When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the New England Patriots in the 2017 AFC Championship, head coach Mike Tomlin obviously got a lot of flack. It wasn’t necessarily about a particular play here or time out there, though. The outrage towards Tomlin was more on how he handles business in the locker room.
You see, a week earlier, Tomlin was caught on video calling the New England Patriots “ass holes” live during an Antonio Brown FaceBook live video. “How dare Tomlin say something like that.” “Antonio Brown was not even paying attention to his coaches speech.” “Any media policies were clearly violated.” “What kind of control does Mike Tomlin have in this locker room?”
Some of the questions were out of line, some were fair. Either way, Tomlin took notice. What you have seen over the past year and a half is a culture shift in the locker room.
Last season, the team brought in leaders, and tone setters. Tyson Alualu, a long-standing veteran who has been praised for dealing with a losing culture in Jacksonville was signed. Joe Haden, same story. On top of that, the first five selections the team made in the 2017 NFL draft were team captains. T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Cameron Sutton, James Conner, Joshua Dobbs. All team captains.
This season, the focus has shifted from leadership to communication. Like 2016, the 2017 season ended with a loss in the 2018 NFL playoffs. The theme of this loss can once again bring us back to why this theme should rule the Steelers draft in 2018.
In 2017, the defenses vocal leaders in the back end were Ryan Shazier and Mike Mitchell. Joe Haden came in as the veteran presence and the three brought up a young, and under experienced group. However, hamstrings plagued Mike Mitchell, who remains unsigned to this day. Joe Haden broke his leg and we all know of Ryan Shazier. The shuffling in the back end and lack of vocal presence had this team scrambling late into the season.
In the playoffs against the Jaguars, motion, and pre and post snap confusion is what caused a Blake Bortles led team to score 40 points. Take the play below for example. Bud Dupree doesn’t notice the motion across the line. Sean Spence and Vince Williams essentially run into each other. And Sean Davis is ready to defend a run to the right. This happened all day.
The Steelers had enough, they were as embarrassed as they would have been had Antonio Brown filmed a video of their head coach cussing an opposing team out in the locker room. They were ready to take their cultural change a step further.
Enter Jon Bostic and Morgan Burnett. Neither free agent signing leaves your mouth watering and saying the Steelers took the next step. Both free agent signings give you a greater sense of responsibility and accountability in the back end of the defense.
Shazier is not coming back any time soon. Jon Bostic is a proven leader, who is identifying and adjusting pre snap.
Morgan Burnett can line up in the slot, in the box, or deep as a free safety. However, wherever he plays, he is prepared to read the play and get his man in line.
And he is always ready to read, react, and snuff out any play. Bostic and Burnett do not change games. However, they are always in the right place, they get their teammates in the right place, and they do not cost their team games.
“The ability to communicate under less than ideal circumstances really is going to kind of define you defensively, so it’s been important and will continue to be important and I think some of the things that you mentioned reflect that. We got a sharp, young, versatile guy who’s a very good communicator that plays with physicality. Quite simply, he checked all the boxes for us.
Kevin Colbert went on to rave about the communicator Terrell Edmunds is.
“He’s a smart, mature guy,” Colbert said. “His brother is a little quieter, he’s younger, but Terrell was more the out front, verbal guy, so that was fun to see.
The Edmunds family has a small series with NBC Sports Washington in which they discuss the two brothers selected in the first round and their path to the draft. The series matches up with the words of Tomlin and Colbert. The Edmunds oldest brother Trey said:
“Terrell, on the field, he talks the entire game. He talks junk, whatever he has to do. He does homework on his opponents he comes in knowing more about his opponent than they do about themselves”
So while many are questioning his instincts and his hips, even a shoulder injury that ended his season, they should also understand why the Steelers are invested in him. They are looking for a particular fix. They are a few small pieces away from a Super Bowl. Some may see it as a smaller move than others in the context of this draft. But the implications of the addition could be bigger than some think.