First Call: Mike Tomlin can improve some history; NFL fines coaches for ignoring masks; Saquon Barkley checks in

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Tuesday’s “First Call” dares to dream big about a Steelers fast start. We also check in on injured Penn State great Saquon Barkley. J.J. Watt identifies a problem for his Houston Texans coming to Heinz Field. And NFL coaches are paying the price if they don’t mask up.

Say that again?

If the Steelers beat the Houston Texans Sunday, it’ll be the first 3-0 start in Pittsburgh since …

Wait, that can’t be right. Since the AFC Championship season of 2010?!

It’s true. I saw our Joe Rutter mention that Monday. So it took me down a Steelers history rabbit hole.

In fact, Mike Tomlin has only been 3-0 one other time in his head coaching career. That was his first season on the Steelers sideline in 2007.

That year, the Steelers won the AFC North but lost a home playoff game to Jacksonville in their first postseason contest under Tomlin.

Before the kickoff of the 2020 regular season, we outlined how the Steelers have struggled in September. Since the opening of 2017, the Steelers are 4-6-1 during the month.

Stretch that to include the first five weeks of each of those seasons, and the Steelers are 6-8-1 to begin these three campaigns that have led to their playoff-victory drought.

Struggles to get going quickly in the Tomlin era are pretty common over a wider sample size than that. Over Tomlin’s first 13 seasons (2007-19), his teams are a fairly pedestrian 21-17-1 in the first three weeks of each season.

Actually, Tomlin has as many 0-3 starts as he does 3-0 starts. The first came in 2013. The second was last year. Both seasons his teams finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

Tomlin doesn’t have a 4-0 start on his resume. He does have an 0-4 start, though. That 2013 team started 0-4. And was 2-6 at midseason before rallying to win six of eight down the stretch. But it still wasn’t good enough to get in the playoffs.

You have to go all the way back to 1979 to find a year in which the Steelers started 4-0. Is that 4-0 mark possible this year?

Well, the Texans come in at 0-2. But they’ve played who I deem to be the best two teams in football — the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens. So a win is far from an automatic.

Even if the Steelers manage to beat Houston, Week 4 will be tricky. They travel the turnpike to visit Philadelphia. The Eagles have really struggled so far, losing their first two games by a combined 64-38. Unfortunately, the Steelers haven’t won in Philadelphia since 1965.

Texans takeaways

One thing the Steelers have been good at this year is taking the ball away. They have forced four turnovers in two games.

Keith Butler’s defense led the NFL in that category last year with 38 takeaways.

The Texans have struggled in that department. They haven’t forced a turnover yet. Meanwhile — like the Steelers — Houston has given it back three times.

“You have to be able to take the ball away and you have to be able to protect the ball on offense,” J.J. Watt said via TexansWire after Houston’s 33-16 loss to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday at NRG Stadium. “So as a defensive player, it’s our job to take the ball away, whether it’s strip sacks, whether it’s interceptions, whatever it is we have to figure those out and get them.”

When the teams last met in 2017, the Steelers won 34-6. They committed no turnovers and got the ball back twice.

Mask money

The NFL is being serious about punishing coaches if they don’t wear masks on the sidelines during covid-19 times.

If the direct fines to the coaches don’t get their attention, I’m guessing the owners will when they see the bill.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton and Las Vegas’ Jon Gruden were caught on camera a few times with their faces exposed on Monday night. I’m sure they’ll be getting an envelope from the league, too.

Ready to rehab

New York Giants star running back Saquon Barkley is undergoing ACL surgery. His 2020 season is done.

But Barkley is already telling the world he’ll be back. The Penn State product put up this Instagram post Monday night.

Barkley is in his third season. He was injured Sunday in Chicago against the Bears.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

Categories: Penn State | Sports | Steelers/NFL | Breakfast With Benz
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