Keys to the Super Bowl: Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak
As you can probably ascertain, I’m inaugurating a new series in which we** examine what we believe to be key elements in the team’s hope of playing next year in February. I’ve chosen Mike Munchak to start for various reasons, but mainly because it seems pretty clear that a healthy Ben Roethlisberger is going to be one of the primary components in making it to Minneapolis. And an awesome offensive line is one of the primary components of a healthy Ben Roethlisberger.
I have already written about Mike Munchak, but it has been almost two years. And that article, although it did go into the improvement in the o-line during Munchak’s tenure, was really more a comparison of his and Keith Butler’s coaching styles. This time I’m going to focus on Munchak.
Although you can of course go and read the linked article, I’m guessing most people won’t, even on a website where the readership is as accustomed to verbosity as this one. So I’m going to include a few of the more interesting quotes before updating everything.
Back then the line consisted of Kelvin Beachum, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert. The thing to note is how little the presumed current line differs. The only change is at left tackle, because Beachum left in free agency. His backup, Alejandro Villanueva, is the only difference in the line for the coming season, always barring injuries.*
The 2015 offensive line was, as you will soon see statistically, definitely improved from previous years under previous coaches. As Tribune-Review writer Mark Kaboly wrote at the time:
With seven years in the league, Ramon Foster is the Steelers’ most tenured offensive lineman.
In that span, he has had four offensive line coaches — two of whom were fired.
Is it any wonder the offensive line was the butt of jokes? Forget the coaching carousel that went from Larry Zierlein to Sean Kugler to Jack Bicknell Jr. in four seasons. The unit was downright bad as well.
“Yeah, I remember,” Foster said. “It was always like, ‘You guys are on pace to give up the most sacks ever. You can’t run the ball …’ ”
That’s not the case anymore, and the Steelers have Mike Munchak to thank.
According to David DeCastro, the rather quick turn-around of the unit was because of Munchak’s attention to detail. As Coach Munchak told Kaboly:
“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.”
So how bad were they, pre-Munchak, really? It’s easy to exaggerate in one’s memory in either direction. So let’s look at the data. The Trib article listed the stats starting from 2007, and I used them to put together a couple of handy charts detailing them. (All stats are regular season only.) First, total rushing yards and yards/attempt, which of course means in both cases that higher is better:
Note that in neither case is the baseline zero—I was trying to shorten the charts, and this also had the handy side effect of making the differences more evident.
It’s interesting to note that by far the best total rushing yardage was under Zierlein, albeit for a single year. And of course the offensive line is but one component of the effectiveness of the running game. It’s a pretty important one, though. And the team under Munchak has never run for as many yards as in Sean Kugler’s first two years. However, looking at yards per attempt changes the picture a bit.
But to really attempt to tease this out we would have to look at who was at running back, what the play-calling looked like, and lots of other stuff which is possibly too complex to parse out, at least with my limited resources of time and knowledge. The short version is, under Munchak the team has run well and efficiently. He has had the luxury of a transcendent talent in Le’Veon Bell, of course, but he has also had the disadvantage of Bell missing a lot of games for one reason or another.
Now let’s look at the stats concerning pass protection, or at least the two most important ones—sacks and quarterback hits. Once again this is regular season only. In this case lower is better:
Let’s be fair—sacks and QB hits are not necessarily entirely on the o-line. The play-calling, the tendencies of the QB to improvise, his ability to do so safely and effectively, and many other variables can effect the outcome a great deal. Todd Haley replaced Bruce Arians in 2012 and has worked very hard since then to get Ben Roethlisberger to get the ball out of his hand faster. And we can see that, except for the wretched Jack Bicknell year, the sack numbers have decreased.
And as I did in the 2015 article, it is only fair to note that the pedigree of the offensive line is far better than it was in at least the Larry Zierlein years. There are still two UDFAs on the team, anchoring the left side of the line, but there are also two first-round picks and a second rounder making up the rest of it.
Further muddying the waters, though, the thoroughbreds aren’t always playing, and as we know Maurkice Pouncey in particular has missed a lot of time.
I also looked at holding penalties, and in 2015 the vast bulk of holds called on the offensive line were on Cody Wallace, who was of course filling in for Pouncey.
On the other hand, a great many of the rather high number of offensive holds last season were due to one of the first-rounders, right guard David DeCastro. I’m guessing Coach Munchak has had a talk or two with DeCastro.
Mind you, better a hold than a QB hit or a sack, but even better is to manage to hold in a way the ref doesn’t really notice. After all, holds could be called on almost every play…
So what, if anything, does all this mean for the upcoming season? For what it’s worth, let’s see what Pro Football Focus had to say when ranking all the offensive lines going into the 2017 season:
3. Pittsburgh Steelers
If you’re projecting purely off the final nine games from a season ago, the Steelers would be the No. 1 line in the league. Alejandro Villanueva came on extremely strong over that period, but his poor play from 2015 drags them down a bit. Over that final nine-game stretch, he allowed just 12 pressures. If that level of play continues, Ben Roethlisberger will be a happy man.
Do we have any reason to assume that Villanueva will not stay at this “level of play?” Sigh. Statements like that make me wonder if the writers have done their homework. It’s one thing to make a statement like that about a highly-drafted, veteran left tackle who has only ever played left tackle, like, say, Joe Thomas. (And of course, one wouldn’t, lacking clear evidence of a problem.) It’s quite another thing to make such a statement about a man who had to learn the position on the fly after playing his very limited number of previous NFL snaps (all in the preseason only) on defense. It seems. reasonable to assume he improved because he’s now learned how to play the position, and there’s no more obvious reason he should regress than any other player. C’mon, people…
But we might also wonder about the line in general. Will it continue to play at that level and even improve? Coach Munchak seems to think so. He was recently interviewed for Steelers.com, and here are some tidbits from the interview:
Missi Mathews: You talked about evaluation of last year. What are some of the things you want your guys to work on?
Coach Munchak: As it is for linemen, it is always consistency. There wasn’t anything that stuck out as a glaring issue. Now maybe as an offense, we need to score more points in the red zone, do some obvious things, and we’ve got to take our responsibility in that, whether in holding our blocks longer, understanding the scheme better.
This is our fourth year together, and we’ve been growing a lot each year. They understand what I’m asking them to do, they understand the scheme much better, so they can apply it… We’re way way ahead of where we were a couple of years ago—even last year. These guys are smart football players,…so we’ve got to play a little bit smarter when some things come up, when we get some tougher looks.
We were a championship team last year, but we were all disappointed how it finished up. We know how hard it will be to get back there, how much work it will take. These guys are workers, so I know they will do it.
And for what it’s worth, Bob Labriola, when talking about the interview, made the following comment:
[Mike Munchak] has a unique ability, I believe, to get people ready to play quickly and efficiently. I think the tremendous maturation of [Al Villanueva,] a guy who really wasn’t an offensive lineman…until he got here, and now the guy is a very capable starter at the very difficult position of NFL left tackle. Certainly Villanueva deserves a lot of the credit for the work he put into making himself into that, but let’s not underestimate the help he’s received from Mike Munchak.
If you want to watch the interview, which is about 4 minutes long and well worth your time, you can find it here.
*And interestingly, according to Pro Football Focus, Villanueva played considerably better than Beachum last year, even despite what they termed his “poor play” earlier in the season. They ranked Villanueva 24th out of all qualified tackles (in other words, with a minimum number of snaps) in the league, and Beachum 63rd. Which is perhaps a bit more evidence for the efficacy of Munchak as a coach, and I would say definitely for the consistency of the personnel. Perhaps it also says a lot about Ramon Foster at LG. It also might explain why the front office didn’t kill themselves trying to sign Beachum, and gave Foster a nice contract.
**my use of the word “we” will hopefully alert my fellow authors to what is an open invitation to join in the series. It’s always more interesting to get multiple viewpoints.
Besides, I don’t know how much longer I can continue to write. I’ve just received a letter from a Spanish attorney, Barrister Juan Antonio Ruiz (Spanish Lawyer,) as he terms himself, to notify me that I should contact him about a 12,700,000.00 euro payout (which he naturally wishes to split with me.) Spending that sort of money may require all my time in the future. As soon as I get done with this article I will be contacting him, and I assume that after I give him my bank information, social security number, and other such minutae he will be able to affect the transfer of funds. If any of you require a few euros for an upcoming trip, just let me know, as I will have plenty of them.
Sorry—it’s still the offseason, but training camp approaches, and I get rather giddy. And it was just so exciting to get an actual paper letter with a fake notarization and everything. The Nigerian princes tend to use email.