The Pittsburgh Steelers recently made two important coaching changes, ones that directly affect areas in which the team struggled during the 2013 season.
They parted ways with offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr., after one year on the job, hiring former Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Munchak to fill the vacancy. They also replaced departing running backs coach Kirby Wilson with James Saxon, who held the same position with the Minnesota Vikings for three seasons.
Both the run game and offensive line were issues for the Steelers until the second half of the season, when offensive assistant Shaun Sarrett took over most of the offensive line duties that had belonged to Bicknell. At that point, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had been sacked more than 30 times, and the run game was nearly as abysmal as it was in the previous season, despite the addition of promising rookie running back Le'Veon Bell via the draft.
Even with that late-season push, the Steelers managed to come in at just 27th in rushing yards, with a total of 1,383 on the year. The run game averaged just 3.5 yards per rush for the season, and the team scored a combined nine rushing touchdowns. Per Football Outsiders, their offensive line ranked 22nd in run-blocking and 15th in pass protection.
Experienced coaches like Munchak (who spent 14 years as the Titans' offensive line coach before his promotion to head coach) and Saxon (who also coached running backs for the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills) are exactly who the Steelers needed to help these two important and lacking parts of their offense.
The improvement begins with the offensive line. Under Bicknell, the Steelers tried to install a zone-blocking scheme to increase their run production and benefit Bell. However, that plan was quickly scrapped when center Maurkice Pouncey suffered a season-ending knee injury. Munchak, however, is also a zone-blocking disciple; expect the Steelers to redouble their efforts to install this system this offseason and, more importantly, stick with it.
However, zone blocking requires a certain degree of athleticism for the offensive linemen running it. It was the downfall of the Steelers' 2013 attempt at this system even before Pouncey's injury. Therefore, major decisions loom for how the Steelers will want to compose their line this offseason.
Pouncey's replacement, Fernando Velasco, was a member of the Titans under Munchak. However, Velasco won't likely be the team's starting center in 2014 as long as Pouncey's recovery goes as planned.
Pouncey may be one of the more overrated centers in the league, but his 2012 season (his last, mostly healthy one) was far better than the 2013 that Velasco had, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required):
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via Pro Football Focus (subscription required)
But Pouncey's return doesn't mean the Steelers have no use for Velasco, who was paid $522,352 for his lone season with the team. Pouncey seems to miss at least a game a season to injury, which means a veteran center like Velasco backing him up is necessary to the Steelers roster.
Bigger questions loom at both left and right tackle, and Munchak will likely help head coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Todd Haley make decisions at both positions. In 2013, the Steelers' primary left tackle was Kelvin Beachum, a do-it-all lineman whom the Steelers drafted in the seventh round in 2012.
Beachum did an admirable job moving around the line before finally taking over for Mike Adams permanently on the left side of the line. However, at 6'3" and 306 pounds, he's a bit undersized for a starting left tackle.
He'll still have some sort of role on the line—someone with his level of utility is exactly who the Steelers need in reserve—but ideally, the Steelers would have a more natural left tackle starting for them in 2014. If not, however, Beachum could work out as long as the rest of the line is both better and more stable.
Marcus Gilbert, Pittsburgh's starting right tackle for most of the 2013 season, was far more unsuited for his job than Beachum. He allowed 11 sacks, five quarterback hits and 30 hurries on the season. Upgrading one or both tackles should be a major offseason priority for the Steelers. Improvement at that position, in particular, will help both Saxon and Munchak do their new jobs much more easily.
Successfully installing a zone-blocking scheme should result in a better rushing output for the Steelers this season. The Steelers reached or surpassed 100 rushing yards as a team just six times last season, though three of those games were over the last three weeks.
Bell, who led the team in rushing yardage with 860, only passed 100 yards in one lone game—and it was the first time the Steelers had a 100-yard rusher since Week 9 of the 2012 season.
A running backs coach alone can't turn this situation around, but at least the Steelers have a proven veteran in Saxon to replace Wilson, who had been with the team since 2007. Saxon has worked with the likes of Adrian Peterson, Ricky Williams and Priest Holmes in his previous jobs. He's certainly more than qualified to coach up a second-year player like Bell and get him to fulfill his potential.
For the last two seasons, running the ball has been a struggle for the Steelers. Stability issues with their offensive line has been a problem for even longer. In the Munchak and Saxon hires lies hints that the Steelers not only have identified their two largest problems on offense but have addressed them head-on.
These aren't "just guys," they are proven successes at their respective jobs. In fact, the Steelers snagging Munchak in particular feels like a coup. Though getting the run game back on track and the offensive line executing a system somewhat unfamiliar will involve the players themselves doing their jobs correctly and well, the soil from which that grows—the coaching staff—now seems more capable of fostering such an outcome.