One day after being hired as the Steelers offensive line coach, Jack Bicknell Jr. already was digging into the task of replacing Sean Kugler. There were meetings with Mike Tomlin, with offensive coordinator Todd Haley, even with General Manager Kevin Colbert with the team preparing for the scouting combine and then the NFL Draft, but Bicknell still took a few minutes out of his day to talk with Bob Labriola.
Q. Do you have a philosophy as an offensive line coach?
A. First of all, it's about making sure you have players of great character. I believe the offensive line is the foundation for the football team. They've got to have good character, they've got to be tough because it's a tough man's game and I believe that starts up front. You need to get guys with character who are tough and have a great work ethic – and by that I mean the guys are on time, prepare harder than everyone else, and serve an example for the rest of the football team. Then when you take the field, they've got to be the example of toughness.
Q. How would you describe good offensive line play?
A. It's a combination of all the things I just said. They have to be very smart, because there's a lot going on. You have five guys who have to be able to mesh together, work together, and it's one area where you really have to be able to adjust on the fly. The opponent could start out in one defense, shift into another, guys walking around, whatever. You have to prepare, and then you have to be big enough and athletic enough to get the job done, which these days can be difficult. You have these huge three-technique defensive tackles, so you need some good size so as not to be overwhelmed, but you also have to be athletic enough and be able to move your feet to match up with those great athletes on defense.
Q. After a game, is there a statistic that tells you the offensive line played well?
A. Rushing yardage. I always look to that. The protection stuff will take care of itself, but if you're able to run the ball at people then that opens up everything else – you have the play-action game, you're not in third-and-13 all day. The biggest thing I want to be able to do is run the football.
Q. Is there a specific number that's the dividing line between good-enough and needs-to-get-better?
A. You would love to get 5 yards a carry. That would be great. But what's more important is how many yards did you gain on that team? Did you gain 250 yards? That's a pretty good day. Did you gain 50 yards? That's not good enough. There's a lot that goes into the stats, such as a back could have one long run and the rest of the time you're getting your butt kicked. But if you can walk off that field and know that we just dominated the opponent physically, that is the most important stat.
Q. What does it take to run the football successfully in the NFL?
A. You have to be multiple. You can't do just one thing. You have to have some different schemes. The running back, obviously, is a big part of it. You could block like crazy, and if you don't have a good back then you're going to struggle. And then you have to have a cohesive unit – five guys up front all working together who really believe in being able to run the football. If you have enough in your scheme that you can present the defense with different problems, and then you have five guys working together up front – and then let's face it, those five guys have to be talented.
Q. You have mentioned that the offensive line has to be made up of talented guys. Is there a skill-set you look for at each individual position – tackles, guards and centers?
A. The tackles have to have some length, and they have to be slightly better athletes than the other guys. You cannot have a tackle these days who can't move his feet. That's because of the guys they're blocking – you can't have Von Miller coming off the edge and not be able to move your feet. Then because the next week you might go against a player who is bigger and stronger, the tackles have to be able to match up against all types. Tackles have to have some length, long arms, be able to move their feet, almost like a basketball player out there playing football. The guards have to be more stout, wide, have some mass to them, and have toughness. Haloti Ngata comes to mind, and as a guard you have to be able to line up against him, so you have to have strength in your hips and legs, and be able to bend and squat and play with leverage. Center is similar to a guard, but he has to be a real smart guy, because he's the quarterback of the offensive line. They set the protection scheme, run and pass, for everybody. But all you need to do is look at Maurkice Pouncey and figure out what you want in a center.
Q. What do you know about the group of offensive linemen that you will be inheriting here?
A. I'm just about to start looking at some real tape. When I was with some other teams, I studied and wrote up Maurkice Pouncey, and then I also traveled and worked out David DeCastro and Mike Adams. I feel pretty familiar with those guys. The rest of the guys, I really haven't delved into the tape yet. In general, I think it's a very talented group with a lot of young guys, a lot of guys who still need to develop and mature into NFL offensive linemen. I'm very excited about them. I know it's a very close-knit group. All of the things I've talked about earlier, I think this group has.
Q. League-wide, do you think offensive linemen are too big?
A. You can get too big. Then again, it's not about being too big, it's about not being able to move. I don't necessarily like those guys who get huge and then they can't bend and move. And mainly it comes down to the run game, because sometimes those real big guys can stay in front of people and make them run around you, but if you cannot cut off on the back side of a run play, or you don't have the quickness to go and reach somebody, you start to get limited in the run game. I want to be able to have guys who can move, run, and have some quickness off the ball to be able to get into people.
Q. There are zone-blocking teams, cut-blocking teams, different styles for different teams. Do you have a style?
A. You have to be able to be multiple. It depends on what you have offensively and what you're facing defensively. Each game plan, each week, is different. With the Giants, we were more of a gap-scheme with big physical guys running power, and then when I got to Kansas City, we were more athletic, could move better and we had a running back who loved the outside-zone plays. A couple of things factor into this: what type of guys do you have up front, and also what type of running back do you have? If you have a big, physical back, you might tend more toward inside-zone and gap-scheme stuff, but if you have a back who can threaten the edge, that would open up more zone-scheme stuff. There are a lot of ways to go about it, but you have to know what you have on your team personnel-wise while also looking at the particular defense you'll be playing. Then you figure out what's going to work.
Q. Ben Roethlisberger is a franchise quarterback, which is a good thing, but it also means that he absolutely must be kept healthy for the team to have any chance at real success. Does that create a different mind-set for the offensive linemen?
A. It's that mind-set everywhere. If you're an offensive lineman, your job is to protect that guy. I always talk about how important the run game is, but protecting that quarterback is our No. 1 job. That's what we have to take deadly serious. I will tell my guys that if you're going to mess something up in the run game, I don't want that, but at least the running back is used to trying to make a play and might be able to make a guy miss. But we can't mess anything up in pass protection. You can't make a mistake. You can't use poor technique and get beat right now. That's something you have to ingrain in the offensive line. We take pride in making sure that guy stays upright, and we're going to do everything we can, scheme-wise and technique-wise, to make sure that happens.