AFC North: Mike Munchak

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers offense broke out in 2014, finishing second in the NFL with 411.1 total yards per game and establishing a new franchise record for points (436) in a season.

The Steelers control the contract rights of every starter through next season and young wide receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton could come into their own in 2015. An offensive line that made significant progress has enough youth to it to think that will continue to improve, especially with position coach Mike Munchak back for a second season.

The danger for the Steelers’ offensive players is thinking that just because so many pieces are in place that everything will fall into place next season.

“You think we had a good season, it’s going to happen every year. That’s not the case,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “It’s going to be the leaders that have to let them understand that they can’t get complacent. We have to work to get better.

“A lot of guys grew up this year, and I’m happy to see that. We’ve got coaches in place, we don’t have to go searching for certain guys and worry about that so as far as the offense as a whole we should be better.”

Coach Mike Tomlin is counting on that, which is why he did not try to lower expectations when asked if the Steelers’ offense can be better in 2015.

“Why can’t we get better in all areas? Not only offensively but defensively and special teams,” Tomlin said. “It’s amazing how we as humans are capable of limiting ... just simply because we set parameters on our own expectations. I try to consciously not do that. What areas can we not get better in? That needs to be our mentality and hopefully it will be.”
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Running back Le'Veon Bell has now saved the Pittsburgh Steelers twice on "Monday Night Football," and the second-year man was a little less subtle about it this time.

Bell's 43-yard catch-and-run against the Houston Texans in Week 7 served as the catalyst for 24 unanswered points that propelled the Steelers to their first of three consecutive wins.

On Monday, Bell simply pounded the upstart Tennessee Titans into submission when the Steelers again found themselves on the precipice.

The Steelers were trailing by 11 points in the third quarter when offensive coordinator Todd Haley finally got out of his own way and called one run after another for Bell.

Recommitting to the run, which the Steelers got away from when they blew an early 10-point lead, allowed them to rally for a 27-24 win and avert what would have been a disastrous loss.

[+] EnlargeBell
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsLe'Veon Bell rushed 33 times for 204 yards and a touchdown on Monday against the Titans.
The timing of Bell's 204-yard outburst, which came courtesy of the block party the Steelers' offensive line threw at frosty LP Field, couldn't have been better, for several reasons.

The Steelers go into their bye week with a 7-4 record and in pretty decent position in both the AFC North and AFC playoff picture, despite their maddening propensity to play down to their competition.

They did that again against the Titans, before Bell and the offensive line grabbed control of the game, while Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak watched with what had to be a most satisfied smile.

Munchak spent more than 30 years with the Oilers/Titans as a player and a coach before he was fired as the team's head coach this past January.

The play of the line, after a shaky stretch in which they could not keep the Titans off quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, showed why the hiring of Munchak was considered one of the Steelers' most significant offseason acquisitions.

The Steelers turned to the run after falling behind 24-13, and the Titans couldn't stop them, even though they knew it was coming.

That proved to be the case when the Steelers drove 72 yards in eight plays and scored a touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter to cut the Titans' lead to four points. That proved to be the case midway through the final quarter, when the Steelers got the ball back while nursing a three-point lead.

They ran 10 plays, eight of them runs by Bell, before Roethlisberger took a couple knees to end the game.

"Maybe two or three different plays we were running, but we were executing at a high level," Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey said. "I heard a couple of guys say, ‘They keep running the ball over here. We've got to stop it.'"

They couldn't because Bell and the offensive line worked so well together that they produced the football equivalent of finishing each other's sentences. The line provided a consistent push and openings for Bell, even when Tennessee started stacking players close to the line of scrimmage.

Bell, meanwhile, exploited any cracks that surfaced in the Titans' defense.

The 196 yards he gained between the tackles were the most by any NFL back this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I love running the ball, but those guys love running the ball more than me -- that's the craziest part," Bell said of the Steelers' offensive line. "Those guys kept moving guys off the ball and making my job easy."

Rushing yards had not come easy for Bell recently, even during the three-game win streak. He rushed for a combined 169 yards in those games. Add in the 36 yards he managed in a 20-13 loss to the New York Jets, and Bell averaged 51.3 rushing yards in his previous four games.

That stretch seemed like a distant memory when right guard David DeCastro talked about what a "blast" it was for the Steelers to impose their will on the Titans -- just when it seemed their season would get away from them.

Bell couldn't stop smiling as he talked about an offensive line that allowed him to record just the fifth 200-yard rushing game in Steelers history. That was one of many superlatives the 2013 second-round draft pick produced on a night when the Steelers had to win any way possible but ultimately did so on their terms.

"We don't have enough time to talk about what [Bell] did tonight," Roethlisberger said. "I'm so proud of the way he bounces back. Catches the ball, runs the ball, power, finesse. When he runs, it's like poetry in motion."

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Bittersweet homecoming for Mike Munchak

November, 17, 2014
11/17/14
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger joked last week that offensive line coach Mike Munchak might go to the wrong locker room Monday at LP Field.

That is because Munchak is so programmed to going to the home locker room after spending 15 seasons in it -- first as an offensive line coach and then as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach -- that he said he has “no idea” how to get to the visiting locker room.

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsOn Monday, Mike Munchak will face the Titans for the first time after spending over 30 years with the organization.
Not that Munchak will be any visitor when the Steelers play the Titans in a nationally televised game.

Munchak spent more than 30 years with the only NFL organization he knew before joining the Steelers last January.

He played guard at such a high level for the Houston Oilers that the Scranton, Pennsylvania, native is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And Munchak was a coach when the Oilers relocated to Tennessee and became the Titans.

A painful split for both sides occurred last January when the Titans fired Munchak after he refused to make wholesale changes following an 8-8 season, his third one as the team's head coach.

Munchak is not bitter about how things played out with the Titans.

But he regrets that his 22-26 record as a head coach wasn’t enough to extend his run with the organization.

"I think that’s probably the hardest part was that we didn’t get that accomplished with that group of people. It wasn’t just the players and the coaches it was the support staff and the whole group,” Munchak said. “We were in this thing together. A lot of the workers there [like] equipment guys I had been with for 30 years. So that was hard to leave knowing that we all didn’t accomplish what we wanted to accomplish. The business we understand that it didn’t work and you get so much time to get the job done. We didn’t and we had difference of opinions in how to go forward, and business is business.”

Munchak still has a house in Tennessee and he admitted that his homecoming will be bittersweet.

“I had the privilege to be a part of their organization for a long, long time and got a chance to work with a lot of people there,” he said. “It’s been a family atmosphere for me for a long time and so on a personal note it’s going to be very difficult that way, because that’s the part I miss the most is the relationships and spending time with all the people in Houston and in Nashville for 30 years. That’s rare and so that’s probably the tough part.”
PITTSBURGH -- There may not be a more intriguing prospect in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room than practice squad player Alejandro Villanueva.

Villanueva
The former Army Ranger is learning the nuances of offensive tackle following his distinguished military service, and there is a lot to like about Villanueva.

The 6-foot-9, 267-pounder has the frame to play tackle in the NFL and he is plenty athletic. Villanueva started at offensive tackle for two seasons at Army. His senior season he moved to wide receiver and led the Black Knights in receiving in 2009 with 34 catches for 522 yards and five touchdowns.

“Catching the football is really fun and that’s what I found out in college, but I think this position is where I belong,” Villanueva said. “I love playing line, especially with the great guys that the [Steelers] have and Coach [Mike Munchak]. So for me, it’s a great opportunity.”

To say Villanueva took a circuitous route to his current opportunity is an understatement.

He fulfilled his military commitment after graduating from West Point, serving with distinction in Afghanistan before pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL.

The Philadelphia Eagles signed Villanueva last May and gave him a long look at defensive end. After the Eagles released Villanueva before final cuts in the preseason, the Steelers brought him in for a workout.

They signed him to the practice squad in early September after coach Mike Tomlin met with Villanueva and told him that they wanted to develop him as an offensive tackle.

Villanueva was more than agreeable to it, especially since he has the chance to work with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard who also has extensive experience coaching offensive linemen.

“He’s a great coach, so I enjoy coming in to work," Villanueva said. "Obviously in the offseason he’ll have some time to develop me and spend more time. I feel confident that I can do it. I’m going to keep working.”

Tomlin announced at the beginning of the week that Villanueva will travel with the team to Tennessee on Sunday. A handful of veteran players, including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, suggested the gesture as a way of honoring Villanueva less than a week after Veteran’s Day.

“I think it’s the least that we can do for someone that has done so much for our country,” Roethlisberger said.
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger noticed something about offensive line coach Mike Munchak on Wednesday.

“You could tell a little bit that he’s got a little extra in him,” Roethlisberger said.

Munchak
Munchak wouldn’t be human if he didn’t.

The Steelers visit the Tennessee Titans on Monday night, and it will be a bittersweet homecoming for Munchak.

Munchak spent more than 30 years with the Titans organization as a player and a coach.

The Titans, however, fired Munchak last January after he went 22-26 in three seasons as head coach. The Steelers hired Munchak less than a month later and he’s been shaping what has been an improved offensive line since the offseason.

“He’s done a wonderful job making everyone better,” left tackle Kelvin Beachum said. “Even though he played guard, he’s making the tackles better, he’s making the centers better, making everybody more accountable and just bringing us together as a unit.”

Munchak didn’t just play guard during a 12-year career with the franchise that was then the Houston Oilers. Munchak played it well enough to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Those credentials -- and the years he also distinguished himself coaching the offensive line -- made Munchak one of the Steelers’ most significant offseason additions.

And he's been exactly what the Steelers thought they were getting when they hired him -- from the respect he commands from his players to his making them better by emphasizing fundamentals.

“He’s simplified things, made things very easy, very smooth,” right guard David DeCastro said. “Everyone’s on the same page and that’s what you want, all five working as one. He’s just really brought that together.”

Munchak is not a fiery guy – his temperament is probably closest to DeCastro among the players he coaches – but he knows how to motivate the Steelers’ offensive linemen.

“He has a way of poking at me, finding things to kind of push buttons,” Beachum said. “It’s all in fun and games, but it’s also finding a way to get me better.”

When asked for an example of Munchak’s button-pushing, Beachum smiled.

“I’m going to leave that alone,” he said.

His players will largely do the same with questions about how much it would mean to Munchak for the Steelers to beat the Titans.

“Obviously there’s a little extra motivation,” DeCastro said, “but we’re going to play hard regardless.”
LATROBE, Pa. – The Pittsburgh Steelers loved Wesley Johnson’s versatility when they took him in the fifth round of the draft in May, and it might be his ticket to the 53-man roster – just as it was for starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum two years ago.

Johnson has played as many as three different positions during a single practice, and the former Vanderbilt player has impressed offensive line coach Mike Munchak with how he has handled the demands that the Steelers have heaped on him.

“He can handle all of that without being panicky for a young kid,” Munchak said. “He can do a lot of things, so it’s just a matter of seeing how it translates into the preseason game.”

Munchak said Johnson is most comfortable at left tackle, and the 6-foot-5, 297-pound prospect has gotten the most work there.

It will be interesting to see if the Steelers play Johnson solely at left tackle Saturday night against the New York Giants or if they take a look at him at several positions.

Here are some Friday leftovers:
  • Rookie defensive end Stephon Tuitt plays in his first NFL game Saturday night, and count Cameron Heyward among those who are anxious to see how the second-round pick fares. Tuitt is likely to start at left defensive end against the New York Giants, opposite Heyward. "He’s a great talent. A little bit raw, plays a little high sometimes, but that’s something we can work on and correct pretty quick," Heyward said. "I love his demeanor and the way he comes to practice every day. He wants to get better and that’s something you appreciate.”
  • The Steelers have limited Troy Polamalu during tackling drills, and coach Mike Tomlin was asked earlier this week if any thought was given to holding the veteran free safety out of preseason games as a precaution. “I think his mindset and our mindset is probably the same in that he embraces the mindset that comes with checking in with your buddies and your peers and playing,” Tomlin said. “Troy’s going to want to check in and play with his buddies.”
  • Cornerback Cortez Allen has kept a relatively low profile during training camp, but Ike Taylor expects the fourth-year veteran to put everything together this season. “It’s (time) for him to flourish,” Taylor said. “We saw clips on what he could do last year. If he can just put all of that together, he’s that shutdown corner. He has to understand that and I think he knows the responsibility of being a shutdown corner, but we love him. We love his talent. We love his work ethic. We love his personality. We’re expecting a lot of Cortez this year.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- A snapshot from the Pittsburgh Steelers' final practice of the week on Thursday offered a tidy summation of Mike Adams' training camp.

[+] EnlargeMike Adams
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsOne goal for Mike Adams during the preseason is to work on his consistency, says Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak.
Adams, playing right tackle during an 11-on-11 drill, got bull rushed by outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Worilds, the Steelers' best pass-rusher, drove the 6-7, 323-pound Adams back so fast that the play never had a chance.

The sequence added to Adams' struggles and reinforced the perception that Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert are safe as the Steelers' starting tackles.

The challenge the Steelers are hoping Adams creates for a starting job up front has yet to materialize, and the third-year man has seemingly lost ground instead of closing it since the Steelers reported to training camp two weeks ago.

To be fair, Adams has been alternating between left and right tackle since the Steelers will need him to play both if he doesn't beat out Beachum or Gilbert. Also, the competition for jobs doesn't really start until Saturday night when the Steelers visit the New York Giants for the first exhibition for each team.

"What he needs to do is continue to work on his consistency, push (Beachum and Gilbert) and when he plays to play well," Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak said. "Put it in our court how we want to handle it, who are the best five or the best six or the best seven."

It would be charitable to put Adams among the Steelers' best seven offensive linemen through the first 11 practices.

And what has to be disconcerting to the Steelers is the 2012 second-round pick has not shown improvement despite rebounding nicely after losing his starting job at left tackle last season and working with Munchak, who is as good an offensive line coach as there is in the game.

"I think now he's locked into what he needs to do," Munchak said. "He's a young player that has, you hate to use the word potential because obviously it's there, but it's just a matter of can we get it out. Can he do it on a consistent basis."

If anyone can unlock Adams' potential it is Munchak, and the former still has plenty of opportunities to show the Steelers he can be a starter at this level -- or at least a solid No. 3 tackle who can also play tight end in the offense's jumbo package.

I don't believe Adams is in any danger of not making the 53-man roster. But he clearly has to show more if he is going to be a viable contributor this season and a part of the Steelers' long-term future.
LATROBE, Pa. -- His credentials as an offensive line coach are such that Mike Munchak could have easily told his players the first time he met with them as a group they need to do it his way.

No questions asked.

 That Munchak has taken pretty much the opposite approach is one reason why left guard Ramon Foster recently said, “He’s golden with me.”

“The way he comes at you is respectful and makes you want to work for the guy,” Foster said.

Added Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey, “I can’t praise him enough the things he brings to us. He’s the man.”

Munchak, who joined Mike Tomlin’s staff last January, would shrug off such talk -- just as he did in June when asked if he was the Steelers’ most significant offseason addition.

But Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and highly-regarded line coach, clearly has a presence, even when he is just leading his players through drills before the start of practice. That presence, his résumé and his love of teaching form the foundation of a coaching style that is noticeably lacking in volume.

“Our group is like a family. Just like my children I can look at you and I know what you did wrong and you know what you did wrong and we’re good with that,” Munchak said on why he doesn’t go ballistic when one of his players makes a mistakes. “I don’t need to scream so everyone can see that I’m really coaching my guys up. Sometimes I find that coaches will go nuts on a guy and you’ll look at the tape and you were wrong as a coach. The perception is maybe the media watching practice is going that guy’s getting chewed out and the next day I realize, geez, I was wrong. I think you have to be careful.”

That is not to say Munchak is too buddy-buddy with his players or soft on them. He just doesn’t see the point in embarrassing players to get his point across.

“Some guys needs a push, and we’ve had some good talks in our meeting room. We’ve had talks on the field. They get the point,” Munchak said. “That’s how I liked to be coached when I played, and I’ve got to do what’s most comfortable for me because players can tell if ‘I’m real or not.”

That authenticity as well as Munchak’s philosophical approach to coaching is what has really endeared him to his players.

“I’m big on explaining to them the whole picture,” said Munchak, who coached the Oilers/Titans offensive line from 1997-2010 and spent the previous season as the Titans’ head coach. “Here’s what we’re doing, here’s the concept, this is what we believe in, and then they believe in it and they understand the concepts so they can apply it. They appreciate that and they want to see accountability for all of them, not just ‘Hey, Pounce you get a free ride because you guys have been here.’ They see everyone’s getting treated the same way that way.”
LATROBE, Pa. -- A seemingly forgotten linebacker has hit harder than some of the storms that swept through the area during the Pittsburgh Steelers' first week of training camp.

Vince Williams jolted Le'Veon Bell several times during a back-on-'backers drill last Friday night, leading to the first fight of camp. The next day Williams walloped running back Miguel Maysonet and Tauren Poole in separate drills, putting him among the players who have stood out since the pads have gone on and started popping.

"Vince brings a great deal of emotion and intensity to his work. He has that distinguishing characteristic," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He had it at Florida State and it continues. It's a good thing to build his game around."

Williams started 11 games last season following the loss of Larry Foote, and the sixth-round draft pick made significant progress during his rookie campaign. But he opened offseason practices behind rookie first-round pick Ryan Shazier on the depth chart at weakside inside linebacker, and Shazier has only tightened his grip on Williams' former job.

Williams lacks Shazier's speed and athleticism, two attributes that are vital with offenses increasingly spreading out defenses, but man can he deliver a shot. The Steelers will count on Williams doing that in a reserve role at linebacker as well as on special teams.

THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM

1. The Steelers have an abundance of talent at inside linebacker a year after they had to start a player who had previously worked as an insurance adjuster for two games at the position. Williams gives them solid depth inside and Sean Spence looks like he will contribute two years after suffering a career-threatening knee injury. The Steelers are so deep at inside linebacker that Terence Garvin, who played 15 games as a rookie last season, will have to battle to make the team. One of the final roster spots could come down to Garvin and rookie sixth-round pick Jordan Zumwalt.

[+] EnlargeVince Williams
Jason Bridge/USA TODAY SportsSecond-year linebacker Vince Williams has made an impact during Steelers training camp this summer.
2. Ben Roethlisberger has looked sharp and focused despite talk swirling around him about his contract situation and former teammate Emmanuel Sanders' claim that Peyton Manning is a far better leader than Roethlisberger. Sanders, who is now with the Denver Broncos, might reassess his evaluation if he watched Roethlisberger for a couple of days during training camp. The 11th-year quarterback has been coaching the Steelers' wide receiver as much as he has been throwing to them, barking at them if they run a wrong or sloppy route or drop a ball, but also praising them when they make a good play. He has also stayed after practice to throw to his receivers.

3. The offensive line has a chance to be really good if it can stay relatively healthy. The Steelers already appear to be set with their starting five, and that group can use camp and the preseason games to work together on the new technique and schemes the line is learning from new position coach Mike Munchak. The line, which returns four starters from 2013 as well as Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey from a knee injury, has taken to the coaching of Munchak. It has also taken personally that the Steelers averaged just 86.4 rushing yards per game last season. One of the offensive line's goals this season is for the Steelers to rank among the NFL's top 10 teams in rushing.

THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM

1. Running back LeGarrette Blount's on-field behavior has been a little unsettling, and you have to wonder if the raw emotion that he couldn't check when he dived onto Vince Williams during the first fight of camp will resurface if he doesn't get the ball enough during the regular season. Bell is entrenched as the starter and he is clearly the better all-around back then Blount. The Steelers also want to get speedy rookie Dri Archer involved in the running game. How many carries that leaves for Blount remains to be seen. If he becomes unhappy with his role in the offense that could become an issue.

2. Groin injuries haven't become an epidemic but they have been an issue at camp and cost several players valuable practice time. New starting free safety Mike Mitchell, who arrived at camp with a groin injury, has yet to practice and he needs to develop a good on-field rapport with strong safety Troy Polamalu. The two did not practice together much during the offseason since Polamalu skipped the voluntary organized team activities (OTAs) and it has to be at least a small concern to the Steelers that they have yet to work together in camp. Jordan Zumwalt also missed significant practice time with a groin injury stunting his development. Zumwalt has a real chance to make the 53-man roster, but after missing OTAs because UCLA's school year hadn't ended, the sixth-round pick needs to get as many repetitions as he can during camp.

[+] EnlargePittsburgh's Antonio Brown
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsAntonio Brown, who caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season, has been a popular target for Ben Roethlisberger during training camp.
3. Roethlisberger seems to be targeting Antonio Brown a lot during 11-on-11 drills, which is understandable considering the latter caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards last season. But Brown is going to need some help this season to keep defenses from throwing all kind of coverages his way. The reality is that the young wideouts who have looked so promising in camp have yet to prove themselves at this level. The Steelers will probably feel a lot more at ease about their wide receivers if Markus Wheaton and Justin Brown, among others, flash in preseason games instead of just practice.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Rookie outside linebacker Howard Jones has helped himself through the early part of camp. Jones, who signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, has stood out during back-on-'backers drills, and last Friday night he twice beat tight end Heath Miller. "He has a chance to be a player," a veteran Steelers player said of Jones.
  • One of the young running backs is going to emerge and make the 53-man roster and my guess is it is either Tauren Poole or Miguel Maysonet. Both have had their moments running the ball, though special teams may be the biggest consideration as far as who the Steelers keep as a fourth running back.
  • Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is making the team. The question is will the Steelers essentially redshirt him during his rookie season by deactivating him for games. The answer at this time last week would have probably been yes. But Bryant has come on after a slow start to camp and the Steelers could badly use a 6-4 wide receiver inside the 20-yard line. Bryant dominated a red zone drill late last week.
  • The Steelers are through the grind of camp. They are off today following six consecutive days of practice, and they will only practice two more times this week before holding a walk through for their first preseason game. After playing the New York Giants on Saturday night, the Steelers will practice four more times at St. Vincent College before breaking camp.

PITTSBURGH -- He still uses his GPS to make his way around Pittsburgh, but rookie inside linebacker Ryan Shazier didn’t need nearly as much navigational assistance when he was on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields in late May and June.

Shazier started alongside Lawrence Timmons from the outset of offseason practices, and he looked anything but lost despite learning a new defense on the run.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Joe Sargent/Getty ImagesRookie linebacker Ryan Shazier was a star in minicamp, but will his progress continue when the pads come on?
“He understands concepts very well,” linebackers coach Keith Butler said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick. “He reminds me a lot of Larry Foote in terms of football intelligence, and he’s a very sharp guy.”

Not that Shazier will be exempt from the requisite rookie growing pains. Or that Butler wouldn’t prefer the Steelers easing the former Ohio State All-American into the NFL.

That is not an option in large part because Shazier’s speed and playmaking ability are both badly needed on a defense that slipped appreciably last season. Shazier, the Steelers’ most significant addition during the offseason, made it look easy at times during offseason practices. He turned in a couple of breathtaking plays, including a leaping interception of a pass that backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski thought he could throw over Shazier in the middle of the field.

The caveat with how good Shazier has looked: the 6-1, 237-pounder has only practiced with the Steelers in shorts. That changes Monday, when the Steelers don the pads at training camp following two non-contact practices.

If Shazier makes the same kind of progress at camp as he did during offseason drills he will start Sept. 7 in the season opener against the visiting Browns.

Here are the four other significant additions that the Steelers made during the offseason.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak. The Steelers have too often fielded suspect offensive lines under coach Mike Tomlin, though constant injuries up front haven’t helped. A line that came together in the second half of last season will start a pair of former first-round draft picks and two second-round selections. Nobody is more qualified to bring the group together then Munchak. There are no excuses this season -- unless mass injuries consistently scramble the line.

S Mike Mitchell. As with Shazier, the Steelers added speed and a playmaker when they signed Mitchell to a five-year, $25 million contract in March. They badly needed both elements on the back end of their defense, and Mitchell will be a significant upgrade over Ryan Clark at free safety. He has aspirations of becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the Steelers would love to see Mitchell achieve that goal in Pittsburgh.

RB/WR Dri Archer. The Steelers added a bolt of lightning to their offense when they drafted the ultra-fast Archer in the third round. He will return kickoffs and could allow the Steelers to relieve Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown of his duties as the primary punt returner. Archer’s speed and versatility gives offensive coordinator Todd Haley the kind of player he can use to exploit mismatches. If Archer is Chris Rainey 2.0 the Steelers will be more than happy with the investment they have made in the former Kent State star.

OLB Arthur Moats. The former Buffalo Bill has starting experience and versatility and gives the Steelers a promising option should there be injuries or ineffective play at outside linebacker. Moats can also play inside, though the Steelers are pretty deep there, and he is expected to establish himself as a core special-teams player. The importance of depth in the NFL can't be overstated, and the Steelers improved themselves in that area with the signing of Moats.
PITTSBURGH -- As excited as the Steelers’ offensive linemen are by the addition of Mike Munchak, their enthusiasm may be trumped by someone else at team headquarters.

[+] EnlargeTennessee's Mike Munchak
AP Photo/Wade PayneNew Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak has used his head coach and Hall of Fame player experience to make a great early impression.
“Really nobody was happier when Coach [Mike] Tomlin, Kevin Colbert and Mr. [Dan] Rooney were able to pull off getting him to come on board," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said of the Steelers' new offensive line coach. "He’s a great teacher. He’s great at what he does, the best in the league in my opinion. He seamlessly transitioned into our staff. He's a stud.”

Haley and Munchak join Dick LeBeau as three former NFL head coaches on Tomlin’s staff, giving it some heft. And Haley has good reason to be thrilled that Munchak will mentor and mold the Steelers’ offensive line this season.

The line came together at the end of last season and is still young with left guard Ramon Foster, who is only 28, the oldest projected starter up front. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns after missing most of last season with a torn ACL, and the line will be counted on to keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright and open holes for running backs Le'Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer.

Stellar offensive line play has often eluded the Steelers during Tomlin’s tenure, and some of that can be blamed on injuries. But with Munchak, a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard, pulling everything together, the Steelers’ line could be poised to lead the way for an offense that averaged just under 28 points in its final eight games of 2013.

“Not all great players are great coaches, but he’s definitely one of those great players that transitioned into being a great coach,” Haley said. “The head-coaching experience is a benefit because he doesn’t just see it from his position group or his perspective. He sees the big picture, which I take pride in doing, having been there. He is a very good teacher that believes in hard work, like we all do.

"Great players want to be coached. They want to be pushed to see how good they can be, and these guys are eating it up.”

Mike Munchak embraces fresh start

July, 1, 2014
7/01/14
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PITTSBURGH -- Mike Munchak will take expansively about a lot of things, from what the return of Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey means to the Steelers’ offensive line to the competition at tackle that will take place at training camp.

Just don’t ask the Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and highly respected offensive line coach if he is the most significant free agent signing for the Steelers since the end of the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeMike Munchak
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsAs far as the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive linemen are concerned, Tennessee's loss of Mike Munchak is their gain.
“I don’t know,” said Munchak, who joined coach Mike Tomlin’s staff in January in what was widely viewed as a coup for the Steelers. “I just think it’s exciting for all of us. We have a fresh start for me, a fresh start for the linemen, a new way of looking at things (and) fresh eyes on what they’ve been doing and they’ve been successful. These guys are very prideful. They’re very excited about the opportunities.

“I think they’re seeing the skill around them, the plays that we can make down the field and they’re excited knowing that our big play is giving Ben (Roethlisberger) an extra second to throw a football or opening a hole. So I think together it’s going to be fun. It’s been fun for me so far me and I’m hoping that they’re enjoying it, too.”

No one is more qualified than Munchak to help an offensive line that is young and has shown promise get to the next level. He will be entering his 33rd season in the NFL as a player or a coach, and he has excelled as both an offensive lineman and an offensive line coach.

Munchak spent the previous three seasons as the Tennessee Titans’ head coach. When the Titans organization removed him from that position the Steelers moved quickly to bring the Scranton native and former Penn State All-American back to Pennsylvania.

His new players have raved about Munchak and they seemed to hang on his every word during offseason practices. Here are three observations Munchak made near the end of offseason practices:

  • On Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro: “They’re smart football players and they adjust to things quickly. They have great vision, and that’s the things I’m learning now is what they are good at. What can they see when their hand is on the ground (and) under stress? Those type of things. I inherited a really good young group that wants to be the best, and that’s very fun to be part of.”
  • On the competition at tackle: “I think the best thing an offensive coach can have is competition, and I think we have that. We have Kelvin Beachum and Mike Adams and Marcus Gilbert. I think you got some guys that can really do some good things, and again I’m asking them to do different things than they’ve done in the past. They’ve had three line coaches in three years so everything is not going to change overnight and what we want to do.”
  • On the Steelers’ depth at tackle: “Mike has been playing both sides. He’s been the one pushing on both sides, so we’ll see. Guy Whimper has been, obviously, the fourth guy. We’ve got four veteran tackles. We’re going to have some good football players and some tough decisions.”
PITTSBURGH -- An offensive line in which the Pittsburgh Steelers invested heavily in recent NFL drafts appeared to come together in the second half of last season.

The Steelers allowed just 11 sacks in the final eight games of 2013 and averaged 99.3 rushing yards in those contests. The latter hardly represents a robust number, but it is a significant jump from the Steelers’ overall rushing yards per game last season (86.4). And the Steelers averaged 125.7 rushing yards in winning their final three games and nearly sneaking into the playoffs.

Foster
To borrow a favorite Mike Tomlin cliché, the arrow is pointing up for the offensive line, especially since Pro Bowler Maurkice Pouncey looks fantastic after coming back from a torn ACL.

Just don’t tell left guard Ramon Foster that.

“It’s nothing right now,” Foster said of the Steelers' offensive line, “and I say that in the sense that (the group’s potential) has been talked about the last few years. The talent is there, but if we come out here and (falter) we’ll be saying the same thing next year. You can’t just say because we have the high-round talent or guys that have experience that it’s supposed to be special. We’ve got to make it that way.”

That is exactly the kind of talk Tomlin wants to hear as no one should assume anything when it comes to the Steelers following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

There is, however, a lot to like about the line.

At least on paper.

The group is experienced but also young -- Foster, who turned 28 in January, is the oldest projected starter -- and it has better depth than in recent years.

The Steelers also have the perfect coach to pull everything together up front in Mike Munchak.

Munchak is a Pro Football Hall of Fame guard and his credentials as an offensive line coach are impeccable.

To say his new players have embraced Munchak is an understatement.

“Being around him now you see his reputation is exactly what you’ve heard,” Foster said, “and his knowledge of the game and the way he treats each player separately as far as his ability to do stuff you can see the quality of the coaching he brings. Everything you’ve heard is true.”

That does not necessarily apply to talk that the Steelers’ offensive line will be a strength in 2014.

At least not yet.

“We have to make it happen,” Foster said, “so to say this line is this or that, we’ve got to put in the work first.”
The oddsmakers at Bovada don’t like the Pittsburgh Steelers' chances of making significant improvement in 2014.

The online sports book set the Steelers’ over/under win total for 2014 at 8.5 following consecutive 8-8 seasons.

First: Breathe, people. Second, we are still more than three months away from the start of the regular season, so these odds are nothing more than something to talk about and debate.

Since the Steelers are undefeated right now, I will stick with my optimistic projection of 10 wins in 2014.

Bet on this at your own risk, but there are plenty of reasons to think the Steelers will go over 8.5 wins. Among them:
  • You always have a chance in the NFL if you have a quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger is still in the prime of his career and playing at a high level. He will operate behind his best offensive line since early in his career. And it’s hard not to like the skill players Roethlisberger has around him if wide receiver Markus Wheaton makes the jump the Steelers expect this season.
  • The defense will be better in 2014. The Steelers added speed with the additions of free safety Mike Mitchell and linebacker Ryan Shazier. Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones will emerge as an impact player in his second season, and Steve McLendon will assert himself at nose tackle with a year of starting there under his belt.
  • The Steelers, who haven’t traveled long distances well under coach Mike Tomlin, don’t play west of the Mississippi River this season, and they only play one game outside of their time zone. The schedule sets up nicely for them.

Too optimistic? Perhaps, and here is what could go wrong:
  • The offensive line never seems to stay healthy, and while Mike Munchak might be the best offensive line coach in the NFL, wholesale injuries would make his job significantly harder. The Steelers do appear to be better equipped to deal with injuries up front given their depth, but it would be nice if they can develop continuity by staying relatively healthy.
  • The defense could depend on too many young players. Shazier looks great playing inside linebacker in shorts -- OTAs are one thing, training camp quite another. Also, defensive end Stephon Tuitt will probably have to play significant snaps, and the nuances of his position are not easy for a young player to learn.

Here is how the Steelers compare with their division rivals, according to Bovada:

Over/under win totals
Bengals: 9
Steelers: 8.5
Ravens: 8.5
Browns: 6.5

Odds to win the AFC North
Bengals: 2-1
Steelers: 2-1
Ravens: 5-2
Browns: 5-1

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