Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell has, over the years, helped to put himself in the position of not being dependent upon youth and inexperience when it comes to cobbling together a starting lineup.
The veteran position coach—who is also an assistant head coach—has been in Pittsburgh since 1994, and for the vast majority of that time, he has been able to line up a trio of veterans down in the trenches of the defensive front.
Most recently, of course, the Steelers found some stability with Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel, and Casey Hampton. But those three were once the neophytes that Mitchell currently sees in front of him, now that all three are gone:
This reminds me of when I got here in 1994. They had some players here when I got here, Gerald Williams and Joel Steed. When those guys left, hey, we got Aaron Smith. Then we get Casey Hampton, Chris Hoke. Then we got Brett Keisel. In free agency we got Travis Kirschke. We all grew together and then got to be good football players.
And things are starting to look familiar. “I’m excited about what I have to work with”, he said. “I have some talent. It’s my responsibility to get the best out of them. I hope we can grow together over the next four or five years”.
Of course, one of the ways in which Mitchell believes that he gets the best out of his young players is not to play them before he believes they’re ready, and that includes some high standards for basic scheme competence.
The process of attaining that basic competence begins in earnest right about now, and continues through training camp and the preseason. But before the pads come on, there is still work to be done for the “big guys” up front:
With no pads, the things you want to do, especially for a defensive front right now, the big guys, you want them to stay down with a good pad level, use your hands and run to the ball. The best thing we’ve done in this camp with the big guys is staying low and running to the ball. They’ve been running 20, 25 yards downfield every play. I want them to get in football shape because that’s what it takes.
Mitchell likes the early signs that he is getting out of his young group of linemen, such as Stephon Tuitt, Daniel McCullers, Brian Arnfelt, and Nick Williams. But whether or not any of them will help contribute to the next Smith-Hampton-Keisel trio will not be set in stone any time soon.
Remember, even Smith did not start in his first season. It took Keisel several years before he cracked the starting lineup. Mitchell knows that the likelihood of the likes of Tuitt and Arnfelt being up to his standards technically to start on his line this year is slim, and that’s why the Steelers brought in a veteran in Cam Thomas.
As far as Mitchell is concerned, Tuitt is a senior in college this year, and he expects him to play that way this. And Mitchell will play him, when he’s ready, and when there’s a place for him.
But while Tuitt himself might embrace the pressure of comparisons to Smith, whose spot he figures eventually to inherit, his defensive line coach means to protect him from his own expectations. As for now, it’s still a feeling out process:
“I’m excited about guys running to the ball. After that we’re going to find out what they know when sweat is coming down into their eyes when they’re tired and they’ve been in there for eight or nine plays (in training camp). We’ll find out what kind of football players we have at the defensive line”.