After Tampa Bay beat Carolina, 20-7, and Pittsburgh triumphed over Tennessee, 19-11, the stage was set. Not only would there be a match-up of two undefeated teams, there would also be a matchup of best friends between Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and his former pupil, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris.
While basking in the Bucs’ victory on Sunday night, Morris looked down at his phone as it buzzed, indicated he had a message.
“I got the text [Sunday] night – ‘I’m coming,’” Morris said.
Tomlin and the Steelers are indeed coming to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, and Morris indicated that there are bragging rights on the line between he and his good friend.
“He’s a Steeler, and we have to go out there and play,” Morris said. “This is for bragging rights for summer vacation. That’s what it’s going to be for. Who’s going to be bragging when we go on summer vacation?”
Bragging rights is one thing, but Morris was careful to point out that there will not be any friendly wager on the game.
“No, we don’t do that stuff,” Morris said. “This guy is trying to get me fined. You can’t bet on football games.”
The relationship between the two men was forged during Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season in 2002 when Tomlin was the Bucs secondary coach and Morris was a defensive quality control coach, who was in charge of doing film cut-ups of the secondary. With Tomlin being only four years older than Morris, who was just 27 at the time, the two had a lot in common and quickly formed a bond.
Tomlin soon realized that Morris was a football junkie and became his mentor. The effervescent Morris was always outspoken and not afraid to offer his opinion, even though he hardly had any coaching experience.
“I just volunteered information and he shot down every idea I gave him,” Morris said. “It was fun. I put it on paper. In 2002 we were formulating game plans and I would do his cuts, as we called them. I would come up with all of these crazy, dynamic ideas at the time that would easily have made us better. He shot down a lot of them, but the information definitely flowed one way.”
Tomlin acknowledged that on Wednesday’s conference call with the local Tampa Bay media.
“He’s a very intelligent guy,” Tomlin said. “He’s extremely smart and a quick study. Of course that’s helpful. He saw the game as a 22-man picture and not a lot of young coaches are capable of that. Not only did he have an understanding of secondary play and the guys we were working with, he saw all 22 and I think that showed itself pretty quickly.
“Raheem is a great friend of mine. In regards to our professional relationship, he asked me my opinion a bunch and I didn’t ask him for his a lot. He probably has the advantage this week in terms of knowing what I think and what I’m capable of. Our information kind of flowed one way when we worked together.”
When Morris unexpectedly became the Bucs head coach in 2009 when Jon Gruden was fired, he leaned on Tomlin for a lot of guidance and advice. Tomlin had become Pittsburgh’s head coach at the age of 34 and although he inherited a much more talented team than Morris did, he had to go through his rookie head coaching season at a young age just like Morris had to last year.
It’s interesting to note that when the two defensive-minded head coaches talk football they don’t talk about schemes or formations.
“[Our] relationship is based on philosophy and based on toughness and mental toughness and that nature. It’s not based on scheme,” Morris said. “We met in the Tampa 2 system, but we are both lovers of football and football junkies to the point where we do our own research and come back with our own crazy ideas and try to put them on paper. I can’t give him any credit for anything we do here on defense. I give him all the credit in the world for philosophy, mentality and structure and a lot of those things.
“I got a philosophy that I stole from Mike Tomlin – score and get the ball back. I’m sure he took that to Pittsburgh even though they already had a little bit of that. That’s our mentality – score and get the ball back for our offense.”
Tomlin said that their time spent together on the phone or taking family vacations together is often spent talking about things other than football or the upcoming season.
“We really don’t talk about current business,” Tomlin said. “We usually talk about personal life, kids and so forth, or tell old stories about the times we spent together down there in Tampa. Very rarely does our conversation even wander into the area of business and what we’re trying to do now.”
Although Pittsburgh runs the 3-4 defense under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, Morris’ heavy use of the 3-4 and the 3-3-5 schemes this year in Tampa Bay are not a byproduct of his relationship with Tomlin. Pittsburgh’s head coach acknowledged that Morris’ team has the players that allow the Bucs to present their opponents with many different defensive fronts.
“He has the potential hybrid body types,” Tomlin said. “Stylez White and Quincy Black are those hybrid body types. They are athletic enough to play in space and play on two feet. They are big and powerful enough to rush the passer and come off the edge. Schemes and things that you run and really based on putting the people that you have in position to affect games. It’s obvious that they are having some success with that. That rush-sack that Quincy Black had last week was very impressive, and probably a game-changer from a momentum-standpoint. It looks like it’s working well for them and that’s the kind of thing that he’s researching.”
Pittsburgh is just two years removed from winning its first Super Bowl under Tomlin at Raymond James Stadium and it’s of no surprise to most NFL observers that it is 2-0 even without the play of suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger because of the play of its stingy defense. Yet Tomlin is not shocked that his close friend and the Buccaneers are 2-0 either.
“I expected those guys to do well. He’s a good coach and Mark Dominik is good at what he does,” Tomlin said. “The fact that they have had success is not a surprise to me at all.”
Likewise, Morris is not shocked that Pittsburgh is undefeated.
“We have a quiet confidence,” Morris said. “We’re all humble. We’re all happy to be here and we’re all excited that we have a nice, premium match-up with my buddy. They are an opponent, and we have to knuckle up and get ready to play. I know his mentality. I knew he wasn’t going to let it be an excuse that he didn’t have their quarterback. I expected them to come into this building 2-0 and they are.”
The Bucs are 2-0 largely due to the play of its defense, which is third in the NFL in points allowed (10.5 points per game) and has pitched two second-half shutouts, and the play of second-year quarterback Josh Freeman. Freeman, who has thrown four touchdowns and only one interception while compiling a QB rating of 95, has drawn comparisons to Roethlisberger due to his size and strong arm. Both quarterbacks are over 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds.
“What I see is a guy that is converting 42 percent of his third downs,” Tomlin said. “He’s creating plays that are designed plays and he’s also making things happen when plays break down. He’s extremely tough to tackle and get on the ground. He converted some third-and-7 situations in the first half last week that were spectacular. He did it with his legs on multiple occasions. He knows where Winslow is and Winslow is leading the league in third down catches. This guy is playing some really good football. He’s big, he’s mobile, he’s tough to get on the ground, and he sees the field – characteristics that you could compare to be Ben, no doubt.”
On Wednesday, Morris didn’t know if the game would be blacked out or if it would be shown on local television, but either way he acknowledged it would be one of the week’s best games.
“We hope our guys come out and support us, we really do,” Morris said. “We hope the place is packed. We’ll see. It’s a great game that you can watch with two 2-0 teams. I don’t know how many people thought it was going to be that way outside of the building and outside the organization, but here we go, men. It’s a premium match-up. I love it.”
While Morris would love to get the bragging rights for next summer’s vacation with the Tomlin family, he is more focused on getting his team to 3-0 heading into the bye week. Doing so by beating a quality football team like the Steelers would prove to any doubters that the Buccaneers’ 2-0 start was not a fluke.
“There are no notches won in the regular season,” Morris said. “This is a long season of football. It’s one game at a time. Let’s not lose perspective. It is going to be a good game versus two 2-0 opponents. I look forward to the match-up. It’s going to be a great test for my young football team against a veteran football team that won a championship. We can’t wait to kickoff.”
The Buccaneers know that they need to win this game for the team’s sake, not just because Morris and Tomlin are close friends.
“I don’t think it will come into play at all,” said Bucs defensive end Tim Crowder. “It’s just another opponent. I have good friends in that game also that I will actually be lining up against in the game. I’m trying to beat him just like he’s trying to beat me. We can hug and do all that after the game. I’m pretty sure they are the same way.”
Tomlin said that he is focused on the game and not his close friend and former pupil. There will be plenty of time to trash talk after the game, but not in the days leading up to Sunday.
“It’s a business trip,” Tomlin said. “I enjoyed my time there, no question. You just learn in this business that it is what it is. I will always cherish those times, but it has nothing to do with what is going to transpire this weekend or what needs to transpire this weekend.
“This is a step in our journey. I’m not going to make it anything more than what it is. It’s a big game because it’s our next one, and particularly because it’s a road game against a team that’s undefeated. We’re going to try to do the best we can to be prepared to play. I’ll let Raheem tell the side stories.”
For Morris, who was often viewed as Tomlin’s little brother when the two were in Tampa Bay together because of how closely they worked and their close friendship, he is excited that their relationship will take one more step on Sunday as both men try to move their teams to 3-0.
“He was the boss and I was the assistant,” Morris said. “There was no doubt about it. But on Sunday, we are peers.”
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