Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell is certainly no greenhorn. He’s been with the Steelers alone since 1994, bringing four of his front lines to the Super Bowl and coming out victorious in two of them.
His coaching career began in 1973, however, beginning as the defensive ends coach for Alabama, his alma mater, and remained in the college ranks until 1991 when he became the defensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns.
In other words, it wouldn’t be easy to put Mitchell in a position that he hasn’t faced at least once over the past four decades.
But perhaps this upcoming training camp comes at least somewhat close.
This season, Mitchell faces the task of replacing half of his primary defensive line rotation from a season ago. The Steelers lost Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, and Al Woods in free agency, all three of whom started multiple games for him last year.
As a result, Mitchell is tasked with introducing a new starter to the lineup, and one who has virtually no meaningful playing experience under him.
The seemingly most likely candidate to start at defensive end this season is Cam Thomas. While he is a veteran, he is entering his first season with the Steelers, has primarily played at nose tackle, and is unfamiliar with Mitchell’s methods.
After him might be Brian Arnfelt, the second-year former undrafted free agent who showed well during the preseason last year and was rewarded with a late-season call-up from the practice squad, after which he played two snaps.
Those two snaps are the only ones in a meaningful game from any of the three candidates for the Steelers, because that final candidate is rookie Stephon Tuitt. While it’s still quite early in the offseason, however, reports on him have been scarce in large part due to the fact that his performance simply has not warranted comment.
Mitchell has had the fortune—if not deliberate design—of being afforded the opportunity of playing only those who are experienced. Even in Hood’s rookie season, as a first-round pick, when Aaron Smith went down, it was Travis Kirschke who was asked to enter the starting lineup, for example.
And that’s why Thomas is the favorite to enter the season as the starting left defensive end, due to his prior playing experience, even if it hasn’t come until Mitchell’s tutelage. He hasn’t had to put such a young player in the starting lineup since the early days of Smith and Casey Hampton.
But for a coach so insistent upon developing players before asking them to contribute, any way the competition goes will reflect rare territory for the veteran line instructor. Whether it’s ultimately Thomas, Arnfelt, or Tuitt, the Steelers are asking Mitchell to put more faith in youth than he cares to.