’s work is also featured on Bleacher Report and Reception Perception. You can follow him on Twitter (X) at @QBKlass.