Mike Tomlin names the top three defensive players that he's ever coached
(Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Earlier this week, Mike Tomlin was on "All Things Covered" with his former player Bryant McFadden and current Cardinals' cornerback Patrick Peterson. Tomlin talked about several topics covering the greatest defenses that he's coached in his NFL career, the three top defensive players that he's ever coached, what makes the Steelers so great at drafting wide receivers, and the lack of minority head coaches currently in the league.
One of the most dominant defenses that Tomlin coached was the 2008 Steelers' defense who ranked first in points allowed (13.9), first in yards per game (23.7.2), first in yards per play (3.9), first in passing yards per game (156.9) and second in rushing yards allowed per game (80.3).
"I think defenses dominate in different ways, man. Some of the early defenses that I had here in Pittsburgh like the '08 Super Bowl-champion defense that B-Mac was a part of, man that was a kick-ass defense," Tomlin said when Peterson asked him who was the greatest defense that he's ever coached. "Meaning that we were going to win the line of scrimmage and beat you up and win by attrition that way. Some of the defenses that I happened to be a secondary coach for down in Tampa and we won the World Championship (2002), man, we were athletes, we created turnovers, we got after the passer. We didn't necessarily beat you up physically, but we won by making splash plays.
"It's really tough to distinguish which one is more effective because we had great players, Hall of Fame players who were built differently and we constructed the defenses to fit their skill set. We had Derrick Brooks down in Tampa and that guy was a Gazelle, he looked like the animal that he hunted. He was like the feature running back, he'd come out of games with the ball in his hands just about every week."
Tomlin talked about how it all started with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley on the 2008 Steelers' defense. Harrison and Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks in 2008, 16 sacks coming from Harrison and 11.5 sacks by Woodley.
"We had dominant outside linebackers like James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley that absolutely beat you up," Tomlin said. "And so, the means that they go about dominating games was so different, it's tough to distinguish, but I've learned to have an appreciation for both. One thing I do know, you know when you're with a dominant defensive group that's got the goods, and I think that's what's exciting about the group that we're working with right now. It's really early in the journey, but they're showing signs of the type of group that can be the type of group that's got the goods."
Peterson followed up by asking Tomlin who are the top three defensive players that he's coached either as a head coach or assistant in the NFL.
"Troy (Polamalu) and (Derrick) Brooks, and then it gets tough," Tomlin said. "I might have to go Warren Sapp, (No.) 99. You're talking Troy and Brooks, you're talking first-ballot Hall of Famers, you're talking Warren Sapp, you're talking about a second-ballot Hall of Famer. It's tough to argue against some of those guys. Just the routine, freaking things that I saw from those guys the years that I worked with them really made them a cut above. That's the reason why they wear the gold jackets in the manner of which they wear the gold jackets in terms of early enshrinement."
Under Kevin Colbert, the Steelers have been the best team at drafting wide receivers in the league. No matter what the round is, Colbert always finds a diamond in the rough. In fact, the last time the Steelers drafted a wide receiver in the first round was 2006 when they selected Santonio Holmes at 25 overall. Here's a list of some of the wide receivers that the Steelers have drafted since the Holmes selection -- Mike Wallace (third round) in 2009, Emmanuel Sanders (third round) and Antonio Brown (sixth round) in 2010, Martavis Bryant (fourth round) in 2014, JuJu Smith-Schuster (second round) in 2017, James Washington (second round) in 2018, Diontae Johnson (third round) in 2019 and Chase Claypool (second round) in 2020.
Claypool, the latest star wide receiver that the Steelers have drafted, is coming off a four-touchdown performance against the Eagles last Sunday, the first rookie in franchise history to score four touchdowns in a game and is the first Steeler since Roy Jefferson scored four touchdowns against Atlanta on Nov. 3, 1968.
"First and foremost, we're interested in football players first," Tomlin said about evaluating wide receivers. "Guys that show a certain toughness that goes above and beyond the position, or a certain competitive spirit that goes above and beyond the position. Case in point you (McFadden) were teammates (with) a number of those guys. Very rarely will you find a speed guy that's a deep threat that's as physically tough as Mike Wallace. He was a speed guy that was no punk. That was a tough guy, that didn't back down from physical confrontations. He was 200 pounds etc. Emmanual Sanders and AB (Antonio Brown) were 180 pounders who were uniquely tough and competitive for 180 pounders. They were wiry strong, they didn't turn down competition.
The same grit that was shown by Wallace, Sanders and Brown is what Tomlin and the Steelers saw in Claypool when scouting him.
"We fell in love with Claypool by the way he sunk his teeth into the special teams combat down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl," Tomlin said. "This guy was special teams MVP I think at Notre Dame his second year at school there. He showed football awareness and things that were outside the wide receiver position, and for us, we believed that that's a good indicator that you've got a football player and they're going to do the things that the wide receiver position requires."
Tomlin said the Steelers' all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown receptions is the model for being a football player first and a wider receiver second.
"That dude was a wide receiver, but he was so much more," Tomlin said of Hines Ward, who made a career out of delivering crushing blocks. "That's kind of a standard-bearer for us. We're looking for football players who happen to play wide receiver. And Hines is just a good blueprint for that. A guy I just appreciated on that level and really have modeled the evaluation and selection of others based on that principle alone."
Tomlin was also asked about the lack of minority head coaches currently in the league. Tomlin is one of just four minority head coaches in the NFL right now.
"The bottom line is those that are in position to hire aren't hiring them at the rate that we are all comfortable with," Tomlin said of the lack of minority head coaches being hired. "And that's the reality of it. I don't know that anybody stands opposed to minority hiring, but when jobs are available minorities are not getting hired. That's what we have to address. It doesn't appear to be attitudes. It doesn't appear to be pathways, symposiums, development and things of that nature. I've been involved in those type (of) things formally and informally for 20 years since I've been in the league. Whether it was myself and getting an opportunity to participate in it or being someone that mentors and helps out and aides in the development of others. Those things have been ongoing. The bottom line is we got to do a better job of actually pulling the trigger and hiring and that falls on those that hire."
McFadden asked Tomlin if he feels that minority coaches have more pressure in front of them when it comes to being a head coach for an NFL organization compared to other coaches.
"I definitely believe that they're some challenges that we as minorities face that our peers do not," Tomlin said. "But, you know, that's life. I am sure that C-level executives across all walks of life from a minority standpoint share similar experiences and adaptations and so forth. I don't spend a lot of time talking about labor pains, I just try to deliver the baby. And I try to do it in such a way that it makes it easier for the next doctor no matter who he or she may be."
In 2007, Tomlin interviewed with the Dolphins for their head coach position, but Miami decided to go with Cam Cameron. And as we all know, Tomlin got the head coaching job with the Steelers that same year. Peterson asked Tomlin what life would have been like if he took the Dolphins job over the Steelers.
"I don't plan on failure so I don't know that the journey would have been that different," Tomlin said. "I tell you what, my kids probably would have lived a different lifestyle in South Florida. I have two boys that are college football players who probably would have loved to grow up in South Florida running with you dawgs down there playing sports. They got much respect for that South Florida athletics and the way it's gets done down there. Just my personal life, the lifestyle more than anything. I worked in Tampa for 5-6 years, man I'd do pool parties and stuff during the holiday season and things of that nature. It's a different quality of life. In terms of the job, I refuse to acknowledge that I can see it in any way differently. I punch the clock and I keep my head down and hard-working, and I think that's the secret of longevity and getting what you're hunted. From a football standpoint, I don't know that it would have been different."
You can listen to the full interview with Tomlin on "All Things Covered" in the link below.