PITTSBURGH – First-year Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin strolled quietly through the locker room after his post-game press conference. As he did, linebacker Clark Haggans shouted, "Coach T, we got the goods."
It's a little early to be projecting much about this NFL season, but one thing is clear after the Steelers continued their early-season sprint by reaching 3-0 with a 37-16 pasting of the San Francisco 49ers: The Steelers love their new coach, as much for what he says as what he doesn't.
Among Tomlin's pet phrases: "Do you have the goods to be a champion?" and "It is what it is." Those two statements meld perfectly in a city that has come to expect title-contending play and where the residents don't waste much time getting to the point.
On Sunday, the Steelers didn't waste much time throwing the "kitchen sink" – as linebacker James Farrior put it – at San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith, the youngest starting passer in the league. While Smith didn't make any huge mistakes until the end, he also didn't produce any significant results. The 49ers produced only three field goals while the game was still in doubt. Only a garbage-time touchdown in the fourth quarter prevented the Steelers from holding their third straight opponent to single digits.
Throw in the 133 yards rushing by running back Willie Parker, who topped the 100-yard mark for the third straight game, and you have some vintage results from a franchise that's won five Super Bowls, most recently during the 2005 season.
But before the black-and-gold faithful get too carried away with all of this, it's only fair to measure who Pittsburgh has trounced along the way. Between Smith, the Buffalo Bills' J.P. Losman and Charlie Frye, who the Cleveland Browns have already sent packing, Pittsburgh has beaten a bunch of quarterbacks who still have a long way to go. They might get there – the Steelers were particularly complimentary of Smith after the game – but they clearly aren't there yet.
Furthermore, next week could be more of the same as Tomlin tries to outdo the likes of Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher to become the first Steelers coach to go 4-0 in his first season. The Steelers go to Arizona, where former Pittsburgh assistant coaches Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm, who both had hoped to get the Steelers job, are supposedly laying in wait for their old team.
The problem Arizona has is it might not exactly know who's going to be the quarterback. Talented second-year passer Matt Leinart was benched twice against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, which could certainly shake his confidence. Veteran Kurt Warner rallied the Cardinals to a tie against the Ravens, but anyone who has seen Warner over the past few years knows that there's a limit to how much pounding he can take.
In other words, the Steelers could easily be 4-0 by this time next week and still be a long way from tested.
"Absolutely, the test is going to be when we face an offense that's firing on all cylinders and a quarterback who has seen everything we do," linebacker Brett Keisel said. "I don't think we can afford to get overly excited about where we are just yet. It's nice to be 3-0 and have that confidence, but let's hold on a little bit."
Said Farrior: "Hey, we've got a long road ahead for us. There are going to be some close games where we're going to see how guys react to tough situations. But we don't make the schedule. We've beaten the teams we've faced and we can be plenty happy about that."
Actually, what the Steelers should be happiest about is that Tomlin has been astounding so far in not messing with a good thing. Tomlin, 35, got the Steelers job after being a standout defensive coordinator with the Minnesota Vikings last season and by building a strong knowledge of the famed "Tampa 2" scheme. That scheme features a classic four-man line, lots of undersized linemen and linebackers, and a soft zone coverage that takes advantage of the team's overall speed.
The Steelers couldn't be much different with their zone-blitz scheme built around a 3-4 front seven. The linebackers are beefy and play downhill, coming at quarterbacks from all angles and at anytime. The Steelers stumbled last season, but the foundation was still fine and Tomlin realized that, leaving well enough alone. In particular, Tomlin kept long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the forefathers of the scheme.
The move illustrated to players that Tomlin's ego isn't such that he would force his will upon a situation.
"That's exactly what it showed us," safety Troy Polamalu said. "I remember one of the first things I heard him say … after he was asked if he was going to bring the Tampa 2 here was, 'I've got coach LeBeau, I'm not going to do anything to change that.'"
Smith got his fill of the scheme throughout the first half. On 10 occasions over the first 30 minutes, San Francisco started a fresh set of downs. Nine times they faced third down and were constantly in third-and-long, playing right into Pittsburgh's strength.
Watching the 49ers offense and, more specifically, Smith develop is akin to teaching your children to read. Sometimes it's frustrating to listen to them stumble through words (or, in this case, plays). At the same time it's fascinating and, ultimately, joyful.
No play demonstrated that more than a crucial third-and-13 the 49ers faced midway through the third quarter. On the two plays to set up the third down, Smith had been sacked for a 3-yard loss and had been pressured into an incomplete pass, the Pittsburgh pass rush coming at him from each side on the consecutive plays.
But on third down, Smith stood strong in the pocket and delivered a strike to tight end Vernon Davis for what should have been a 22-yard gain. But Davis was hit low, flipped over, hit the ground and the ball popped out. The Steelers thought it was a fumble and returned it. The 49ers thought it was a complete pass and asked for a review.
After a long wait for the officials to decide, the play was neither. It was ruled an incomplete pass.
The instance was somewhat symbolic of the afternoon as the 49ers spent much of the game trying to get Davis, the No. 6 overall pick a year ago, more involved in the offense after two weeks of struggling to get him the ball.
The result was four catches for 56 yards in the first half for Davis, but still some frustration along the way. On San Francisco's first possession, Smith twice tried to go to Davis inside the red zone. Pittsburgh threw double coverage at Davis both times and Smith couldn't connect with his target.
"We read the newspapers," Farrior said with a smile, referring to articles about how Davis was frustrated at not getting the ball. "We knew what they were going to try to do."
And ultimately that was the difference between the two sides – the 49ers spent the game trying to get it done while Pittsburgh continued to execute at the high level it did the previous two weeks.