The Pittsburgh Steelers parted with two assistant coaches on the offensive side of the ball during this offseason; one was by choice, the other the choice of the coach.
A year after losing offensive line coach Sean Kugler to the college ranks, the Steelers evidently settled on a one-year layover with Jack Bicknell Jr., with whom the team parted ways following the season.
Meanwhile, running backs coach Kirby Wilson chose to make a lateral move, joining the Minnesota Vikings to fulfill the same role.
The decision was likely prompted by his being passed on for the offensive coordinator job as he recovered from a house fire, and subsequent signs that said coordinator, Todd Haley, would not be going anywhere for a while.
So it was that the Steelers added two new conspirators to the offensive brain trust, with former Tennessee Titans head coach and offensive line coach Mike Munchak hired to coach the offensive line, and former Vikings running backs coach James Saxon to fill the same role.
Though neither have yet had yet to prove their employers wise, the two are already hatching plans to resurrect what was once the Steelers’ identity: a strong running game.
Every time we’ve heard from Saxon thus far in his short time in Pittsburgh, he has been demonstrative in his insistence that the team would run whatever the offensive line was capable of and most skilled running.
Perhaps this is a perception issue, but I’ve never viewed Wilson as the type of running backs coach who paid much mind to the offensive line when coaching his players. At least, I cannot recall listening to him speak much about the responsibilities of the offensive line and how their role relates to what his pupils are able to do.
I may indeed be mistaken in this. After all, Wilson is an individual perceived to have higher ambitions, and as an aspiring offensive coordinator, he would certainly require a broader vision that extends beyond the backfield.
Saxon’s repetitive focus on the offensive line, however, I see as an encouraging sign that the running game should be more in harmony with those assigned to block for said running game. This may be a product of the fact that Saxon was himself a running back; indeed, he was also a blocker while serving in the role of fullback.
Take this recent quote from Saxon as exhibit A:
Right now, (offensive line coach Mike Munchak) and myself, being the two new guys we’re in the process of learning all the little intricacies of what we’re trying to do as an offense. We’ve had a lot of great discussions about what we want. The conversations that I’m having with the guys in my room, I’ve said, “Look, we’re going to do the best things in the running game for the five guys that are blocking up front”. We have to be accountable in terms of where we put the football. They’re going to know where to put the football because we have to help those five guys up front.
Saxon may have been a fallback option over retaining Wilson (though the Steelers didn’t resist his desire to depart, either), but all signs I’ve seen from the new running backs coach have been nothing but positive.
While he may have been relieved by the Vikings, he has an accomplished resume, and in the end he may prove to be an upgrade. Working together with Munchak and the offensive line will go a long way toward making that a reality.