By Bob Labriola – Steelers Digest
One in a series of stories previewing Steelers Training Camp, presented by Xfinity.
Since Coach Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007, the team's quarterbacks have been sacked an average of 48.7 times per season, and the running attack has become increasingly ineffective in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Tomlin responded last January by changing offensive line coaches, and now it's Sean Kugler who will be working most closely with a unit that everyone acknowledges will have to play well for the team to return to the playoffs this season.
As Tomlin dismissed the team at the end of OTAs in mid-June, the offensive line seemed to be a group with enough quality components to give Kugler a chance to form a unit that would allow the offense to do the things it needed to do at the stages of games when they needed to be done.
Then came the last week of June, and two pieces of news. The bad news was that rookie Chris Scott broke a bone in his foot and likely was going to miss all of training camp. The worse news was that Willie Colon injured an Achilles and following surgery would be lost for the season.
All of a sudden, the depth chart at tackle was paper-thin at a point of the NFL calendar where there's no such thing as quality players out on the street just waiting to be signed.
Losing Colon and Scott certainly makes the job more difficult, but in Kugler the Steelers have a position coach who is familiar with the process of dealing with these kinds of situations. In Buffalo last season, Kugler coached an offensive line that started seven different tackle tandems through the course of the season and nine different offensive line combinations over 16 games. By season's end, the Bills had five offensive linemen on the injured reserve list – two tackles and three guards – along with their two starting tight ends (Derek Schouman and Derek Fine).
Former Steelers guard Kendall Simmons was signed by the Bills on a Tuesday during the season and started for the team the following Sunday. During the process that led to the Steelers' hiring of Kugler, Simmons, without being asked, contacted the team and vouched for Kugler.
"The guys I really felt bad for were the players," said Kugler about that 2009 season in Buffalo. "I give them a lot of credit, because they hung tough and kept competing. We ended up putting a bunch of guys on IR, and a lot of them were guys who played, so we had other guys who had to step in. It was a learning experience, because each week preparing a new guy to play forced you to come up with creative ways to get guys to understand. It taught me a lot. It taught me to stay focused and keep working and don't ever let the players see frustration so they don't get frustrated themselves."
The Steelers have a number of solid veterans in their locker room who have won championships together recently, and so there's little danger of an emotional implosion resulting from a couple of pre-camp injuries to right tackles. Now it falls to Kugler and the players remaining on the depth chart to figure it out.
There are some options to explore, and the one fortunate aspect to this is they will have all of camp to do so. Just throwing some out there, in no particular order:
Max Starks could be moved to right tackle, where he started all 20 games on the way to the victory in Super Bowl XL, with Trai Essex moved to left tackle, where all of his five career starts have come. Or, Jonathan Scott, who started nine games for the Bills last season, could step in at right tackle. Or maybe it's Ramon Foster, who started 27 games at right tackle in college at Tennessee. Or maybe it's something or someone else altogether.
"With the players and myself, I believe in hard work. I believe in communication," said Kugler. "I think there has to be communication in the meeting room that needs to carry over onto the practice field that needs to carry over to Sunday. There needs to be a strong work ethic installed within the players, and I'm a believer in guys who are going to go and compete and play for each other. I think chemistry is a big thing in the offensive line."
The Saint Vincent College campus will be Kugler's chemistry lab starting on July 30, and the first test comes on Sept. 12 against the Atlanta Falcons at Heinz Field.
"Each guy is going to have his own physical attributes," said Kugler. "As a coach you have to try to play to his strengths. More so, if a guy can't do something, it's not in my best interests to try to force it. If he has a unique talent – a very talented puller, or a physical guy – you probably want him pulling or at the point of attack. Some lines are a little more athletic, others are more come-off-the-ball, zone-type blockers. As a coach, you have to identify your strengths, just like you do individually."
In between now and the start of the regular season, Kugler understands not every experiment in the lab is going to be a success and there will be criticism for the ones that aren't.
"You gotta have thick skin to play in the NFL, to coach in the NFL," said Kugler. "There's going to be criticism. I certainly hope these guys aren't reading the papers or listening to what's said about them, because then they're not focusing on what they really need to focus on. That criticism can be lessened or eliminated by playing efficient football all the time, and that's what we're going to strive for."