Steelers, Tomlin embrace challenge of rebuilding on the fly

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin watches during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021, in Cleveland. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Melvin Ingram needed a job. The Pittsburgh Steelers needed depth at outside linebacker, so they took a flyer on the nine-year veteran, signing him to a one-year deal on the eve of training camp with the hopes he would provide quality depth if required.

Less than four months later, Ingram was gone. Unhappy with a diminished role behind star T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith as the trade deadline neared, Ingram effectively pouted his way out of town.

The Steelers sent him to Kansas City last Tuesday for a sixth-round pick, leading Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to trot out a variation of one of his favorite “Tomlinisms.”

“It’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages,” Tomlin said.

Ingram’s abrupt exit highlighted an ethos the Steelers have stuck to for the past half-century. Better to build through the draft and indoctrinate players into the organization’s “the standard is the standard” culture than throw around wads of cash in free agency in hopes of making a quick fix.

“When you do business with guys from the time, they’re 20 and 21, you get an opportunity to be a part of their growth and development,” Tomlin said.

“They get an opportunity to buy into your system of ball or their roles in it at a very young age, and it just makes the division of labor thing a more fluid thing.”

Typically the Steelers rely on that fluidity by choice. This year, they didn’t have that luxury. A salary cap crunch and the departure of several high-profile longtime contributors such as center Maurkice Pouncey, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner forced Pittsburgh to rely heavily on the draft to find replacements.

After a sluggish start — something everyone from Tomlin to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hinted would be practically unavoidable — the Steelers enter midseason with something that looks like momentum. Pittsburgh (4-3) takes a three-game winning streak into Monday night’s visit from Chicago (3-5).

The Steelers have turned things around in large part thanks to the development of an offense featuring four rookie starters in running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green.

An offense that finished last in rushing in 2020 is starting to find some traction. The Steelers have topped 100 yards on the ground over their past three games, heady territory for a unit that did it just once in the 16 games prior and for a new-look line that appeared overwhelmed in September.

Not so much anymore, a tribute to the way the newcomers have embraced the unenviable position they were thrust in. They didn’t get drafted by a team looking to rebuild slowly and deliberately, but one attempting to do it on the fly.

All four were asked to become immediate contributors for a team that believes the Super Bowl window with the 39-year-old Roethlisberger has not slammed shut. All four have attacked the challenge.

It’s not unusual for Green and Moore and the rest of the offensive line to spend an extra 10 to 15 minutes after practice working through the finer points of their jobs. Harris — the NFL’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Month after averaging 122 yards of offense and a touchdown in four games — will linger for individual drills long after most of his teammates have retreated to the locker room. Freiermuth is focusing on the finer points of blocking, a weakness he is attempting to turn into a strength.

Their boss has noticed all of it, the development of Moore and Green in particular. The latest proof came in last week’s gritty 15-10 win over Cleveland in which Moore mostly held his own against Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett.

“They’re built for (the NFL),” Tomlin said. “Oftentimes, through the draft process, you work your tails off to find out whether or not they’re built for it, but you don’t really get confirmation of that until you’re working with them. I think we’re getting confirmation.”

Tomlin typically does. The then relatively unknown 34-year-old hired in early 2007 to take over for Bill Cowher has morphed into one of the league’s premier coaches and at 49, hardly appears to be slowing down. He bristled recently at idle and largely unfounded speculation big-time college programs were targeting him, his “never say never, but never,” response going viral.

He remains as committed as ever to the Steelers and to the organization’s mindset on team building. Take ’em young. Coach ’em up. Keep — and pay as in the case of Watt — the ones who fit. Take a chance on veterans to fill in the gaps and let the ones who want to leave — like Ingram and in previous years players such as running back LeGarrette Blount — leave.

It’s an approach that has helped carry Tomlin to two Super Bowls, one title, and 149 wins in 15 seasons. It’s a resume that almost identically mirrors the one Cowher put together during his 15-year stay with the Steelers on his way to enshrinement in Canton, Ohio, in the Hall of Fame.

Tomlin’s next victory will move him into second place in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Chuck Noll. Yet he’s hardly in the mood to wax poetic about it. The Steelers are back in the mix in the AFC North. The rookies tasked with meeting his high expectations are growing into the job. There’s a playoff berth to chase. Standards to meet.

Same as it ever was for Tomlin. The franchise he works for too.