Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell can be looked at as a mad scientist of sorts, trying to mold massive pieces of clay into a monstrous Frankenstein type of wrecking machine for the team’s 3-4 defense. Whether it be turning a first-rounder like defensive end Cameron Heyward into one of the best in the game, or inheriting a sixth round raw, project like mastodon 6-foot-7, 352-pound nose tackle Daniel McCullers, Mitchell is always at work.
However, most Steelers fans know him for the masterpieces he’s put on the field, putting a screeching halt to the opposition’s running games. Most do not know that Mitchell was one of the pioneers when it comes to the civil rights era, even though giving him that designation is something he wants no part of. He was the first African-American to lace up his cleats and play football at the University of Alabama.
For those that don’t know, it was Alabama governor, George C. Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors in the film “Forrest Gump” as he tried to put a stop to the school’s integration. Now, segregated schools were familiar to Mitchell as a young boy, but when he saw that, it made him want to attend Alabama even more.
“He had to be pretty strong just to walk in not knowing what was going to happen when he got there,” said former Alabama teammate Jeff Beard, according to Sean D. Hamill of The New York Times. “And I guess the way integration had gone in Alabama, he would have had a right to be reluctant.”
As a 6-foot-3, 230-pound All-American defensive end, he was like a sponge, soaking up everything his mentor, the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant, taught him, like attention to details or drawing motivation. It’s these exact traits he instills in all of his lineman, and it was a major selling point whenever Mike Tomlin was hired as head coach in 2007 that prompted him to not only keep Mitchell on his staff, but make him assistant head coach.
“John takes a great deal of pride in what he does, the performance of his men, the development of his men,” Tomlin said, according to Hamill. “I wanted him to have that same kind of ownership over this football team, and the growth and development of young players.”
A prideful man who would rather bask in obscurity than in the spotlight, he is the embodiment of his linemen. In the Steelers’ last 3 Super Bowl runs, we all think of the award winners, the Defensive Players of the Year, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. However, without his linemen up front occupying blockers, none of that would’ve came to fruition, and their selflessness is a spitting image of him.
“When I wonder how good a coach a guy is, I watch his players, watch how they play, watch how they respond to adversity, watch what they do, watch how they play techniquewise,” said Clarence Brooks, the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive line coach, according to Hamill. “And forever his guys are always sound techniquewise, always play very hard, look like they’re disciplined in drills.”
A footnote for Mitchell is that he’s often tasked with making wine out of water, occasionally being handed first rounders like Casey Hampton or Cameron Heyward, but for every one of those is two Aaron Smith’s, Brett Keisel’s or Chris Hoke’s, a late-round or undrafted prospect who’s rough around the edges. He has quite the ensemble on-deck for the 2015 season, ranging from first and second rounders, all the way down the ladder, with the newest addition Letterious “L.T.” Walton.
“Here we have had a lot of success with taking special defensive linemen in the later rounds,” Mitchell said according to Steelers.com. “I’m excited about having him here and having the opportunity to try to get him better and be a type of player that we like for the Pittsburgh Steelers.”
When the 2015 season gets underway, and much is made of the Steelers’ pass rush, and how Jarvis Jones will look or will Bud Dupree get “x” amount of sacks, I’ll watch the defensive linemen a little closer, flying under the radar and continuing to build on their sixth-ranked rating against the run last season.
“His technique is really getting on you and being critical of and paying attention to all the little details,” longtime backup nose tackle Hoke said, according to Hamill. “Because if you don’t do the little things, they turn into big things. And when situations come up, I think he looks back to, what would Coach Bryant do? And then he moves forward.”