Labriola On

Labriola on Sarrett, boss' orders, cans

Ready or not, here it comes:

• It never made any sense to hear complaining through the early part of this season about Minkah Fitzpatrick being too anonymous, but after his pick-six sent the Browns spiraling downward to what ended up being a 38-7 rout, that should be over.

• There's another individual on the Steelers sideline who has been toiling in anonymity throughout this regular season, and not only is he reveling in it but it also proves Mike Tomlin did the right thing when he hired him for the job.

• When Shaun Sarrett was named to replace Mike Munchak as the Steelers offensive line coach following the 2018 season, he was thrust into the spotlight as a relative unknown being tabbed to follow one of the most well-known and well-liked assistant coaches of the Tomlin era.

• Today, Sarrett remains largely unknown outside of the offensive line room inside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, but in his profession that's a good thing because there is nothing so prized among offensive linemen as anonymity.

• Munchak was known for his ability to developing relative unknowns into quality NFL starters, and those individuals came to be known as Munch's Millionaires for the contracts they subsequently signed, either with the Steelers (Alejandro Villanueva) or with other teams after leaving as unrestricted free agents (Chris Hubbard).

• Sarrett doesn't have the cachet of being a Hall of Fame player before becoming a coach, and he hasn't been on the job long enough to have transformed guys from journeymen into millionaires, but what he has done since being hired is show that he was deserving of being hired, that he belongs in the NFL as an offensive line coach.

• Munchak left the Steelers after the 2018 season, and I'm throwing out 2019 in evaluating Sarrett because the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger six quarters into the regular season with no notion ahead of time that his right elbow was about to snap like a guitar string. Any criticism of the offense has to be viewed through the prism of that injury and the subsequent liberties opposing defenses could take they never would have considered had Roethlisberger been the quarterback.

• The running game, for example. Once Roethlisberger was out of the lineup last year, a simple remedy seemed to involve running the football more often and more effectively, but opponents quickly decided they were not going to allow that to happen. Week after week the Steelers saw opponents stacking the box and crowding the line of scrimmage in ways they never would have considered with Roethlisberger in the lineup.

• But anyway, the offensive line and its coach took a lot of criticism for the running game being stymied when in reality there wasn't much that realistically could have been done to meet the expectations created by the successes of the 2018 season.

• So far in 2020, Sarrett's offensive line has had to adjust to the loss of its starting right tackle and its primary interior backup, with both Zach Banner (ACL) and Stefen Wisniewski (pectoral) injured in the opener and landing on injured reserve. While Banner is done for the year, Wisniewski has a chance to return to the active roster in a couple of weeks. Also, All-Pro right guard David DeCastro has played 102 of the approximately 400 offensive snaps so far this season.

• Chuks Okorafor replaced Banner seamlessly at right tackle, and rookie Kevin Dotson has filled in for DeCastro at right guard, if not at an All-Pro level then certainly at the level of a legitimate NFL starter.

• And the Steelers are developing nicely as an offense. James Conner has three 100-yard games, and Benny Snell has one. The Steelers are ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game and are averaging 4.3 per attempt. Roethlisberger has been sacked eight times in five games, and the Steelers are fourth in the NFL in points per game.

• Sarrett is known throughout the organization as a hard worker, detailed and thorough, a first-in-last-out kind of guy on a daily basis. He started with the Steelers as a quality control coach, then worked his way up to assistant offensive line coach. When he was tabbed by Mike Tomlin to replace Munchak, there were many in the organization who were happy with the decision because it showed others that hard work and dedication can pay off when openings within the staff present themselves.

• One of the hallmarks of a quality NFL offensive line coach is his ability to get guys ready to play, and get them ready in a short period of time. Sarrett has done that with Dotson, a rookie who came into the league during a pandemic year that included no offseason program or preseason, and for Dotson it also was a year that had him miss a good bit of training camp with a knee injury.

• Shaun Sarrett isn't Mike Munchak. But he's growing into a quality NFL offensive line coach whose unit is prepared, disciplined, and able to adapt to the typical things an NFL season will present. He was worthy of being hired, and he has done a good job since he was.

• No matter what the job description, it's always a good career move to listen to the boss. If you're a Steelers fan, listening to the team's president is a good way to know what's on the immediate horizon for your favorite football team.

• Not too long after each season is over, Steelers President Art Rooney II will do something of a media tour during which he takes questions and offers his opinions and insights into the most recently completed season and the possible direction the team will take as it heads into the upcoming season.

• In the recent past, Rooney has used these sessions to point out a desire to do a better job of protecting Ben Roethlisberger and maybe adjusting his style of play to lengthen his career; he has mentioned a need to shore up the back end of the team's defense; and in January 2020 Rooney's point was that the Steelers have to be more effective running the football.

• When Bruce Arians coordinated an offense that had Roethlisberger sacked an average of 43 times a season and said publicly he would never ask him to adjust his style, a change was made, and sacks have dropped to an average of 28 per season over the last eight seasons. Roethlisberger still is playing at age 38 and looking as good as ever.

• Shoring up the back end of the defense resulted in the signing of unrestricted free agent cornerback Steven Nelson and pulling the trigger on an in-season trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick that left the Steelers without a first-round draft choice for the first time in over 50 years.

• As for the edict for the offense to become more effective running the football: Through five games the Steelers are ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, they had a 100-yard rusher in four of their first five games, and they have used the running game to close out victories.

• The first appearance was at Saint Vincent College during the years when Kevin Gilbride served as the offensive coordinator on Bill Cowher's staff for the 1999-2000 seasons. A 55-gallon plastic garbage can was brought out and placed along the sideline of one of the practice fields. About 40 yards away, the quarterbacks assembled with Gilbride (at the time Cowher had the offensive coordinator also serve as the quarterbacks coach), and standing close to the middle of the field would take turns lofting the football with the idea of dropping it into the garbage can.

• It became a regular part of the individual work the quarterbacks would do, and since then the drill – with the can – has been resurrected by Todd Haley and most recently, by Randy Fichtner.

• The supposed purpose of the drill, besides entertaining fans lined along the hillside and seated in the stands at Chuck Noll Field, is to allow quarterbacks to work on the accuracy of their deep balls. With Ben Roethlisberger having talked about being displeased with his accuracy on deep balls this season as he continues to work himself back into form following elbow surgery in 2019, the garbage can made an appearance last week at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

• Roethlisberger was asked about it during his weekly Zoom call with the media: "Did practicing with the garbage cans last week at practice help you with your deep balls Sunday (against the Browns)?"

• He answered: "I only hit one can I think, so at least I completed more on Sunday. It's just little things I've kind of talked about each week, something I wanted to work on. What better time than at practice to drill some things – footwork, deep ball things? I'll just continue to try and get better. I don't ever want to get worse, obviously. I want to try and find little ways and things I can do to keep improving my game."

• Bill Nunn never was a fan of the drill. He believed the best way to hone accuracy on deep balls to wide receivers was to work with actual flesh-and-blood human beings.

• Once when Nunn saw me intently watching Gilbride conduct the drill at Saint Vincent College, he walked over, stood next to me, and said, "When you practice throwing the ball into a garbage can, the only thing you get good at is throwing the ball into a garbage can."

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