Appearing on Episode 23 Ben Roethlisberger’s Footbahlin podcast, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked about the best defenses he ever coached. Tomlin, who worked in Tampa Bay and Minnesota before coming to the Steelers, gave credit to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that won the Super Bowl in 2002 with Tomlin serving as defensive backs coach. But he said the best defense he’s ever coached was the Steelers’ 2010 unit.
“I think the ‘10 group. The ‘10 group beats you up,” Tomlin said. “Just in terms of physicality, without a doubt the ‘10 group,” he added.
“You talking about a bar fight, you talking about football, that ‘10 group created the player safety initiative.”
He mentioned the splash-play ability of the Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay defense he coached in 2002, but the physicality of the 2010 Steelers also put them among the best. He called the groups “very different” and said the defense he took would depend on the environment he’s going into. Ultimately, he said both groups had players he learned from as a coach to try and teach others. He credited being a part of the 2002 Tampa Bay defense for providing a template of special players.
“I was around these unique dudes at an early age that created this give-and-take and this openness in me that I’ve carried with me forever,” Tomlin said. “I don’t know what my perspective would be if I hadn’t been exposed to them.”
Tomlin said coaching that group made coaching Pittsburgh’s defenses in 2008 and 2010 more special.
“I think that’s what was cool about ‘08 and ‘10 defenses to be a part of it. I had been a part of something cool before, so I was able to appreciate it while it was happening.”
The 2010 defense was a unit that was the best in football that year. The Steelers allowed a league-low 1,004 rushing yards, while opponents were only able to throw for 4,429 yards against them, the second-lowest total in the NFL. They only allowed a score on 25.7 percentage of drives, third-fewest in the NFL. They led the NFL in sacks with 48 and were fifth in interceptions with 21. Outside linebacker James Harrison was a first-team All-Pro, as was safety Troy Polamalu. They were joined in the Pro Bowl by defensive end Brett Keisel. While the 2010 Steelers didn’t win the Super Bowl, it was one of the best units in recent NFL history and clearly the group that Tomlin remembers best of his time in Pittsburgh.
The ‘02 Tampa defense had guys like defensive lineman Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch and cornerback Ronde Barber, as well as Super Bowl MVP cornerback Dexter Jackson. It was another impressive group, and, as Tomlin said, it’s a group that helped him become a better coach just due to the array of talent on that defense. It’s no surprise that they’re mentioned as one of the best team’s he’s ever coached. Along with the 2008 Steelers, they’re one of two teams Tomlin’s been a part of that won a Super Bowl.
With guys like outside linebacker T.J. Watt, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, hopefully, the Steelers can build another defense that ranks among the best Tomlin’s coached in the upcoming years. The addition of cornerback Patrick Peterson certainly helps the unit this year. Hopefully, there will be more free-agent and draft additions that help the current Steelers defense become more reminiscent of past ones.