Coaching Accounts: OL Mike Munchak and DC Keith Butler
I started to title this post “Two Methods, One Result,” because the interest to me is the very different way the two coaches seem to be approaching their task. Two items which appeared last Friday got me thinking along these lines. The first was a full article on Offensive Line coach Mike Munchak by Tribune-Review writer Mark Kaboly.
After noting that the offensive line has had four coaches in six years, and that the offensive line was mostly downright bad, Kaboly wrote:
That’s not the case anymore, and the Steelers have Mike Munchak to thank.
“He’s been awesome,” guard David DeCastro said. “It is just a great atmosphere. We are very loose but very focused at the same time. But first and foremost, he knows what he is doing.”…
Tackle Kelvin Beachum noted:
“He is so detailed. What gives him such a big advantage over other coaches is that he played and played at a high level.”
The attention to detail is what has turned the line around so quickly.
Attention to detail sounds awesome, but the surprising part is how Munchak translates it:
Munchak’s philosophy has been simple: Be prepared.
Or, as Munchak said,
“My job is to make sure that by the end of the week that they feel confident on playing and how we are going to attack the team,” Munchak said. “There are always things that are going to happen, but my job is make them comfortable. If a defense makes a play, you want to at least feel like they earned it.”
However you look at it, the situation at offensive line is tremendously different than it was a four years ago, at just about this point in the season, when I wrote the following words:
The O line, which needs to be in Intensive Care, might have to be completely shaken up….
In the meantime, [Mike Tomlin] might want to put a life-sized cardboard cutout of Ben in the backfield, because until the Steelers find a line that can protect him the cardboard cutout will be just about as effective and much less expensive to replace.
Apparently it is working, according to these stats quoted by Kaboly:
The Steelers have allowed the fewest quarterback hits in the league (five). By comparison, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has been hit 54 times. The Colts, who went 11-5 last year and were a game from playing the Super Bowl, are 0-2.
By now the Steelers have allowed a few more than that, and if you look at the NFL Stats page where this appears they are now in the middle of the pack. But of course at this moment the Steelers have played one more game than everyone else except the Ravens. After Game 3 they were tied for second place with Arizona and Dallas, with 11 hits. (First-ranked Green Bay has ten.) The worst team in the league is now Washington, with 63(!).
Chew on that a minute. Kirk Cousins has currently dropped back to pass 111 times, and has been hit on 57% of his drop backs. That seems almost inconceivable. But Indianapolis isn’t far behind, with 49 hits, although since Andrew Luck has dropped back 130 times the percentage is considerably lower.
By percentage the Steelers are in third place, having allowed the quarterback to be hit 10.8% of the time. This is actually slightly higher than the Ravens, at 10.2%. After Thursday night’s slugfest the Steelers are up to about 13.3% and the Ravens up to 14.3%.
But to drag ourselves all the way back to the Tribune-Review article, there was an interesting table showing the number of sacks by coach and year. It isn’t entirely fair to put sacks on the offensive line without noting how the quarterback’s style of play and the OC’s play-calling effects that stat, but it is still interesting to note that the QB was sacked a high of 50 times in Larry Zierlein’s last season.
Under Sean Kugler the worst was his first year—43 sacks in 2010, and that had dropped to 37 by the time he left, after the 2012 season. Under Jack Bicknell Jr. the line gave up 43 sacks. Last year, Munchak’s first, they gave up 33. That’s a pretty amazing difference, especially when you look at this chart:
If you look at the cumulative total for Game 4 you can see (or infer) that the total at that point was 11 sacks, which put them on pace to give up a total of 44 during the season. If you look at Game 8 the total is now 20, which would extrapolate to 40 for the season. And as you can see, other than Game 12 they gave up increasingly few, for a total of 33.
But wait, it gets better.
In this article on Steelers Depot, Author Alex Kozora went through each sack and assigned the blame, including ones where the defensive scheme was such that he presumably thought it not defensible.
So I re-ran the numbers with all sacks attributed to people or factors other than the offensive line, and it now looks like this:
Pretty sweet! Of course, the previous years’ totals included all sources, too. But it is still interesting to consider.
In case you’re wondering, the other people/factors to which the author attributed sacks, and the number, are:
Ben Roethlisberger: 2.5 (Ben generally only was dinged for half a sack, except once, in Week 11, when he was credited with a full sack all on his own.)
Defensive scheme: 3.5
Running Backs: 1.5
Wide Receivers: 3
Tight Ends: 1
Todd Haley: 1
In fairness it should be noted the Steelers invested some pretty high picks in the line beginning in 2010. They drafted Maurkice Pouncey in the first round. Since then they have used another first round pick (David DeCastro) and two second rounders (Marcus Gilbert and Mike Adams.)
But this obviously isn’t the whole story. Mike Adams isn’t even playing, as he is on the PUP list. He lost his spot to a seventh round pick (Kelvin Beachum) and his back-up spot to a UDFA (Alejandro Villanueva) at least for the nonce. The left guard position is also filled by another UDFA, Ramon Foster, who interestingly is rated better than David DeCastro on PFF’s new Ratings feature. And despite the center position being manned by yet another UDFA, Cody Wallace, the projected number of sacks at the moment is 24 for the season, despite the St. Louis slugfest and Ravens night.
After Game 2 the Rams defense was rated No. 2 in the league by Pro Football Focus. They still are. As noted in the Opponent Preview the Rams’ defense is composed of a goodly number of top-end-of-the-draft picks, which is what you get when you’ve been bad for a long time. Jeff Fisher is a coach with an excellent record against the Steelers (also as noted in the 5 Smolderings,) and consequently you’re going to get your butt kicked now and again, but the Steelers O-line managed not to get it kicked too hard or too many times.
And as Homer J. noted in the Game Recap, there were many times when Ben had a lot of time in the pocket:
Ben gets enough time to catch up on Marvel Comics in the pocket…finally finds Bell short and he does his AB hurdling dealie to the 4.
But as disappointing as the Rams game was to everyone, especially whoever it was who allowed Mark Barron to have a free shot at Ben’s knee (I can’t look long enough to try to decide that), given that Munchak is having to make do with a decidedly less talented athlete than Maurkice Pouncey at center, the line has for the most part played in a way we could have only dreamed of a few short years ago.
So the secret to coaching football players is obviously enormous attention to detail and meticulous preparation, right?
Well, check out the quotes from Keith Butler in the sidebar right next to the above-quoted article (as gathered by Chris Adamski):
Two games into Keith Butler’s career as an NFL defensive coordinator, his style and tendencies are beginning to come into focus. And Butler said Thursday he would prefer to keep things simple.
Told that veteran linebacker James Harrison termed Butler’s defense “dumbed down” so as to not overburden, in particular, some of the unit’s younger players, Butler said, “That is fair.”
“We want to play fast, and we want to know what we are doing,” Butler said. “We want to be confident in what we are doing. Our goal is to get better every week, and I think we are capable of doing that if we are smart enough as coaches to keep the menu in, you might say.”
In relation to Ryan Shazier, Butler said
“It’s best to not let him think and just let him play, I think,” Butler said.
Lawrence Timmons agreed with this assessment, according to Dejan Kovacevic:
I asked Timmons, his partner at inside linebacker who had a solid nine-tackle line to his own credit, if anything had been done schematically to free Shazier for all-out pursuit.
Timmons laughed before answering: “Nah, nothing like that. He just isn’t thinking as much. He’s playing the game. That’s all.”
Despite Timmons’ comment, it does seem as if Shazier was turned loose. After all, you can turn an ILB loose in a way that is not possible for an offensive lineman. Of course, it is only true for the linebacker if you have everything covered elsewhere. It reminds me a lot of how Troy Polamalu was used, and how it didn’t work so well when he no longer had Ryan Clark to mop up (or elite speed to do what he meant to do.)
But without getting into scheme or responsibilities we can still get at the heart of the philosophy of each coach and see why both can, according to circumstances, work, and work well.
I have long been fascinated by the intersection, if you will, between preparation and talent. It is a big issue in my field (music) as well as sports. In fact, in any field where one is in any way in competition with another, it is a subject of debate.
There have been several books published during the last decade or so that in fact claim that talent basically doesn’t exist, or if it does it has a negligible effect on the final performer. The contention is that a sufficient amount of the right sort of practice (10,000 hours is the amount generally thrown around) is what makes the difference in the end.
I don’t entirely agree with this assessment, but that’s a subject for another sort of post. Right now the thing which interests me is the 10,000 hours part.
One of the things I’ve read time and again in interviews with young players, generally in the week following a breakout game, is that they are finally comfortable enough with the scheme or the route tree or the playbook or what have you to be able to just play.
They can now save that tiny fraction of a second it takes to call up out of the filing system what exactly they are supposed to do. They have then, in other words, become an instinctual player as opposed to a thinking one.
I taught skiing for a year, back when we lived in New Mexico. It is my experience that some of the worst skiers, at least in the early days, are really intelligent people. They want to understand everything before they try it, but there are things you can’t understand until you experience them.
It’s not that it isn’t helpful to be smart as a football player. Many positions require a high degree of at least some types of intelligence. But like any other gift it can get in the way if you just try to rely on it to get you through instead of doing the necessary work.
Part of what hard work does for you is to build up muscle memory. This can have its downside if you are digging the neural ruts in the wrong lane. But a great deal of playing instinctually, whether you’re talking about football or the accordion, is creating muscle memory through patient effort.
If we look at Mike Munchak’s methods, according to his players, we can see that he engages their intellect:
“He never forgets anything, any good play or bad play that you make,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “He is so detailed. What gives him such a big advantage over other coaches is that he played and played at a high level.”…
Munchak works during the week to make sure the group is prepared come Sunday. If it is providing, as Foster put it, “crappy looks” during practice or a detailed-oriented individual period or quizzing every offensive lineman during their early-morning meeting every Friday, then that’s what he is going to do…
“Going into a game knowing that you haven’t missed a look that they’ve given, that’s a separator right there,” Foster said….
But he also prods them to work, and work hard:
“Munch won’t yell at you. That’s not his thing,” Foster said. “He is passive aggressive. He will say, ‘The left side would’ve got that,’ or ‘The right side would’ve picked that up.’ He pokes at you, and it irks at you because you want to be better.”
What does all of this boil down to?
“There is no confusion anymore,” DeCastro said. “There is never confusion. A coach’s job is to put you in the best position so you are not getting beat by scheme and you aren’t thinking too much but just out there playing.”
Munchak is working with the players so that they can react, not think. This is obviously particularly critical when they have to work as a unit, and when a breakdown anywhere along the line can lead to what you might call a suboptimal result.
Or what Ben Roethlisberger might call a “life-threatening injury.” (And yes, the Steelers play the Chiefs again this season, in just a few weeks.)
Little did I know when I wrote the previous paragraph at the end of last week that Ben would once again leave on a cart, thanks to another punishing defense. But as anyone who has ever taught anything knows, you can control the process but not the results. I truly believe Munchak’s methods are bearing fruit, and that Ben’s injury is going to make the offensive linemen all the more determined to learn and grow as players. Although offensive linemen don’t generally get talked about a lot, I believe we are going to see Munchak’s careful work result in one of the best lines in Steeler history.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Tunch Ilkin, who ought to know offensive line play if anyone does, believes the same.
Let’s get back to Keith Butler. Shortly after he was promoted to Defensive Coordinator he was interviewed by Bob Labriola of steelers.com, and he gave an interesting insight into his coaching philosophy:
Q. Are you a 3-4 guy?
A. I would consider myself a whatever-it-takes-to-win guy. If it’s a 3-4, that’s fine, if that fits your players. I think you have to be able to fit your defense around the players you have. With what offenses are doing nowadays in the National Football League, they’re playing a lot of three wide receivers and a tight end and a running back, for the most part. In those situations, we’re going to be in kind of a 4-3 anyway, but we’re still going to be able to run the 3-4 also. It gives you a little bit more versatility, I think.
This says to me that first and foremost he is a pragmatist. He’s not going to try to force a guy to do something he isn’t good at just so it fits within his scheme. And he is also pragmatic enough to turn a guy loose if that’s what makes sense at this point in his (and the defense’s) development.
Q. In your mind, is it the scheme or the players?
A. It’s always the players. It always is the players. I’ve never seen a good coach without good players. In that case, you need to be able to teach guys to do what you expect them to do, and they have to have a clear understanding so they don’t have to think about it too much. They can react a little more quickly, so we can appear to be faster on the field.
And there we are again—they must be able to play without thinking too much. I find myself wondering if Dick LeBeau’s schemes became more and more complex through the years, with constant accretion of layers, as the overall familiarity of the defensive players allowed him add them.
This would perhaps explain the apparent increasing reluctance to release veterans or take on free agents. For the defense to work, it required a high percentage of players intimately familiar with it. Unfortunately it also required a high percentage of high-level players, and after a while no amount of veteranosity can substitute for youth and strength and speed. Furthermore, your very success is going to mean you have a smaller pool of top-flight players to chose from and less money to pay them when you get them.
Q. Next year when the Steelers defense is playing well, what will we be seeing in terms of a style of play?
A. Hopefully we’re going to be seeing some guys really running to the football and hustling. There’s nothing that pleases me more than to see the guys surrounding the ball, and gang-tackling, and playing what I call team defense, and relying on each other to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there.
I would say we are seeing plenty of that. How heartening it was to have not one but two turnovers in a game! Now if they can just figure out what Harbaugh and Marc Trestman did to get so many rushing yards past a defense that hadn’t given them many up so far…
Two coaches, two methods, one desired result—to bring the players to a point where they can just play. The very different circumstances of their units has required a rather different approach. Clearly Coach Munchak’s method works very well indeed. The jury is still out for Coach Butler, but not for long, I think. The arrow would definitely seem to be pointing up.