Developing the “Talent”: Defensive Line Coach John Mitchell

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Gene J. Puskar, AP photo

The more I look at this draft, the more I feel as if the Steelers have sold out, if you will, to the guys they think have “hearts and smarts,” even if (or perhaps even especially if) they are considered raw and untutored. Since every player taken in the draft, beginning with Round One Pick One, is going to have shortcomings somewhere or other, I’m wondering if they wouldn’t rather deal with deficiencies of technique and experience than take a guy who thinks he knows what he’s doing.

I wrote those words as part of yesterday’s profile of Javon Hargrave, and started to ponder how Coach Mitchell might deal with him. As I looked up information on Mitchell I realized he deserved his own article, and here it is. In fact, I’m going profile all of the position coaches who are dealing with the new draftees during the coming weeks, because the players chosen are not the entire equation. Some of how they turn out is going to depend on how well they work with their coaches, and how well their coaches work with them.

There are coaches who want their players to like them in the hopes that they will play more enthusiastically. This is effective with some guys, not so much with others.

There are coaches whose first priority is to so completely destroy their players’ egos that they become clay to be molded in the image the coach desires. Generally speaking, coaches of this ilk would prefer their players not like them, or at least don’t care whether they do or not. It’s all about football, and not personal in the least.

These are, of course, extreme characterizations. Dick LeBeau appeared to be a man who deeply cared about his players, one who never raised his voice, who treated his players like his own sons. I’ll never forget Troy Polamalu practically in tears in a press conference after LeBeau had chastised him on the sidelines for taking an unnecessary chance by lateralling the ball after intercepting it. Brett Keisel also commented that you couldn’t bear the thought of letting LeBeau down. There was no question LeBeau was in charge, but it was all done with gentleness, apparently.

Bill Belichick would appear to be an example of the latter characterization. He’s looking for guys that fit in his system and will play his way, and someone who doesn’t fit is just so much flotsam to be jettisoned.

From what I’ve read, John Mitchell uses a combination of these techniques. In this 2009 article in the New York Times  nose tackle Chris Hoke noted:

“When they come in as young guys, rookies, first-year guys, he’s able to break them down and kind of break them away from what they did when they were in college,” said the backup nose tackle Chris Hoke, who was a raw, undrafted rookie when he joined the team in 2001.

Perhaps one of the most difficult things coaches deal with is trying to get a player to unlearn something they’ve learned improperly, or at least in a way that doesn’t work in the NFL or for the Steelers. In one sense, it doesn’t matter how smart  a player is or how gaudy their college stats. In fact, if they are very smart and have had excellent success in the past they might have even more difficulty letting go of what has worked for them heretofore.

Here’s what Mitchell had to say on the subject in a May 2015 interview on Steelers.com:

What you have to understand is that guys come here from college and they use their players knowing that they may have them for three years so whatever he can do, they let him do it. So when they get to this next level, there are a lot of things that they never heard of. Technique, nutrition, to lift weights and stay in shape, this is a long-term deal and they have to adjust to that.

I think that happened to Dan [McCullers] and it’s going to happen to a lot of the guys that were drafted today.

So when you have him for three years if you’re a coach in college, whatever that guy can do, if he’s a good run player, you have him play run and forget about pass. If he’s a good pass rusher, than you have him rush the pass and forget about the run because guys are not staying in college for four years. And you look in the draft and how many juniors have come out? So in college now, guys, I won’t say are getting away with anything, but what they do best to make themselves productive to get drafted that’s what the coach lets them do, and he tries to build his team around that.

But whether they are happy to try to unlearn how they have done things in the past or not, they are going to be fighting their instincts. It’s not much fun to feel you are actually getting worse at what you do, but this is a hideous stage you have to go through to get to where you (or your coaches) want you. And even if you are 100% on board, when the situation gets tense, you’re going to automatically revert to what you know best and what has served you well in the past.

This is my theory as to why the Steelers’ defense looked so horrible at the beginning of last season, and why they improved so rapidly. Because of the large proportion of youngsters, I think many of them were in the final stages of getting worse before they put it all together.

Of course, the secondary didn’t really improve much, and I put that down to an insufficiency of experience and talent, probably in reverse order.

But I’m getting off track. To return to Coach Mitchell, he bases his coaching style on his mentor Bear Bryant:

“His technique is really getting on you and being critical of and paying attention to all the little details,” Hoke said. “Because if you don’t do the little things, they turn into big things. And when situations come up, I think he looks back to, what would Coach Bryant do? And then he moves forward.”

But there is another side to Mitchell, and one I would argue is what makes him so successful. According to the New York Times article:

He differs from his mentor in one critical way. While Bryant was respected by his players, he was distant from them personally while they were on the team. The 57-year-old Mitchell, who is married but does not have children, is famously involved with his.

“One thing about him is he treats us like his sons,” said Deshea Townsend, the Steelers’ longtime starting right cornerback. “He teaches us about a lot of things. He teaches us about art. He teaches us about wine, even taking us to wine tastings. He does a lot off the field to try to stimulate us and try to make us better people.”

I suppose I wasn’t paying attention, but I hadn’t realized Mitchell was an Assistant Head Coach until writing this article. Here’s the reason Mike Tomlin gave him that promotion upon becoming the Steelers’ head coach:

“John takes a great deal of pride in what he does, the performance of his men, the development of his men,” Tomlin said. “I wanted him to have that same kind of ownership over this football team, and the growth and development of young players.”

I was fascinated to read in the January 2009 article that Mitchell only intended to coach four or five more years, saying that when the current group of men left he would leave with them. The only remaining players from the 2008 team on defense are James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, and William Gay. I’m glad you haven’t left yet, coach. There’s unfinished business, and I’m hoping you’ll stay on to see it through.

8 comments

  • roxannafirehall

    Great profile, Momma. Mitchell is in the final stages of rebuilding the DL. If McCullers continues to develop and Hargrave is the player we hope he is, good times are coming.

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  • That’s a great article Rebecca. Johnny Mitchell is indeed known for stripping down his players to zero and building them back up again. That is one reason why both Ziggy Hood and then Cam Heyward sat on the bench so much as rookies. In fact, as I documented a few years back in BTSC’s Renegade, other than Casey Hampton, rookies have rarely played, let alone started for Mitchell. (Stephon Tuitt and Dan McCulllers of course broke that trend.)

    Indeed, that may be the reason why Heyward sat on the bench so long behind Hood.

    One point of yours which I will quibble about. You said:

    This is my theory as to why the Steelers’ defense looked so horrible at the beginning of last season, and why they improved so rapidly. Because of the large proportion of youngsters, I think many of them were in the final stages of getting worse before they put it all together.

    Honestly, I don’t think the Steelers defense was “Horrible” at the beginning of 2015.It completely dominated San Francisco and even before Ben Roethlisberger got hurt, it kept the Steelers in the game vs. St. Louis. It also kept the Steelers in the game vs. the Chargers.

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    • Preseason through game 1 they looked awful though.

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      • I didn’t see any preseason, but by all accounts you’re right, the Steelers defense looked terrible.

        Contrary to what the preseason complainer often insist, you can oftentimes get good insights on things to come from preseason, especially when focusing on specific areas of the depth chart. For example, and I AM dating myself, but during the 1998 preseason the run blocking was not good, and indeed, that was a problem for the next two seasons.

        But that’s not always the case.

        While I didn’t see any games, I remember Bill Cowher saying at the end of the 2005 preseason, “Our passing game clearly isn’t where it needs to be.”

        In the first two games of the game of the season, Ben Roethlisberger completed 88 and 65% of his passes, and by the end of October, Ben Roetlhisberger had thrown 11 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

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    • Thanks goff for clarifying.. Preseason and game 1 was indeed what I was thinking of, remembering how most of Steeler Nation had our heads buried in our hands and were thinking it was going to be a long season if the offense couldn’t put up 60 points per game…

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  • Mitchell had some fire in him when he was talking about Javon Hargrave at the draft. Got me excited to see what he can do with the young man and also showed he still loves his work.

    Tomlin so far seems to be a coach other coaches want to work for, and players want to pay for.

    That culture is starting to pay off on the salary cap, and will also pay off on getting good veteran minimum free agents. In a salary cap era, great coaches and players willing to take less to be here or choose us over other teams is a big deal.

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  • Great article Rebecca. I’d really be interested in hearing more of what the players have to say about coach Mitchell. That’s fascinating insight, especially coming from former players.

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