Mike Tomlin doesn’t have many fans among the Browns faithful — for obvious reasons. He coaches the hated Steelers, has won a Super Bowl and is 25-7-1 against the Browns in his 17-year tenure.
But even the most diehard Browns backers must admit the man can turn a phrase.
Tomlin spoke to reporters in Pittsburgh for nearly a half-hour Tuesday, recapping the 30-7 loss to the 49ers on Sunday at home in the opener and looking ahead to the visit from the Browns on Monday night. In addition to filling tape recorders with soundbites, he provided valuable insight on the Steelers, Browns and their primetime matchup.
He didn’t hold back. That’s not in his DNA.
“Obviously it was a stinker,” he said of the opener to open his monologue. “We stunk up the joint.
“You’ve got to carry that stench for a while when you have a performance like that.”
He attributed the lopsided loss to the inability to stop 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who rushed for 152 yards, a 6.9 average and a touchdown, a poor job on “possession” downs that didn’t allow the Steelers to extend drives and bad pre-snap communication and adjustments on defense.
“San Fran got their agenda done,” Tomlin said.
The Browns, who beat the Bengals 24-3 on Sunday, have won only three games in Pittsburgh since 1999 — the first game upon returning, in 2003 and the wild card playoff game after the 2020 season. Cleveland is an early two-point favorite, but players and fans shouldn’t think for a second a victory is going to come easily.
Even with six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cameron Heyward headed for groin surgery and speedy receiver Diontae Johnson out with a hamstring injury.
“Losing Cam is significant. It’s a multiple-man job and a coaches job,” Tomlin said of replacing him. “Because it changes your schematics when you lose significant players. We all run to that and not away from that. It’s an opportunity for us to show what team is about.”
Good teams bounce back after Week 1 losses, and the Steelers qualify. Plus, the 49ers might be the most talented team in the NFL and the former Heinz Field will be rocking.
“We’re not looking for comfort or excuses,” Tomlin said. “The tape is who we are at this juncture. So we’re going to work to change the tape we have control over. Monday night is a little bit different and that’s why we’re working.”
Besides the score, perhaps most troubling for the Steelers was the performance of second-year quarterback Kenny Pickett. He was up and down as a rookie but inspired a lot of optimism with his play during the preseason. He must be much improved for the Steelers to compete in an AFC North with Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Cleveland’s Deshaun Watson and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson.
Pickett went 31-for-46 (67.4 percent) for 232 yards, a touchdown, two interceptions, five sacks and a 68.4 passer rating vs. the 49ers. Tomlin pointed to the intangibles as why Pickett will be better vs. the Browns.
“It’s reasonable to expect guys that work the way he works and prepares the way he prepares to bounce back from negative performance,” Tomlin said. “I expect this group to do similar things.”
He isn’t taking the Browns lightly, especially after their dominance against the Bengals. He went through the roster, offering praise where he saw fit.
“If you’re talking about the Cleveland Browns, it starts with Mr. (Nick) Chubb,” Tomlin said. “The way he controls the game, he keeps them on schedule, he controls the climate.”
Watson and receiver Amari Cooper were next, then he mentioned tight end David Njoku and how it’s been “cool to watch his maturation and development in all elements of the game,” and receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, who has “carved out a niche for himself continually over time.”
The defensive discussion started with the addition of coordinator Jim Schwartz, whom Tomlin has known for years.
“They went out and hired a veteran four-down-personnel expert,” he said, referring to Cleveland’s 4-3 system. “He fits them, they fit him. They get after people with their front four.”
Tomlin wasn’t ready to declare any major differences under Schwartz after one game, saying he wasn’t sure there was anything “that strikes me like a lightning bolt.”
He was more than ready to credit the cornerbacks for the win over Burrow and receivers Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. Cornerbacks Denzel Ward, Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. will get a break against Pittsburgh by not having to face Johnson but still must contend with George Pickens, Allen Robinson II and Calvin Austin III.
“To be blunt, I thought the corners won the game for them last week,” Tomlin said. “Their ability to stand on the line of scrimmage and challenge the Cincinnati Bengals I thought was really impressive. They stood up time and time again.”
The Steelers won’t drastically alter their plans following the ugly loss.
“We won’t overreact. We won’t have a knee-jerk reaction,” Tomlin said. “But it does require our attention and our time.”
So does Tomlin when he’s speaking.