Tomlin hiring could bring sweeping defensive changes
For a city that does not reconcile change very well at all, where neighborhoods and people seem frozen in time, Pittsburgh might be about to undergo a dramatic metamorphosis.
Well, at least its football team is, it seems.
ESPN's Chris Mortensen confirmed Saturday night that Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin is the choice of Steelers management to succeed Bill Cowher as coach. If that is the case, the team faces a period of adjustment and alteration. No less an authority than Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who is hiring only a third different sideline boss since 1969, knows the implication of making a change.
"When you change coaches, you're always starting over again," Rooney said in the days leading up to Super Bowl XL, when he was asked about his family's unparalleled patience with coaches.
The Steelers, a talented team that could rebound quickly in 2007 from a rare 2006 campaign that did not include a playoff berth, might not be completely starting over with Tomlin, who has been in the NFL only since 2001. But his schematic preferences seem so at odds with what has transpired in Pittsburgh for more than 20 years now that there can't help but be some degree of makeover.
Changing coaches isn't all about "fit" anymore, and there are some areas in which Tomlin appears the square peg moving into a round hole environment.
Most notable is on defensel, where the Steelers have deployed a 3-4 front since 1983, when Chuck Noll scrapped the 4-3 scheme that brought Pittsburgh four Super Bowl titles in six seasons. For years, the Pittsburgh scouts have unearthed 3-4 players -- undersized college defensive ends who could transition to linebacker, tackles who could move outside and play end, and cornerbacks who were strong in run support -- to fit their scheme.
Tomlin, though, is a disciple of the Cover 2 scheme, a 4-3 front that he learned in Tampa Bay under former Bucs coach Tony Dungy and coordinator Monte Kiffin, and which he implemented in Minnesota this season when he was hired as coordinator. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week, Tomlin suggested he won't be tied down to one defense.
"I'm a fundamentalist as opposed to scheme," Tomlin said. "I think football is a tough man's game, an attrition game. You win by stopping the run and being able to run the ball effectively. And by doing the things winners do."
Yet given his affinity for the Cover 2 scheme, there is little question Tomlin will want to convert to a 4-3 front as quickly as possible. The bigger question: Does Pittsburgh possess the appropriate personnel for such a switch?
Because he has never been a head coach before, it's difficult to guess about Tomlin's philosophies on offense, other than the fact he believes in a strong running game.
The other area that could change is with the Pittsburgh staff, where all the assistants are under contract and likely would have stayed had assistant head coach Russ Grimm landed the top job. Only three coaches from the Cowher staff have departed. Offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt left to become head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, longtime running backs assistant Dick Hoak retired and special teams coach Kevin Spencer joined Whisenhunt's staff.
Tomlin is certain to have his own ideas on staffing, and while he could retain some of the current assistants, there could also be a mass exodus. Can Grimm, for instance, stay on staff after being passed over for head coach? With Whisenhunt gone, can Pittsburgh afford to lose Mark Whipple, the talented quarterbacks coach who has helped develop Ben Roethlisberger?
Right now, it appears, there are a lot of questions.
That said, the teams that interviewed Tomlin came away believing he's an answer man. He was, they said, thorough, detailed and articulate. And the past few days, there was certainly a quiet sense that he, not Grimm, was the guy with momentum as the Steelers wound down their search for Cowher's successor.
Some doubters will point to the fact he is only 34. But that's the same age at which the Steelers hired Cowher.
A more significant chronological number is that the Steelers are less than one year removed from their Super Bowl XL victory, and there's been a considerable amount of change in a short period of time. It's a foreign concept to longtime 'Burghers, this whole concept of change, and Tomlin is going to have to get quick results to earn the trust of the locals.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
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