Rest versus Rust: How Do Mike Tomlin's Teams Perform Out of Their Bye Weeks?

Gene J. Puskar/AP

The Pittsburgh Steelers have entered their bye week 3-3, tied for last in the division with the Cleveland Browns.  They come out of their bye week against said Browns on Sunday, October 31st at 1 PM.  The Browns look like they’ll be entering that game 3-4 and firmly in last place, unless they can somehow overcome the large amount of injuries they have sustained and beat the Denver Broncos on a short week this Thursday night.

With the Steelers entering their bye week, it begs the question, how have the Steelers performed under Mike Tomlin out of their bye?  Tomlin is now in his 15th season as Steelers head coach so there is plenty of data to look at by now.


The Steelers started out hot in Tomlin’s first season.  They began the year 4-1 with their only loss coming against soon-to-be Super Bowl foes, the Arizona Cardinals.  The Steelers were slated to travel to Denver to take on the Broncos after their Week 6 bye which gave them extra time to get acclimated to that Rocky Mountain altitude.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work.  The Broncos beat the Steelers, behind quarterback Jay Cutler, on a 49-yard field goal from Jason Elam as time expired.  The Steelers would, however, go on a three-game winning streak after that.  They finished the regular season 10-6 and lost to David Garrard and the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card game.


Strangely, the Steelers had another Week 6 bye in 2008 and sure enough they entered the bye 4-1 again.  This time they were coming off a win over the same Jaguars team that knocked them out the year before, plus an OT win over division rival, the Baltimore Ravens. 

The Steelers came out of the bye on the road against another division foe, the Cincinnati Bengals.  Fortunately for the Steelers, there was no altitude change this time and it showed.  They whooped the Bengals, with Ryan Fitzpatrick under center for Cincinnati, to the tune of 38-10.  Mewelde Moore ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns.

The Steelers were up and down for a few weeks before winning 6 of their last 7 games.  They would end the season with a 12-4 record, which was enough for a first-round postseason bye.  This would prove valuable as the Steelers would go on to win Tomlin’s only Super Bowl so far as a head coach, beating the Arizona Cardinals 27-23.


The similarities of Tomlin’s byes continued into 2009.  Although this one took place in Week 8, the Steelers were again traveling to higher altitude to take on the Broncos, this time led by quarterback Kyle Orton.  The 5-2 Steelers were coming off a 10-point win against the Minnesota Vikings.

It would appear this time, the Steelers were unaffected by the thinner air and beat the Broncos 28-10.  Unfortunately, Pittsburgh would then drop their next five in a row, two in OT, and miss the playoffs with a final regular season record of 9-7.


Continuing the trend of early byes, the Steelers had a Week 5 bye in 2010.  They had just lost a close one to the Ravens at home, 17-14.  Dennis Dixon started the opener and Charlie Batch was tasked with the next three games after Roethlisberger was suspended for four games due to an incident involving a 20-year-old college student who accused him of sexually assaulting her in a Georgia nightclub in March of that year.

In a testament to the Steelers defense and running back Rashard Mendenhall, the team somehow entered the bye 3-1 with their starting quarterback returning for a home game against Cleveland in Week 6.  The Steelers easily transitioned Roethlisberger back in the fold, winning 28-10.  Ben threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns. It may have helped that the Browns were starting Colt McCoy at quarterback.

Pittsburgh went on to win nine of their last twelve under Roethlisberger for a record of 12-4.  They would beat the division rival Ravens in the divisional round and defeat Rex Ryan and the New York Jets in the conference championship, but then lose to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the Super Bowl.  It remains the Steelers most recent Super Bowl appearance.


In 2011, the Steelers would finally get a late week bye.  It took until Week 11 for the team to get a rest and they entered their bye 7-3.  Ben was having a truly outstanding year, topping 330 passing yards four times in their first ten games. 

The Steelers would come out of their bye to take on the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium in Week 12.  The Chiefs hadn’t quite found their franchise quarterback yet and were starting, familiar face, Tyler Palko from the University of Pittsburgh.  The Steelers took advantage of four turnovers by Palko and won the game 13-9.  The offense had a pretty lousy game with Ben only throwing for 193 yards, 81 of them to Antonio Brown.

Pittsburgh would turn that win into a 3-game winning streak and win 5 of their last 6 for a regular season record of 12-4.  Unfortunately, Tim Tebow, the thin air, and the rest of the Denver Broncos would get the best of the Steelers in the Wild Card game, wining 29-23 in Overtime.


Another early bye would greet the Steelers in 2012, this time occurring in Week 4.  The Steelers stumbled into it at 1-2 after losing a road game to their rival from the 70’s, the Oakland Raiders.  It was a Carson Palmer revenge game after the Steelers defense knocked out Palmer from the Wild Card game in 2005, ending the Bengals season that year.

The Steelers would even up their record at 2-2 against the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5.  It was a low scoring game against, then future Steeler, Mike Vick.  The Steelers would drop a close one at Tennessee before ripping off a four-game win streak.  However, the good play wouldn’t last as the Steelers dropped 5 of their last 7 games and ended the season 8-8, missing the playoffs.


Nobody needed their bye week more than the Steelers did in 2013.  Going into their Week 5 bye, the Pittsburgh Steelers were an unprecedented 0-4.  Tomlin was on the hot seat and it looked like he and Ben would sustain their first losing season of their careers.

However, the Steelers would beat the Jets in Week 6, with the Jets led by quarterback (Remember Me?) Geno Smith!   The Steelers would also maintain that momentum, winning five of their seven games out of the bye and three of their last five for an 8-8 record, sparing them from a losing season.  The Steelers would miss the playoffs for the second season in a row.


The Steelers again needed their bye week in 2014, but for different seasons.  They had slogged through 11 games already and walked into their Week 12 bye at a decent 7-4.  Ben looked like his old incredible self, including a game where he threw for 522 yards and six (6!) touchdowns in a Week 8 rout of the Indianapolis Colts.

Ben kept the good play rolling after the bye, throwing for 435 yards and two touchdowns against the New Orleans Saints.  Unfortunately, the defense didn’t show up that day for the Steelers and they lost 35-32.  The ship was fortunately righted, and on the back of Big Ben, the Steelers finished the season 11-5.  They would lose the Wild Card Game to the Baltimore Ravens at home, not making Tomlin’s seat any cooler, despite the postseason appearance.


Despite Ben being a true iron man at this point in his career, he did get too injured to play, stepping aside for four games in 2015.  Mike Vick and Landry Jones would fill in during his absence.  Even with the injury to Ben, the Steelers went into their Week 11 bye a respectable 6-4.  They had just crushed the Browns 30-9 at home where Ben threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns. 

Unfortunately, the trend of the defense not showing up after the bye week continued into Week 12 of that season.  The Steelers traveled to Seattle to take on Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.  Ben could only translate his 456 passing yards into one touchdown, while Wilson used his 345 passing yards to convert five passing touchdowns on the day. 

The Steelers would finish the regular season 10-6 and earn a spot in the postseason.  They would finally win a playoff game against the Bengals, just to lose to the Broncos in the divisional round, this time led by Peyton Manning.  The Broncos would go on to win the Super Bowl over the Carolina Panthers that year.


The post-bye-week trend continued down a bad path in 2016.  After entering the Week 8 bye at 4-3, the Steelers would lose two in a row to the Ravens and the Dallas Cowboys.  It left them with a 4-5 record heading into Week 11. 

Fortunately, the Steelers turned it around and won their last seven regular season games.  They’d make it nine in a row after defeating the Miami Dolphins and the Chiefs in the Wild Card round and Divisional rounds, respectively.  Unfortunately, the Steelers luck ran out in Foxborough, as it tended to for every team then, and they were defeated by the New England Patriots in the conference championship game.


In addition to breaking the dreaded post-bye-week curse, the Steelers just had an overall great regular season in 2017.  After coming out of their Week 9 bye with a 6-2 record, the Steelers would win seven of their remaining eight games for a 13-3 record, and a postseason bye.

Unfortunately, the rust of the postseason bye showed up more than the rest.  The Steelers would drop the divisional round game to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 45-42.  It was a humiliating loss to quarterback Blake Bortles where the defense simply could not get a stop.  Ben threw for 469 yards and five touchdowns and it still wasn’t enough to get it done.


2018 continued on the winning trend.  Going into their Week 7 bye, the Steelers were 3-2-1 after tying the Browns in Week 1.  They would face that same Browns team at home in Week 8.  The Browns did not look nearly as effective at Heinz Field and the Steelers won 33-18. 

This started a four-game winning streak that was followed by a three-game losing streak.  The Steelers finished the season 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs.


After an awful 2-4 start to the season, where the Steelers lost Big Ben to a season-ending injury in Week 1, the Steelers limped into their Week 7 bye.  With the coaches juggling between Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges, they somehow beat the Dolphins in Week 8, and won six of their last ten.  This saved the winning season streak, but they would finish 8-8 and miss the playoffs once again.


With Ben Roethlisberger back at the helm, the Steelers would start the 2020 season with an eleven-game winning streak!  This included a win over the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5 after their Week 4 bye.  Ben threw for 239 yards and three touchdowns, but the real standout was rookie Chase Claypool who accounted for 110 of those yards and all three TDs.

Somehow, the wheels totally fell off of this team around Week 13 and the Steelers dropped four of their last five games for a regular season record of 12-4.  They would then lose to the Browns in the Wild Card round and what started as a magical season, crashed and burned in a fiery explosion.  Ben did throw for 501 yards and four touchdowns in the game, but also threw four interceptions.

Concluding Thoughts

So, there you have it.  Aside from a 3-year stretch where the Steelers drop three post-bye week games in a row, Tomlin-led teams have been downright incredible out of their bye.  He is 10-4 in those games and three of his four losses came from a 3-year stretch from 2014 through 2016. 

Additionally, the Steelers Week 8 opponent, the Cleveland Browns have two weeks to get healthy, but they are really banged up.  Quarterback Baker Mayfield keeps dislocating his non-throwing arm and they are down to their third running back.  I see Tomlin making his post bye-week record 11-4 on Halloween against the Browns.