Steelers-Broncos pits 2 bright young coaches |

Steelers-Broncos pits 2 bright young coaches

DENVER – The showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos on Monday night features two of the AFC’s top teams, a couple of the hardest-hitting defenses in the league and a pair of the NFL’s brightest young coaching minds.

Hired when he was 34, Mike Tomlin won a Super Bowl in just his second season in Pittsburgh last year after guiding the Steelers to a division title and a playoff berth in his first season.

He is 30-13 since replacing Bill Cowher in 2007, including 5-2 this season.

Like Tomlin, Denver’s Josh McDaniels never was a head coach at any level before he was hired at age 32 to replace Mike Shanahan last winter. His Broncos are 6-1 and the biggest surprise of the first half of the season. McDaniels’ decision to send Pro Bowl passer Jay Cutler to Chicago for Kyle Orton or to ship his first-round draft pick next year to Seattle don’t look like such crazy ideas anymore.

Both Tomlin and McDaniels say the opportunity to coach a superstar during their days as an assistant accelerated their careers and prepared them for the rigors of an NFL head coaching job while they were still in their early or mid-30s.

For Tomlin, that player was safety John Lynch, whom he instructed as Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach, his first NFL gig. Together, they won a Super Bowl ring in 2002.

For McDaniels, it was New England quarterback Tom Brady, whom he tutored from 2004-08. They won the 2004 Super Bowl when McDaniels was Patriots quarterbacks coach.

“Tom is the hardest player I’ve ever had to coach, and that’s a compliment to him, not a knock on him in any way,” McDaniels said. “He was the hardest because he required the most information and he required me to use every minute that I had to spend with him in a productive way.”

McDaniels wouldn’t dare try to fill up an hour-long meeting with 30 minutes of instruction. So, he never went home the night before until he was certain he had enough new lesson plans for Brady, a notorious bookworm and film freak.

McDaniels said all that late-night cramming and the time they spent together made him a better teacher as he honed the skills he’s now using to try to restore Denver’s dominance.

“You had to go above and beyond and you had to look at things differently and you had to prepare harder and you had to study harder,” McDaniels said. “It was a challenge to go into those meetings and make a player who was already great even better. When I had an opportunity to coach him, he had already won two Super Bowls, and then to coach him just demanded so much from myself and it made me a better coach.”

Tomlin understands completely.

“I think every coach that has been given an opportunity to rise up through the ranks and excel (knows it’s) because of a relationship or an interaction that he’s had with a player or with some players that have been significant to him,” Tomlin said.

“Really, the same thing can be said for players. Great players usually have been instructed in some form or fashion or assisted in their growth and development by some coach,” Tomlin said. “They are countless examples of that. You can go back to the (Bill) Parcells and Lawrence Taylors, the Bill Walshes, the Joe Montanas. I think it’s a delicate ecosystem. I think there is some codependency there.”

And nobody meant more to Tomlin’s rapid rise through the ranks than Lynch, who wound up his career in Denver in 2007, the same year Tomlin took over in Pittsburgh after a season as Minnesota’s defensive coordinator.

“He’s a special guy,” Tomlin said. “My interaction with him and to have an opportunity to work with him was truly a blessing.”

Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey said Lynch used to praise Tomlin back when he wasn’t a household name and was still rising through the assistant ranks.

“He always spoke highly of him,” Bailey said. “I wasn’t surprised when he got the (Steelers) job.”

So, what did Lynch have to say about Tomlin?

“He’s a great motivator,” Bailey said.

Just like McDaniels.

“They’re both young, energetic, they both definitely know how to get their guys ready,” Bailey said.

McDaniels, who looks much younger than his 33 years, has proven a much more fiery coach than Shanahan, never shy to get in players’ or coaches’ faces on the sideline when things go bad. Or to fist-pump better than Tiger Woods after a win.

He wears his emotions on his hoodie sleeve.

“He has a lot of energy. Whether it’s good or bad energy, he’s going to let you know how he feels every day,” Bailey said. “I’m getting used to it. I kind of like it because you know where it’s coming from.”

The Broncos saw plenty of McDaniels’ “bad energy” during the week after their 30-7 beatdown in Baltimore that ended their unbeaten streak. The Steelers bring the same sort of challenge with their physical style of play.

So, the Broncos are trying to get their mojo back by returning to the well-coached, physical and disciplined team they were before the Ravens outmuscled and outhustled them.

“You know that next day you will be hurting,” said Broncos linebacker Andra Davis, explaining that being physical is mostly mental. “So just accept the fact, go in there and bang, throw your body around and try to knock your guy back. It will be an all-day effort. You have to go in there and bang, bang, bang.”

Returning to Denver should bring back some happy memories for the Steelers, who thumped Denver in the 2005 AFC championship on their way to their last title under Cowher.

“It was a long time ago,” Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “When I come up there I think more about (John) Elway than I do about that game.”

Still, the Steelers have 22 players left from the team that won the conference championship on that watershed afternoon, and the Broncos have just three holdovers: Bailey, linebacker D.J. Williams and guard Ben Hamilton.

These teams have gone in different directions since then, but the Broncos seem to be turning things around, and McDaniels wouldn’t mind following in Tomlin’s footsteps.

“He’s certainly a guy that most of us would emulate,” McDaniels said, “winning a Super Bowl in his second year and being as successful as he’s been so far.”

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