PITTSBURGH – After narrowly avoiding a losing season with 24-10 victory Sunday over the Cleveland Browns that allowed the Steelers to finish at 8-8, head coach Mike Tomlin held a final team meeting Monday and began the process of meeting with players individually.
Chances are that some of those meetings with players will be the last for Tomlin as their head coach.
“We desire to be a team that is consistently in the battle for the Lombardi trophy,” Tomlin said Monday. “That didn’t transpire this year for a number of reasons, primarily because we didn’t do enough in the closing moments of close football games.
“We were in eight games that were decided by three points or less. We were 3-5 in those games. That will produce an 8-8-like record that will have you on the outside (of the playoffs) looking in.”
Correcting why the Steelers failed late in games will be a major point of emphasis for next season.
Part of the problem Tomlin pointed to was the fact that the team’s offense and defenses seemed to go in opposite directions. The offense played well in the first half of the season in its first year under new coordinator Todd Haley, then faltered down the stretch, at least in part because of injuries.
The defense, meanwhile, played poorly at the start of the season and got better as it went along en route to leading the league in total yards allowed for the second consecutive year.
While injuries to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that sidelined him for three games, and the offensive line – where only left tackle Max Starks started in the same spot in every game – robbed the team of some of its cohesiveness, Tomlin would not use that as an excuse.
“We acknowledge that it was a component of maybe the degree of our success,” he said. “I still thought we were capable of playing winning football, because, as professionals, that’s what we’re expected and required to do.
“It was a myriad of things, and I think that’s what these upcoming days and weeks are about for us, taking the emotions out, looking at it critically and doing the type of self-examination necessary to move forward in a positive manner.”
Tomlin did, however, admit not having a go-to running back was an issue. Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, the Steelers used Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall as their starter in 2012, with Dwyer leading the team with 623 rushing yards, the fewest for a team leader since Merril Hoge had 610 yards in 1991.
“I’m sure that would be a fair assessment,” said Tomlin when asked if not having a go-to running back was a problem. “There are also several reasons why that did not occur, just general ineffectiveness being one of them.”
Mendenhall will be an unrestricted free agent, while Dywer and Redman are both restricted, meaning the Steelers need to make a decision if they want any of those backs to return in 2013.
That will be the case at a number of positions, as the Steelers enter their offseason with 17 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents and five others headed to restricted free agency. Included in those 22 players in addition to the three running backs are wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders (restricted), Starks and guard Ramon Foster, inside linebacker Larry Foote, nose tackle Casey Hampton and safety Will Allen, who started a number of games in place of injured Troy Polamalu.
Tomlin admitted he has to take emotion out of the equation when looking at a player’s value and future role.
“We’re going to communicate with them and make a decision about whether or not they fit and go from there,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, free agency is a two-way street. They’ll have an opportunity to decide where it is they’d like to continue their career. It’s going to require some discussion, but the discussion is not different than the one we might have with any other potential free agent.”
Odds and end zones
Tomlin will meet with players Wednesday and Thursday for exit interviews before turning his attention to assistant coaches. ... At this point, only offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who was hired as the head coach at UTEP, will not return. Tomlin said he has begun the process of finding Kugler’s replacement, but has no timetable for a hire. ... Tomlin revealed that defensive end Cameron Heyward suffered a fractured rib in Sunday’s game, while safety Ryan Clark spent the night in a Pittsburgh hospital to monitor a severe quad contusion. He was released Monday morning. ... The Steelers will select 17th in this year’s NFL draft.