This Steelers mess might be too hot for Mike Tomlin to control when it matters most

TAMPA, Fla. – Urban Dictionary defines “hot mess” as “when one’s thoughts or appearance are in a state of disarray but they maintain an undeniable attractiveness or beauty.”

By that measure, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the hottest of messes. They always make you watch and they always make you wince. There is beauty and bumbling in just about every quarter, and there was plenty of both in the team’s first win of the season, 30-27, here on Monday against the Buccaneers. It was vintage Mike Tomlin, where you walk away wondering, “That’s a fun team … but is it a great team?”

They couldn’t even land the team plane here without drama, having to abort to nearby St. Petersburg on Sunday because of thunderstorms. Some of the players plotted a cockpit takeover, joked linebacker Bud Dupree. “I thought we were kidnapped,” he said after the game.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin improved to 13-2 on Monday night games. (Getty Images)
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin improved to 13-2 on Monday night games. (Getty Images)

On Monday night, the game started with turbulence: a Steelers penalty. On the opening kickoff.

How does that happen?

Then the defense gave up a touchdown. And then came a stiff-arm that will go down in football folklore, with tight end Vance McDonald receiving a Ben Roethlisberger pass and then delivering a meme-tacular blow to Bucs safety Chris Conte.

“Just punish him” was McDonald’s mindset. “Inflict as much force on him as possible,” he said.

Asked if there was a certain body part he was aiming for on the stiff-arm, McDonald said: “Yeah. His temple. To just crush him.”

McDonald raced to the end zone as Conte crumpled to the ground. Defensive lineman Cam Heyward, standing on the sideline, extended an arm toward Conte as if pointing a bow and arrow. “Dude got owned,” Heyward said after the game. It changed the entire vibe – a literal TKO in the first round.

The Steelers made three picks, including a pick-six, and went ahead 30-10 late in the second quarter. That should have been it. But that’s never it when it’s the Steelers. The Black and Yellow almost blew it, giving up 17 unanswered points and nearly the game. The whole affair could have ended differently had the refs not ruled Bucs receiver Chris Godwin down on what looked to be a touchdown early in the third quarter. The Steelers didn’t make sure, so Godwin stood up and bolted for the red painted rectangle. Then there was a DeSean Jackson punt return for a touchdown that was nullified because of a holding call. Pittsburgh gave up three touchdown passes overall and 411 passing yards.

“We need to do better at putting it away,” Roethlisberger said, in a classic understatement.

This is a veteran team and there always seems to be some rookie hijinx.

“Guys have got to make those one-on-one plays, those 50-50 plays,” Tomlin said. “We didn’t make enough of them. They made too many, and I just thought it didn’t reflect the overall performance when you’re giving up chunks like that.”

All of the credit and blame lands at Tomlin’s feet. He is now 13-2 on “Monday Night Football,” and when the lights shine brightest, his teams always steal the show. There’s Antonio Brown with a black sweatshirt with “$1.28 million” embroidered on the chest – a nod to his rookie contract. There’s Roethlisberger apologizing at his postgame news conference to Brown for “showing too much emotion” on a third-down incompletion late in the game to the wideout, an error that made Big Ben slam his helmet on the sideline in frustration. (Brown grinned and said it was no big deal.) There’s linebacker Vince Williams running off the field after the game shouting, “Fitz-Tragic! Fitz-Tragic!”

Compared to, say, the Dallas Cowboys, this is nirvana. You have drama and winning. You have stars and clutch plays. You have a real shot at the Super Bowl just about every year. But having a shot at Lombardi and holding Lombardi are two different things, and Tomlin doesn’t seem any closer to getting the team back there. With obvious gaps in defense and discipline, that goal seems further away. The idea of jettisoning Tomlin always seems like one step too far, but the team itself always seems one step short.

The players admitted there has been stress, even aside of Brown going AWOL last Monday and star running back Le’Veon Bell still AWOL from the beginning of the season.

“It’s no secret, every team goes into a season with expectations and when those aren’t met, emotions, frustrations, all kinds of things start to creep in,” McDonald said. “So it’s really big, really big for us to win tonight.”

“We had a lot of angst going into the season,” Heyward said, “because you want to win games, you want to get that taste of the first win.

“You could see in our practices. We were frustrated. We wanted to do whatever it took.”

Is that frustration just under the surface now after a win? Maybe that’s the Steelers’ equilibrium, the state of near-chaos. Maybe that’s their happy place. “We’re used to it,” Roethlisberger said of the drama.

Or maybe the team should be a little more efficient, a little more airtight, and it’s Tomlin’s fault that they aren’t.

Brown had a quirky comment after the game. He was talking about his relationship with Roethlisberger, and how he feeds off a well-placed compliment. “When your wife tells you you’re looking good carrying the groceries, it makes you want to get more groceries.” It’s hilarious but also profound. Tomlin is good at that – letting his guys know they look good carrying the bags. It’s just sometimes they drop them and that kind of lapse seems to happen too much. A brilliant stiff-arm, or a highlight touchdown catch, or a funny postgame quip can act as the shiny object every weekend, but the Steelers always return to the same place: they have plenty of groceries, yet they don’t get them all the way to the fridge.

Can they have another winning season? It looks a lot more hopeful now. Ben is steady again and Brown is smiling again. Next up are the Baltimore Ravens and a win could vault Pittsburgh from a tie for last in the division all the way to first if the chips fall right.

And yet the Steelers have given up 90 points in three games and the Chargers and Chiefs are the only AFC teams that have given up more. That’s not good enough.

There are never any iron-clad conclusions with Mike Tomlin teams. They are equal parts elation and frustration.

Equal parts hot and mess.

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