For­mer team­mates McDer­mott, Tom­lin lead Bills, Steel­ers

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By Will Graves AP Sports Writer

PITTS­BURGH (AP) >> Sean McDer­mott re­mem­bers lin­ing up across from Mike Tom­lin and want­ing to do ev­ery­thing he could to im­press ev­ery­one watch­ing, from the Wil­liam & Mary coaches to his team­mates to Tom­lin him­self. It comes with the ter­ri­tory when you’re a fresh­man de­fen­sive back and the wide re­ceiver you’re fac­ing hap­pens to be an up­per­class­man and a team captain.

“We had our bat­tles,” said McDer­mott, who played with Tom­lin for two sea­sons in 1993-94. “I was a walk-on, he was a schol­ar­ship ath­lete. He was es­tab­lished and I was just try­ing to get a pair of cleats.”

A quar­ter cen­tury later, the stage is a much dif­fer­ent one.

Like McDer­mott dur­ing his early col­lege days, the Buf­falo Bills are the up­start in search of some street cred head­ing into a rare prime-time visit to Pitts­burgh to face Tom­lin and the Steel­ers. A win and the Bills (9-4) clinch their sec­ond play­off berth in McDer­mott’s

three sea­sons. A vic­tory by the surg­ing Steel­ers (8-5) and Pitts­burgh leapfrogs Buf­falo for the AFC’s top wild-card spot.

McDer­mott and Tom­lin have re­mained in touch dur­ing their re­spec­tive pro­fes­sional ca­reers, with McDer­mott oc­ca­sion­ally reach­ing out to Tom­lin in search of ad­vice. All of which is kind of funny to Tom­lin, who re­mem­bers McDer­mott as the more fo­cused of the two when their play­ing ca­reers for the Tribe over­lapped in 1993 and 1994.

“I was just try­ing to have fun,” Tom­lin said with a laugh.

He still is. Tom­lin might be in the midst of the most re­mark­able coach­ing job of his 13-year ten­ure. Last week’s vic­tory over Ari­zona as­sured the Steel­ers of a 16th straight sea­son sea­son fin­ish­ing .500 or bet­ter — the sec­ond-long­est ac­tive streak in the league be­hind New Eng­land — and they’ve done it de­spite an avalanche of in­juries on of­fense that has forced Pitts­burgh to rein­vent it­self on the fly.

Un­drafted rookie free agent and bud­ding cult hero Devlin “Duck” Hodges is the quar­ter­back. Two other rook­ies — Benny Snell and Ker­rith Whyte — have car­ried the bulk of the run­ning game since James Con­ner in­jured his right shoul­der be­fore Hal­loween. Third-round pick Dion­tae John­son elec­tri­fied while ac­count­ing for both of Pitts­burgh’s touchdowns against the Car­di­nals.

Pitts­burgh isn’t light­ing up score­boards as it did dur­ing the “Killer B” era led by Ben Roeth­lis­berger, An­to­nio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. Yet the Steel­ers are still in the thick of things in mid-De­cem­ber, just like al­ways.

“In the locker room, no one doubted him one bit, ever,” Steel­ers out­side line­backer Bud Dupree said. “The out­side world prob­a­bly doubted him be­cause he didn’t win the Su­per Bowl ev­ery year. But it’s the Steel­ers. Peo­ple ex­pect the Steel­ers to win the Su­per Bowl ev­ery year. But if he was on an­other team, he would be coach of the year plenty of times. But be­ing here, ex­pec­ta­tions are a lit­tle higher. He re­ally han­dled the pres­sure.”

Some­thing McDer­mott is learn­ing how to do in Buf­falo. From the mo­ment he and general man­ager Bran­don Beane were hired in 2017, they’ve talked about build­ing the fran­chise into con­sis­tent con­tenders. A vic­tory over McDer­mott’s col­lege team­mate turned men­tor would be an­other sym­bolic step in the process.

“I think we’ve moved that nee­dle dras­ti­cally since we’ve got here and in the en­tire build­ing,” McDer­mott said. “It’s been a long time since this or­ga­ni­za­tion has been in a po­si­tion like this, this late in the sea­son, and we don’t take it lightly.” DUCK’S DE­VEL­OP­MENT Hodges won over Tom­lin and the rest of Pitts­burgh’s coach­ing staff with his prag­matic ap­proach. He has thrown just two in­ter­cep­tions and taken just six sacks in his five ap­pear­ances.


Buf­falo Bills quar­ter­back Josh Allen (17) looks to pass dur­ing the sec­ond half of an NFL foot­ball game against the Bal­ti­more Ravens in Or­chard Park, N.Y., Sun­day, Dec. 8, 2019.

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