TAMPA, Fla. — Within hours of Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay finishing road victories to remain unbeaten, Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris exchanged feisty text messages that speak to the nature of their relationship.
When the Steelers and Buccaneers meet Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, one of the close buddies will walk away from their first meeting as NFL head coaches with bragging rights for the next vacation they take together.
“We’re coming,” messaged Tomlin, whose Steelers are 2-0 despite playing without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
“Good,” responded Morris, the league’s youngest coach at 34, and a Tomlin disciple even though the Super Bowl-winning coach is only four years his elder.
They talk by telephone at least once a week during the season and hang out at league meetings and other functions. They spend as much time together in the offseason as their busy schedules permit, too, which means getaways to such spots as Anguilla, St. Maarten and the Dominican Republic.
“We’ve been dreaming about this day for a long time,” said Morris, in the second year of a rebuilding project the Bucs began after firing Jon Gruden, who led Tampa Bay to its only Super Bowl title eight seasons ago.
Tomlin was the defensive backs coach and Morris a quality control assistant for that team.
“It’s funny. It’s like I’ve known him my whole life, but really I met him in 2002 once I got here and started coaching on the staff,” Morris said.
“Me and him developed a bond. We’ve kind of been as tight as you can be with another guy since those days. It’s been great. We established a great working relationship first. It immediately translated over to a friendship, and now it’s a brotherhood. His family is my family. My family is his family.”
Morris joked that part of Tomlin’s crew might even wind up watching this week’s game from his personal box if he doesn’t impose some restrictions.
Tomlin concedes it’ll be nice to compete against his friend, but insists he’s not placing any special significance on the matchup.
“This is a step in our journey. I’m not going to make it anything more than what it is,” said Tomlin, who left Tampa Bay in 2006 to become defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings. A year later, he was hired as coach of the Steelers.
“It’s a big game because it’s our next one, particularly because it’s a road game versus a team that’s undefeated. We’re going to try to do the best we can to be prepared to go down there and play. I’ll let Raheem tell the side stories.”
Pittsburgh is off to a solid start even though Roethlisberger’s four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy and injuries to Byron Leftwich and Dennis Dixon have created uncertainty at quarterback.
Dixon underwent left knee surgery this week, leaving Tomlin to decide whether Charlie Batch or Leftwich gives Pittsburgh the best chance of improving to 3-0. He is going with Batch.
The Steelers figure to try to win by running the ball and continuing to play stout defense. Pittsburgh forced seven turnovers — three interceptions, four fumbles — and limited Chris Johnson to 34 yards rushing on 16 attempts during last week’s 19-11 win at Tennessee.
Tampa Bay, which has improved dramatically since Morris began serving as his own defensive coordinator late last season, hasn’t allowed any points in the second half.
The Bucs have won four of five games dating to last season, with second-year quarterback Josh Freeman progressing steadily.
Tomlin, returning to Raymond James Stadium for the first time since Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl here two seasons ago, isn’t surprised by Tampa Bay’s success following a 3-13 finish. Even as a young secondary coach, Tomlin recognized Morris had a gift for communicating and relating with players.
“It starts with he’s a very intelligent guy. Extremely smart, a quick study. He saw the game as a 22-man picture, and not a lot of young coaches are capable of that,” Tomlin said, recalling Morris’ arrival in Tampa Bay eight years ago.
“Not only did he have an understanding of secondary play and the guys that we were working with, but he saw all 22. ... He’s got an easy manner about him. He relates to people well. He can relay messages. I think all of that was a recipe for him doing what he’s doing now.”
The friends talk frequently, though the subject rarely is about what Tomlin describes as “current business.”
Morris said his mentor prepped him well on what to expect as a head coach.
“He gave me direction right from the beginning. We always talked about being mentally tough. It was something we talked about that’s just in us. It’s not an act. You can’t become a head coach and then decide to be mentally tough that day,” Morris said.
Steelers safety Will Allen, who was with Tampa Bay for seven seasons before signing with Pittsburgh this year, has played for both coaches. He called them “great teachers, great students” of the game.
“You could see the potential in both of them early in their careers. How much and how hard they worked and the leadership ability they had,” Allen said.
Tomlin joked that early on in the friendship “he asked me my opinion a bunch and I didn’t ask him his a lot.”
“So, he’s probably got 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,” the Steelers coach said.
Not so, Morris countered, adding Tomlin is still the “lead dog.”
“It’s not a rivalry yet. He’s won a Super Bowl with Tampa. He’s won a Super Bowl in our stadium as a Pittsburgh Steeler,” Morris said. “Right now, he’s the king and I’ve got to try to go throw some stones at him.”