USA TODAY International Edition

Steelers and Tomlin rebuilding on fly

- Will Graves

PITTSBURGH – Melvin Ingram needed a job. The Steelers needed depth at outside linebacker, so they took a flier on the nine- year veteran, signing him to a one- year deal on the eve of training camp with the hopes he would provide quality depth if required.

Less than four months later, Ingram was gone. Unhappy with a diminished role behind star T. J. Watt and Alex Highsmith as the trade deadline neared, Ingram effectively pouted his way out of town. The Steelers sent him to Kansas City last Tuesday for a sixth- round pick, leading Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to trot out a variation of one of his favorite “Tomlinisms.”

“It’s better to have volunteers as opposed to hostages,” Tomlin said.

Ingram’s abrupt exit highlighte­d an ethos the Steelers have stuck to for the past half- century. Better to build through the draft and indoctrina­te players into the organizati­on’s “the standard is the standard” culture than throw around wads of cash in free agency in hopes of making a quick fix.

“When you do business with guys from the time they’re 20 and 21, you get an opportunit­y to be a part of their growth and developmen­t,” Tomlin said.

“They get an opportunit­y to buy into your system of ball or their roles in it at a very young age, and it just makes the division of labor thing a more fluid thing.”

Typically the Steelers rely on that fluidity by choice. This year, they didn’t have that luxury. A salary cap crunch and the departure of several high- profile longtime contributo­rs such as center Maurkice Pouncey, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner forced Pittsburgh to rely heavily on the draft to find replacemen­ts.

After a sluggish start – something everyone from Tomlin to quarterbac­k Ben Roethlisbe­rger hinted would be practicall­y unavoidabl­e – the Steelers enter midseason with something that looks like momentum. Pittsburgh ( 4- 3) takes a three- game winning streak into Monday night’s ( 8: 15 ET, ESPN) visit from the Bears ( 3- 5).

The Steelers have turned things around in large part thanks to the developmen­t of an offense featuring four rookie starters in running back Najee Harris, tight end Pat Freiermuth, left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and center Kendrick Green.

An offense that finished last in rushing in 2020 is starting to find some traction. The Steelers have topped 100 yards on the ground over their past three games, heady territory for a unit that did it just once in the 16 games prior and for a new- look line that appeared overwhelme­d in September.

Not so much anymore, a tribute to the way the newcomers have embraced the unenviable position they were thrust in. They didn’t get drafted by a team looking to rebuild slowly and deliberate­ly, but one attempting to do it on the fly.

All four were asked to become immediate contributo­rs for a team that believes the Super Bowl window with the 39- year- old Roethlisbe­rger has not slammed shut. All four have attacked the challenge.

It’s not unusual for Green and Moore and the rest of the offensive line to spend an extra 10 to 15 minutes after practice working through the finer points of their jobs. Harris – the NFL’s reigning Offensive Rookie of the Month after averaging 122 yards of offense and a touchdown in four games – will linger for individual drills long after most of his teammates have retreated to the locker room. Freiermuth is focusing on the finer points of blocking, a weakness he is attempting to turn into a strength.

Their boss has noticed all of it, the developmen­t of Moore and Green in particular. The latest proof came in last week’s gritty 15- 10 win over Cleveland in which Moore mostly held his own against Browns star defensive end Myles Garrett.

“They’re built for ( the NFL),” Tomlin said. “Oftentimes, through the draft process, you work your tails off to find out whether or not they’re built for it, but you don’t really get confirmation of that until you’re working with them. I think we’re getting confirmation.”

Tomlin typically does. The then relatively unknown 34- year- old hired in early 2007 to take over for Bill Cowher has morphed into one of the league’s premier coaches and at 49 hardly appears to be slowing down. He bristled recently at idle and largely unfounded speculatio­n big- time college programs were targeting him, his “never say never, but never,” response going viral.

He remains as committed as ever to the Steelers and to the organizati­on’s mindset on team building. Take ’ em young. Coach ’ em up. Keep – and pay as in the case of Watt – the ones who fit. Take a chance on veterans to fill in the gaps and let the ones who want to leave – like Ingram and in previous years players such as running back LeGarrette Blount – leave. It’s an approach that has helped carry Tomlin to two Super Bowls, one title and 149 wins in 15 seasons.

 ?? SCOTT GALVIN/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a slew of newcomers.
SCOTT GALVIN/ USA TODAY SPORTS Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has a slew of newcomers.

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