Danny Smith was hired to replace Amos Jones. He has a lot of work to do to upgrade Pittsburgh's special teams.
Few franchises in the NFL are as stable as the Pittsburgh Steelers, but even the most stable franchises need to shake things up to stay competitive. That is exactly what is happening with the Steelers’ coaching staff this offseason.
Whether it was by choice or they were ‘encouraged’ to pursue other opportunities, the Steelers will enter the 2013 season with at least three new coaches on their staff.
Jack Bicknell Jr. will replace offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who left the team to become the head coach at the University of Texas-El Paso. Danny Smith will replace special teams coach Amos Jones, who went to the Arizona Cardinals for the same position and Richard Mann will coach the receivers in place of Scottie Montgomery, who took a position at Duke University.
While these new coaches have a lot to prove, these are three areas of the team that were in dire need of improvement and the new coaches on Mike Tomlin’s staff could be what is needed to right the course.
The loss of Kugler was a tough loss as Kugler was one of the better teaching coaches on the staff. However, the line has not developed since he has arrived, so maybe a change will be best for the team.
One of the biggest issues with Kugler’s offensive lines is that they have been unable to stay healthy. It was a problem while he was in Buffalo and now is a problem in Pittsburgh.
Whether that is a direct result of the technique that Kugler is teaching or just bad luck, it has been a problem. With so many injuries, there has been a lack of cohesion along the line and they have struggled in pass protection and run blocking.
There should be a change for the better with Bicknell.
Bicknell told Steelers.com that he likes “character” linemen “who are tough and have a great work ethic.”
Most importantly, Bicknell likes athletic linemen who are able to move. There are plenty of linemen who can do that for the Steelers.
Maurkice Pouncey is one of the most athletic linemen in the league and David DeCastro fits that mold as well. For his size, Mike Adams also is athletic as is Marcus Gilbert—when he is in shape.
The only lineman who does not fit the mold is Willie Colon, which is one reason why—in addition to injuries in recent years— he may be released.
Whether it is Colon at left guard, or even Kelvin Beachum, the Steelers' offensive line should have a different feel next season.
Bicknell was hired to help implement what offensive coordinator Todd Haley is trying to do on offense. These two will design a blocking scheme to accommodate the running backs they have to work with.
As of now, the Steelers figure to have a number of power backs in the backfield with Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman—assuming they keep them both.
But this may not be the end goal.
The Steelers may draft a quicker back that can get outside the tackles and take advantage of the abilities of Pouncey and DeCastro to pull outside.
No longer will the Steelers need massive linemen who will have to beat teams based on pure power and size up front, but rather utilize their athleticism and work together as a unit to maximize their ability to run the ball.
By drafting a running back with speed and quickness, the Steelers will try to work the outside, which is something they have failed to do in recent years.
Of course, protecting Ben Roethlisberger will still be a priority for the line and this will be something that Bicknell will have to work on, especially with his two tackles.
Which new assistant coach will make the biggest impact in 2013?
As long as his line stays healthy, Bicknell has all of the talent that any coach could ask for. Considering how young the line is, it will almost be like a blank slate and the sky is the limit for this line.
Another area of the team in dire need of improvement is the special teams.
After firing Al Everest prior to the season, Jones took over the unit and it struggled. It will be Smith’s job to really get the coverage and return units back in gear.
Success in the return game is more than just the scheme, but the talent of the returner. As of now, the Steelers lack talent at the position.
Antonio Brown will likely be the top receiver if Mike Wallace leaves via free agency and this should continue to limit his participation in the return game.
The Steelers also waived Chris Rainey, who flashed some potential as a returner and was a virtual lock to play the position again this year.
With few options on the roster, the Steelers will need to provide Smith with some talent through the draft. Beyond working with a new returner, Smith will need to work on upgrading the blocking schemes and eliminating the ridiculous amount of penalties that the special teams unit took on returners last year.
In 2012, the Steelers ranked ninth in kick returns, but only 28th in punt returns. Washington averaged only two yards more per punt return last season under Smith, but that type of improvement would be better than nothing.
Pittsburgh’s return units finished 16th in kick return yards allowed and 11th in punt returns. While these numbers were respectable, they did allow a punt return for a touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens in a three-point loss.
Smith’s kick coverage units have consistently been stronger in Washington than what the Steelers have had, but his punt coverage units have been a mixed bag.
More than anything, Smith is a coach who pays attention to detail and he will need to do this to get the Steelers’ special teams unit playing with more discipline. The penalties last year were costly in terms of momentum and field position and this should be able to go nowhere but up under Smith.
Another area that made costly mistakes was the wide receivers.
Brown and Wallace underachieved and even Emmanuel Sanders struggled all too often last year. Whether it was failing to fight for the ball, dropping catchable passes or turning the ball over, the Steelers needed much more from their receivers.
There was a clear difference beginning in training camp with how the receivers were preparing. Though his play on the field may not have been missed, Hines Ward’s leadership was.
Ward meant a lot more to the “Young Money Crew” than anyone would have hoped. Montgomery just was unable to maximize the potential of this group and as a result, the offense and the team suffered.
To replace Montgomery, Tomlin went to a 65-year-old coach who has not been on the sidelines in three years.
It became clear after last season that Wallace, Brown and Sanders needed a strong presence to keep them on track and this is likely one of the reasons Tomlin brought in the veteran coach.
Mann probably won’t have Wallace to work with, he will have a motivated Brown in addition to Sanders and a potential draft pick or two.
While with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there was only one season in which a receiver did not produce 1,000 yards.
Mann was very well-respected in Tampa, especially by former Buccaneers receiver Antonio Bryant. When he learned that Mann was being let go in 2010, Bryant told the Tampa Bay Times that Mann was his “biggest motivator.”
Earnest Graham told 1010 AM (via JoeBucsFan) that Mann would be a “big loss” and that Mann had a strong presence in the locker room.
While Mann may have not been coaching for three years, strong leadership is exactly what the Steelers need, especially for a young receiving corps.
Mann should instantly command the respect of Brown, Sanders and any future rookies and will have to refocus the receiving corps.
The Steelers need more physical play from their receivers and crisp route-running if they want to continue to run a quick, precision passing attack. There is talent in place, Mann just needs to help the receivers maximize it.
So will the new coaches be enough to turn things around in just a season? Maybe not, but they can help the team progress in a positive direction.
For years now the Steelers' offensive line has struggled and the drop off in special teams and the receiving corps last year was a major part of the reason the Steelers finished 8–8.
The infusion of new coaches on the staff will put a focus on fixing problem areas and keep all of the players on their toes.
New assistant coaches are not a cure all, but they can be just enough of a shake up to help the team regain the edge necessary to quit making mistakes and get back to playing smart football. That will equate to more wins and the ultimate goal of competing for a championship.