Friday, January 19, 2007

A Sunday Audition?

When the New Orleans Saints visit the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon to determine which NFC team will advance to the Super Bowl, do you think Bears Defensive Coordinator Ron Rivera will have in the back of his mind that the performance of his defense may well play a key factor in determining whether he will win the Steelers' head coaching job?

Does it ratchet up the already considerable pressure on him? Will it indirectly affect his preparations for the game or his in-game decision making?

Probably not, but these are fair questions.

After all, the Saints, who racked up nearly 500 yards against the Steelers’ defense yet somehow managed to lose the game, have a formidable offense that last week tallied, again, nearly 500 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles.

In the pressure-cooker of an NFC championship game at home in Chicago, how will the Rivera-led Bears defense hold up? How will they compare to the Steelers’ defense’s performance in their regular-season game against the Saints?

Is that even a fair comparison? Probably not.

Whatever the case, it has become clear the Steelers will wait until Monday, at least, to decide who will succeed Bill Cowher as the team’s head coach. The Steelers have no reason at this point to hurry their decision. It appears no other teams are clamoring for the services of either of the other two candidates, Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, or Russ Grim, assistant head coach and offensive line coach of the Steelers.

So, the Steelers have the luxury to see how Rivera performs as he leads his squad in the glare of the national spotlight during Sunday’s conference championship game.

It will be no easy task.

As noted here in the week before the Steelers hosted the Saints on Nov. 12, the Saints’ offense has a deep corps of explosive receivers and running backs, a completely rebuilt yet effective offensive line and a smart, veteran leader in Drew Brees, who has emerged as one of the league’s elite quarterbacks.

So ... will defending against this squad in Sunday’s game represent, essentially, an audition for Ron Rivera as prospective head coach of the Steelers? How much weight will the Steelers’ management team put into this one game? If his defense flops, will he even get a second interview with the Steelers? Or has the decision been made already?

Some media pundits have concluded the Steelers have already opted to hire Russ Grimm. They’ve said the tell-tale sign is that the Steelers refused to allow Ken Whisenhunt, the new Arizona Cardinals head coach and former Steelers' offensive coordinator, to interview Steelers’ assistant coaches Keith Butler and Bruce Arians for positions on his staff. Isn’t it possible, however, that Steelers’ management had a discussion on this topic with Mike Tomlin? Isn’t it conceivable that Tomlin said he would like to retain most of the current assistants, including Butler and Arians?

Hey, at this point, anything’s possible.

Red Flag Warning: Keep in mind one thing with respect to both Rivera and Tomlin: Both coach defenses in the NFC North, which is arguably the NFL’s weakest division. The Bears are clearly the division’s best team, but that may be faint praise considering they are followed by the 6-10 Vikings, the non-descript Green Bay Packers and the abysmal Detroit Lions.

The better ― and more revealing — test for Rivera and the Bears defense will be on Sunday at Soldier Field against New Orleans.

Here come the Saints.