If the goal is to have an offensive line that is tough and resilient in the face of adversity, one that is versatile and willing to work through whatever might come its way to get the job done, and if you believe that a unit is an extension of its position coach, then Sean Kugler is the man for the job.
The job in question is offensive line coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and the job came open last January because Mike Tomlin wasn't satisfied. In the NFL, when that's the case, changes are made.
During Tomlin's three seasons as the Steelers' coach so far, the team has ranked third, 23rd and 19th in the NFL in rushing, and the quarterbacks were sacked 47, 49 and 50 times. When the team missed the playoffs one year after winning the sixth Super Bowl championship in franchise history, Tomlin took action to address the situation.
"We have to be world championship caliber, and I felt we needed an upgrade in the production at the position," said Tomlin about his decision to make a change there. "A lot of times those changes include players and coaches, and it's a necessary part of this business."
Enter Kugler, a veteran of eight seasons as an NFL assistant, who has been around long enough to realize why he was hired and long enough to understand what will happen to him if the situation doesn't improve under his tutelage.
"You just try to put your own stamp on it," said Kugler about replacing Larry Zierlein. "I'm going to give this organization my best, and I'm confident I can do the job. And I know that if I don't do the job, there will be similar results and I understand that going into it. I want to give this organization my best daily, and in the end hope that it's good enough to be efficient as an offensive line and help the team win."
Since being hired, Kugler has spent a good bit of time familiarizing himself with the team's personnel, and what it can – and maybe more importantly – what it cannot do. This process can be expected to continue through training camp, and very possibly into the regular season because only games that count in the standings can reveal what individuals or units truly are all about.
"It's unique," said Kugler about the group of offensive linemen he inherited. "They're not older veterans, in their eighth or ninth years, but they're not rookies either. They've played some football together. You can see they're a close-knit group by interacting with them in the classroom. They pull for each other, and that's probably the first step. They do have some chemistry, and we need to build upon that. There are some unique individual talents, and as a staff we need to figure out the best way to use those talents. I think it's a group that is going to get better. They're willing to work, open to new ideas and willing to give new ideas. And I'm willing to listen to them."
From 2008 to 2009, the Steelers returned four of the five starters along the offensive front, with the lone exception coming as a result of Darnell Stapleton landing on injured reserve and being replace by Trai Essex. From last season to this one, the Steelers return all seven of the players who regularly dressed on game days, and so turnover isn't an issue at this time.
And coming from Buffalo, Kugler has an understanding of turnover to a degree that many in his profession don't and never care to experience.
Because of injuries and some questionable personnel decisions by then-Bills coach Dick Jauron, the team started seven different tackle tandems through the course of the season and nine different offensive line combinations over 16 games. Their starting tackles during the season included Kirk Chambers, who originally was cut by the Bills when the roster was reduced to 53 in early September, Jonathan Scott and rookie Jamon Meredith, who was signed off Green Bay's practice squad. Buffalo also had another rookie practice squad tackle who was supposed to start the Week 16 game at Atlanta – Andre Ramsey – but he injured his calf in practice that week and could not play.
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) who were considered the team's best blockers. One of the guys who ended up filling in for the Bills was former Steelers No. 1 pick Kendall Simmons, and he vouched for Kugler's abilities as a coach without being asked.
And through it all – the injuries, the trades, the firing of the offensive coordinator on the eve of the regular season opener, the revolving door at quarterback – Bills running back Fred Jackson finished with 1,062 yards rushing and a 4.5 average.
"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," said Kugler about the experience of 2009. "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."
Sean Kugler recently took some time to address some other issues for Steelers.com:
Q. Do you have a philosophy as an offensive line coach?
A. With the players and myself, I believe in hard work. I believe in communication. 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 Sundays. 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 complete and play for each other. I think chemistry is a big thing in the offensive line.
Q. How would you describe what constitutes good offensive line play?
A. Guys who play smart football. Limited assignment errors. Guys who play physical. Guys who finish to the whistle. Guys who can compete, and then fight every play to keep their defender off the running back or the quarterback. Collectively, if they're all doing that as a group, you have a pretty efficient offensive line.
Q. Is good offensive line play reflected in any particular statistics?
A. Probably every coach would tell you they don't look at statistics, and to be honest with you, I don't either. I look more at efficiency. Are we running the ball efficiently? Are we putting ourselves in consistent third-and-short, makeable downs, or are we getting 1-yard gains and then we're sitting there in a third-and-long where it's tough sledding as an offensive line and as an offensive football team? So, it's efficiency in the run game, and protecting the quarterback, or more accurately, eliminating unnecessary hits on the quarterback. There are going to be sacks, or some protections where there's a hot-throw where a guy is left unblocked, but as many times as we can take away an unnecessary hit off the quarterback due to our technique or our scheme, we can take pride in that.
Q. What does it take to run the ball successfully in the NFL?
A. Some things have changed, because you're seeing a lot more movement and a lot more stunting up front, a lot more interchanging of personnel, like we see with teams like Baltimore and the New York Jets. You have to be able to adapt to that, but basically what it comes down to is getting a hat-on-a-hat and playing lower than the defender and having the desire to finish. All that comes from within, and it also comes from drilling that and letting players know that is what's expected.
Q. Does it come down to an attitude?
A. Certainly. When it comes to fourth-and-1, it's a mind-set. It's something where you have to want to win that battle, and since it usually comes down to you either get it or the other team stuffs you, it does come down to attitude. Certainly more than any other aspect of football, running the ball is certainly an attitude.
Q. What about the ability to run the ball at the times in a game when the opponent is expecting the offense to run the ball?
A. It comes down to efficiency. You have to be efficient in every area, whether it's third-and-1 and you need to make the first down, or whether you need just one first down at the end to close out the game. Having players understand football, having them be aware that in those situations – say, we're in the red zone so there's going to be an extra defender down in the box, or maybe with four minutes left in a game the opponent may have a goal-line defense in there to do anything desperate to stop the run. Understanding those situations gives them a better idea, so they can just play confident. When an offensive line is playing confident and just rolling off the ball, that's when they're excited.