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5 for Friday: Tomlin sees added value to Smith on staff

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has had a variety of assistant coaches work under him over the years who previously had been head coaches, Dick LeBeau, Todd Haley, Mike Munchak and Brian Flores among them.

He has another he hired this offseason in former Falcons head coach Arthur Smith, and Tomlin said there's a value to having former head coaches on the staff that goes beyond just the Xs and Os.

"There's an advantage for me. I love having the ability to bounce ideas off of people, and not necessarily things that are directly related to the team or game plan or strategy, the things that you would initially think, but more subtle things," Tomlin said this week at the annual NFL meetings in Orlando. "Calendar, best practices, things that happen over the course of 12-months in an effort to search for and find a winning edge. That has proven to be very beneficial to me in the past and I'm excited about having that this time around with Arthur, and that's something that I've been talking to him openly about. 

"My time with Munch (Mike Munchak), my time with Todd Haley, for example, was really beneficial and in some of those more subtle things that might not be interesting to you all, but necessary things from a head coach perspective."

Smith's addition has an extreme amount of value to the Steelers.

For Tomlin, Smith's addition also brings someone with more perspective on quarterback competitions.

Tomlin didn't have to deal with such a thing in his first 15 seasons as head coach of the Steelers. He had Ben Roethlisberger in place, something he never took for granted.

With Roethlisberger's retirement following the 2021 season, the Steelers had a competition that season between Mitch Trubisky, Kenny Pickett and Mason Rudolph. But because Trubisky and Pickett both were new to the team, Trubisky took the majority of the starter snaps to get him ready for the start of the season.

But Smith has been involved in several quarterback competitions in his career. He's also quickly transitioned new quarterbacks into his offensive scheme.

In 2019 when he was in his first season as Tennessee's offensive coordinator, the Titans had Marcus Mariota as their starter, but acquired Ryan Tannehill from the Dolphins for a fight-round pick.

By all accounts, Tannehill outplayed Mariota in camp and the preseason that year, but the Titans stuck with their former No. 2-overall pick – until they didn't.

After six games and a 2-4 start, Smith and head coach Mike Vrabel turned to Tannehill, who rallied the Titans to a 9-7 finish.

Tannehill was the Titans' unquestioned starter in 2020, and Smith had a similar situation the following season when he took the head coaching job in Atlanta with Matt Ryan in place.

But Smith and the Falcons made the decision to move on from Ryan in 2022. Atlanta began that season with Mariota – acquired during the offseason – before turning things over to rookie Desmond Ridder for the final five games of the season.

Neither were the answer, but the Falcons ran the ball more than any other team in the league, finishing 7-10 while getting 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions from their quarterbacks.

Last season in Atlanta, Ridder was Smith's starter going into the season, but he also wound up choosing to go with Taylor Heinicke in four games.

Why mention all of this?

Because Smith hasn't had a quarterback room with the overall talent and potential upside of the one he has with Russell Wilson and Justin Fields this season with the Steelers.

Ryan was clearly at the end of his career when Smith took over in Atlanta. And he completely revived Tannehill's career in the two seasons in which they were together in Tennessee, posting passer ratings of 117.5 and 106.5. Tannehill had never had a passer rating that high in his previous six seasons in Miami and hasn't had once since.

By adding Smith, Wilson and Fields all at the same time, the Steelers and Tomlin have an opportunity for a complete offensive reset, but one with the perspective of a coach who has been in this kind of situation multiple times.

He might have a different perspective on it than Tomlin in terms of what went right and what went wrong in previous situations.

And he does so with a mindset and approach to the game that meshes well with what Tomlin's vision is for the team.

"First and foremost, I've competed against him over the years. You know, we've had some battles against Tennessee and then obviously we played him when he was in Atlanta," Tomlin said. "I respect his approach to ball. His values are very evident in looking at his tape and they are aligned with things that we value, controlling the game through our bigs and building from there. 

"And then also I got close relationships with some people that were really significant in his development and helped him establish some things that he strongly believes in. Guys that I've had an opportunity to work with, like Munch (Munchak), for example. And so, you know, it was really a great deal of comfort and beyond comfort, it was a great deal of excitement in terms of bringing him on board."

• Steelers general manager Omar Khan doesn't see himself as aggressive in his job, despite two very active years on the job of making deals such as the ones that completely revamped the team's quarterback room in the span of a few days and trading up in the first round of the draft in 2023 to acquire offensive tackle Broderick Jones.

To Khan, it's all about doing what he feels necessary to put the best product on the field possible and achieve the goal of winning a Super Bowl.

"I don't ever necessarily consider myself or describe myself as aggressive," Khan said. "I'm trying to do everything I can to help – I owe it to Steeler nation to do everything I can to try to get to the Super Bowl. And every decision that we make and that we talk about, every move that we make and talk about is based on that. Sometimes we make moves, we make decisions, sometimes we don't. But it's always with the intent of doing what we can to get to the second week in February."

The Steelers also have been more active in free agency in recent years. But the process actually began late in former GM Kevin Colbert's tenure. The Steelers traded up in the 2019 draft to acquire Devin Bush – a move that didn't work. And they traded a future first-round pick to the Dolphins to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick – a move that did.

The Steelers have been willing to adjust and make bold moves.

"I don't know if I necessarily say it's evolved," Khan said of the team's approach. "I had the opportunity to learn from Kevin. Kevin and I always worked really close together. And you know, (team president) Art (Rooney II) has been here. And coach has been here for a long time. And we've always looked into different opportunities and tried to handle things on a yearly basis with the ultimate goal of getting to the Super Bowl. I think every year brings new challenges. So, it sort of happened that things have kind of gone a certain way this year and even last year."

• The new kickoff rules approved by the NFL for a test run in the 2024 season could change the way teams view some of the players at the bottom of their roster.

The rule was passed because the new kickoff is expected to generate more returns.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The new rules also might change who special teams coordinator Danny Smith wants to put on the field for his return team.

Because the coverage units and return front line will be aligned much closer and there's less full speed running and hitting involved, teams may look to utilize bigger bodies on the front line of their returns. So, for example, you might want a couple of athletic offensive or defensive linemen out there to help block for your return man since they only have to go five yards to contact a defender.

Certainly, tight ends and linebackers will be a greater part of the equation.

And you can use those bigger players also because teams aren't permitted to attempt a surprise onside kick.

How different teams approach this rule will be fascinating.

• With the NFL's annual spring meeting now completed, the next one will be an owner's meeting in May. At that point, the league will likely give approval to the site to host the draft in 2026.

The Steelers and city of Pittsburgh have applied to the NFL to host the draft in 2026 or 2027. So, we'll find out next month if that bid was successful for 2026.

"Nothing really new to report other than we can continue to be optimistic about it," Steelers president Art Rooney II said.

The event would be a huge one not just for the Steelers, but for the Pittsburgh region, as well.

• With the calendar turning to April on Monday, it will be full draft season for the NFL.

It is also silly season when it comes to rumors and smokescreens.

The thing to keep in mind is that teams tell you what their intentions are by the moves they make – or the ones they don't.

All of that said, it won't surprise me if the vast majority of the players the Steelers bring in for their 30 pre-draft visits are wide receivers, slot-capable cornerbacks and offensive linemen.

That just seems to where the team's offseason moves have set them up moving forward. They addressed quarterback, safety, inside linebacker and outside cornerback in the early portion of the free agency period.

Now, they can attack those other needs in the draft.