John Mitchell Asked To Trust In Youth Along Defensive Line

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.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Matt. Not trying to be a contrarian again here but…

    The Steelers view Tuitt as a 1st round talent. That’s not my opinion. The coaches said so themselves in their post draft interviews.

    If they are planning to start a highly skilled rookie at ILB (Shazier) why would they not start a highly skilled rookie at DE (Tuitt) which is an easier position?

    Tomlin said (paraphrasing) “In the past we’ve had the luxury of bringing along our rookies slowly. We don’t have that luxury this year.”

    That doesn’t sound to me like Tuitt is going to be 3rd on the depth chart.


    I think John Mitchell can be too stubborn at times.

  • steeltown

    The best man will win the spot… and despite some early outside assumptions and lack of reports I think there’s really good competition for that spot. Tuitt and Arnfelt are two strong, smart, hardworking, young prospects. C.Thomas is the wild card of course, he himself is a big strong man and he has NFL experience so he may have a leg up, but lets not forget Arnfelt has a yr in the system. Im more comfortable with this position depth that most others, like OT, CB and OLB

  • srdan

    I’m not sure that 3/4 DE is an easier position than ILB. Perhaps reading the defense is not as important, but physically it’s more demanding.

  • joed32

    What they need is a good rotation, utilizing all of them.

  • Eric MacLaurin

    The depth behind Shazier isn’t even close whereas Tuitt has had health issues hold him back and has a vet available that will probably be comparable for at least a portion of the next season.

    I agree for the most part but it isn’t the slam dunk it was at LB.

  • srdan

    Garvin and Williams are great depth.

  • Jonas

    Technique moreover!

  • Eric MacLaurin

    True. From a back up second string perspective.

    I was actually referring to the depth of potential starters at the position and the difference in talent between the options.. Williams and Garvin are nice depth but aren’t above average starters and the difference between them and Shazier is significant.

    Tuitt is much closer to the pack

  • srdan

    I misunderstood you then. You are right on that. I think highly of williams but I’m not stupid lol. Tuitt has an unlimited ceiling.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    But that is my whole point. In LeBeau’s system the reason he holds his rookies back is because they can’t master the playbook.

    Tuitt should have a much easier time learning his assignments (quickly) than Shazier. And I expect both to be better than Jarvis.

    IMO, as far as physical demand goes, Tuitt will be fine. When you’re 6’5″, 305 pounds, with 35″ arms, and can bench 31 reps, you’re going to hold your own against most NFL competition.

    I’m not saying he can play every snap of all 16 games, but if he was put in as the starter on day one, I believe he’d hold up physically just fine. That is his greatest strength.

  • srdan

    I guess i read a little differently into it. It’s not necessarily that because there are less responsabilities for a DE so the playbook is easier to learn, therefore he should be on teh field sooner.
    I read it as these guys need to be able to execute their assignment in a playbook. You may know you have to be there, but you can’t execute it, therefore we can’t play that defense. I think you saw a lot of that with V. Williams last year. The kid knew where he had to be in coverage, he just coudn’t execute it. We had to either pull him from the field, or not play that defense.

    To execute assignments (even though there are less) as a DE, I think it’s harder. You are going against grown men that know every cheap trick in the book. Takes a while to let physical gifts shine Technique and strenght have to be there.

  • dont forget about spence

  • IckyD

    So we hope, tho at times that seems debatable.

  • IckyD

    A more simple one was, i think, his meaning.

    Big diff b/w “simple” and “easy”.

  • IckyD

    Vince was a rookie last year, and did pretty darn well for a no-name, especially late in the year.