By Cian Fahey
Prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers\’ last appearance in the Super Bowl, that loss to the Green Bay Packers in Dallas two years ago, I expressed my overwhelming admiration for the work of the Steelers\’ new offensive line coach that year.
Leading up to the season finale in Dallas, I wrote that Sean Kugler was in fact the most important Steeler.
Ahead of his hiring, I was one of many onlookers who didn\’t like the idea of bringing in a line coach whose last team had given up 46 sacks in 16 games the year before. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin, as they so often do, had a better understanding of Kugler than us average folk because they realized that Kugler had been working with a severe dearth of talent in Buffalo with the Bills.
Just like he did in Detroit in 2005, Kugler got the best out of a bad bunch with the Bills for two years before moving on to do the same in Pittsburgh with the Steelers for the past two seasons.
Throughout his career in the NFL, discounting his brief stint with Boise State, Kugler has worked with a bunch of misfit offensive linemen who he motivated and taught as well as possible. The players at his disposal weren\’t scrubs, but they were limited for the most part.
He did have some bright spots such as Jeff Backus in Detroit and Jason Peters in Buffalo, but never has he had an offensive line with talent across the depth chart…until now.
The Steelers hired Kugler because of his ability to get the best out of a bad bunch. When they initially hired him, the Steelers\’ line started out with Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, Trai Essex and Willie Colon.
Even during his first season with the Steelers, Kugler faced adversity and more turnover than any coach should with only Kemoeatu from his original starting five starting in the Super Bowl that year. That first season, Kugler showed that he could handle adversity and do enough to allow the Steelers to win. However, he also showed what he could do with some real, natural talent.
Hartwig may have entered training camp as the team\’s starting center, but rookie Maurkice Pouncey quickly dispelled notions that he was going to be a guard before moving to center. Pouncey started every regular season game as a rookie.
Pouncey is naturally brilliant and very intelligent, however you cannot overlook the contributions of his line coach to guide him to such an outstanding debut year as a professional. While Pouncey severely struggled during his second year, that can arguably be attributed to his injury issues which carried over from the year before.
The rookie center wasn\’t the only example of Kugler at work however.
Last year\’s rookie tackle Marcus Gilbert arrived in Pittsburgh with some question marks over his conditioning and commitment. By the end of the year, and after Colon\’s injury, Gilbert had one of the best seasons of any rookie as the Steelers\’ starting right tackle.
Gilbert and Pouncey both had elite level talent last season, they still do, and Kugler was able to instantly install them on his line because of his quality coaching and mentoring. Now that David DeCastro and Mike Adams have been drafted combined with the potential for Colon to return from yet another injury, Kugler has more talent to work with than at any previous time during his career. Let\’s not forget that Max Starks also could be brought back as well.
DeCastro should instantly become a starter while Adams may not be forced into the lineup, unless he excels early on as a tackle. With Kugler leading the group, you cannot rule out Adams from potentially being a starting left tackle next year simply because of his track record so far.
Injuries may have derailed the Steelers\’ line from being a strength last season, but this year things look incredibly bright from a unit that was once a black hole, or multiple holes in many cases, for the Steelers\’ Super Bowl chances.
You can follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf