Coaching Carnage in Pittsburgh: Who's Gone and Who's Next?

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Coaching Carnage in Pittsburgh: Who's Gone and Who's Next?
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The angry mobs at Heinz Field called for change in the wake of the defending Super Bowl champs not making the playoffs this season, and the Steelers have obliged the demand for coaching carnage.

The Pittsburgh Steelers fired their second assistant coach of the week today, relieving Bob Ligashesky of his duties as the team’s special teams coordinator. This came the day after Coach Tomlin handed a pink slip to offensive line coach Larry Zierlein.

Special teams were a serious problem for the Steelers this season giving up return touchdowns in four out of five games at one point this season. The results were a far cry from the performance of Ligashesky’s group last season.  Ligashesky, who just finished his third season as the special teams coordinator in Pittsburgh coached the top coverage unit in the NFL in 2008.

The former Pitt Panthers special teams coach and Sto-Rox native spent two seasons as the special teams coordinator for the St. Louis Rams before coming to the Steelers in 2007.

Ligashesky’s firing really came as no surprise considering the dreadful performance turned in this season. The team ranked 30th in the NFL in kickoff coverage and 24th in punt coverage in 2009. These statistics are a drastic fall off from when they ranked first in kickoff coverage and fourth in punt coverage, giving them the best coverage unit in the NFL just one season prior. 

Just 24 hours prior to Ligashesky getting canned Larry Zierlein was shown the door as well. Zierlein was named to the coaching staff as the offensive line coach three years ago when Mike Tomlin took the head coaching position in Pittsburgh.

Zierlein was given the daunting task of trying to follow hall of famer Russ Grimm at the same coaching position.  Since he took over for Grimm who departed for Arizona with former offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, Zierlein’s front five has seen its better days.

Over the course of the last three seasons the offensive line has given up an average of 48.6 sacks a season, ending this season with the highest total yet—50. Since rushing for over 2,000 yards in 2007, the Steelers have been in the lower third of the NFL in total rushing yards per season each of the last two years.

Some of this falls on the idea that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has done a less than stellar job calling and designing plays that will allow the Steelers to succeed in these areas, but it was not Arians’ job to develop the young players that the Steelers had and brought on during the last three seasons. 

Under Zierlein’s tutelage, young prospects like offensive tackle Tony Hills and this year’s third-round pick Kraig Urbik failed to play a productive role at all, while established players like offensive tackles Max Starks and Willie Colon digressed significantly.

So who is going to take the place of the two coaches, and can we expect to see anyone else make an exit from the UPMC Practice Facility in the near future?

At this point all logical roads lead to the reunion of Bobby April with the Pittsburgh Steelers. April was a popular special teams coordinator with the Steelers during the 90’s. His famous passion and running down the sidelines with his kickoff unit during kickoffs was contagious during his time in town.

April recently opted out of the last two years of his contract with the Buffalo Bills after the team fired the rest of the coaching staff this week.  April should receive other offers from new head coaches looking to put together a staff in order to take over a team, but April would be a great fit and possibly bring the energy the Steelers so desperately need and have been lacking on special teams.

As far as offensive line coaches are concerned, it is highly unlikely that the Steelers will find or bring in a big name replacement like Russ Grimm to fill the role. You can expect to see a search around the league’s assistant offensive line coaches upon which someone will most likely be given an opportunity.

Whoever the Steelers bring in, however, needs to have an establish personality and a strong ability to teach the game. It is to be expected that the Steelers will draft an offensive lineman high in this year’s draft. It will be the job of whoever comes in to be able to whip a mediocre unit into shape while molding a high draft pick and young players like Kraig Urbik into quality starting offensive linemen in the NFL.

This should not be a search that is taken lightly by any means. In fact it may be the most important decision made this offseason. 

Looking into the crystal ball for things yet to come it has been made clear that Mike Tomlin intends to keep Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator for next season. A poor decision it may very well be, but his (Arians’) relationship with Ben Roethlisberger has helped him keep his job at least for right now as the quarterback is quite pleased with the “pass happy” offensive style that helped him put up career numbers.

If anyone were likely to reach his expiration date in the near future I would expect it to be defensive backs coach Ray Horton. Horton’s unit played poorly this season, and the development of young players and the digression of veteran ones was again an issue for the Steelers.

The digression of Ike Taylor along with the poor development and play of William Gay made for a tough season in the Steelers secondary. It would not be a stretch to see Horton hit the bricks as early as tomorrow or the beginning of next week.

So where do the Steelers go from here, and is the coaching carnage we have seen good enough to suffice the demand for blood from the angry mob at Heinz Field?

With the way things are shaking down the Steelers seem to be handling their most obvious weaknesses from a philosophy standpoint, which is good. Cleaning house on special teams and sending home the position coach of one of the league’s worst offensive lines is a step in the right direction. Who they bring in will make all the difference in the world as to what good the firings have done.

On the other side of this situation is the fact that the overall philosophy and make up of the coaching staff has not changed. Dick Lebeau has agreed to stay on as the defensive coordinator, and that is a good thing despite the criticism he took this season.

Bruce Arians reportedly had a long meeting with coach Tomlin at the end of which he was told he would remain the offensive coordinator of the team. It should be the greatest hope and prayer of every Steeler fan that that meeting was about the changes that have to take place in the play calling and offensive philosophy of this team heading forward. If it was, then obviously Arians agreed to what was being said, and he was able to keep his job despite his less than adequate ability to call an offensive game plan.

Not a lot is going to change this offseason schematically so the Steelers are going to have to handle themselves carefully going into the draft and free agency. They are going to need to bring in a high quality cornerback and they will need to do the same in terms of an offensive lineman or possibly two. If they are able to accomplish these two tasks and overhaul the play calling in the red zone next season they will have a great opportunity to regain their playoff team status in 2010.

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