For the first training camp that he is no longer with us, the Pittsburgh Steelers would seem to be invoking the methodology of the great Chuck Noll more than in recent years, hoping to combat consecutive seasons of mediocre football with a recommitment to the fundamentals of the game and mastering the most basic of assignments: blocking and tackling.
Noll was known for summarizing the game of football in that way—a game of blocking and tackling—and he held true to the belief throughout his career that doing the basics better than everybody else is what led to success.
That’s why the Steelers teams under Noll were regularly some of the most well prepared in the league, behind their coach’s commitment to a mastering of the fundamentals. Other than talent, it’s the most essential ingredient to championship football.
And it’s an ingredient that has been somewhat lacking as of late when it comes to Mike Tomlin’s Steelers in the ‘10s.
Consider these statistics as symptoms of fundamental deficiencies in blocking and tackling, those ubiquitous techniques around which the entire game is built.
The Steelers averaged 3.5 yards per carry for the entirety of the 2013 season, tied for third-worst in the entire league. They surrendered over 100 hits on the quarterback last year, including sacks, a number that was on a significantly higher pace through the first half of the season.
As far as the defense goes, their sack numbers have been down, of course, which has led to less turnovers as a result. But more damaging at a fundamental level is the degenerating display of the very basics.
The Steelers as a defense were responsible for 110 missed tackles last season, a figure that far outpaces any in recent memory for Pittsburgh by about a couple dozen or so.
So what have they done in the hopes of combating this?
For starters, they hired Mike Munchak to be their new offensive line coach, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman in his own right renowned for being a technician at his craft. His knowledge of technique, as well as scheme, should produce great strides in the team’s overall blocking ability this year.
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has also spoken about simplifying things on offense to a degree, particularly as it relates to the no huddle, as well as putting greater emphasis on ball security, which is an area that came into focus last season. Their improvement in the turnover battle helped drive a second-half turnaround that nearly resulted in a playoff spot.
On defense, they’re counting on their outside linebackers to come in to their own, but they’ve also added pass rushing threats at all three levels of the defense over the course of the last 12 months to create a more dynamic pressure package on the opposing quarterback.
They’ve also added tremendous speed in the process, which will help defend the sideline-to-sideline plays that were very damaging to a slower and less disciplined defensive unit from a year ago. Of course, it will be up to Dick LeBeau and the coaching staff to reestablish the fundamentals of tackling this offseason to a group that, as evidenced by last season, could use a refresher course.
Blocking and tackling. Protecting the ball. Recommitting to the fundamentals. These are the themes of this offseason for the Steelers, a team looking to rediscover itself after two years of foundering in a cycle of underachievement.
Now just a brief time after suffering the loss of the godfather of just about everything that defines winning in this city, it’s time to turn back to the past and do it the old fashioned way.