The Pittsburgh Steelers employed John Mitchell as their defensive line coach, literally, for decades. For about a quarter of a century, not a single defensive lineman passed through the doors of the South Side facility without having gone under his tutelage and learned the draft of the traditional 3-4 defensive end or nose tackle in his model.
That is up until the 2018 season. Last offseason, Head Coach Mike Tomlin hired veteran defensive line coach Karl Dunbar to take over Mitchell’s job as he transitioned full-time into the role of assistant head coach—a title he bore since Tomlin came in in 2007—in an entirely off-field capacity.
Tomlin had already had a level of familiarity with Dunbar because he was the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive line coach when he was there as defensive coordinator. As a matter of fact, Mitchell was even Dunbar’s position coach when he played for LSU. And the latter was drafted by the Steelers, in the eighth round of the 1990 draft.
Now he is responsible for teaching the defensive linemen, the first shift in that role the Steelers have seen since the first half of the 1990s. But the first impressions, after a full season, have been positive, with everybody who has commented on him having positive things to say.
The latest was three-year veteran defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who saw arguably his most extensive role, and his largest amount of opportunities, under Dunbar, which helped to contribute to his career-high six and a half sacks, the third-most sacks on the team in 2018 behind only outside linebacker T.J. Watt and fellow defensive lineman Cameron Heyward.
“It was good. He brought a lot out of us”, he told Missi Matthews this offseason for the team’s website during a sit-down interview. “He’s teaching us a lot and just giving us a lot of motivation to go out there and be dominant. I think it was a good progression with him. I feel like I learned a lot from him, so I hope we can continue to do that”.
Under Dunbar—whether due to coincidence or otherwise—Hargrave saw his role expanded, getting a lot more playing time in the nickel defense. His playing time increased throughout the season, as did not just his production, but his productivity rate.
It will be interesting to see how the Steelers approach him this offseason as he enters the final year of his contract. Will they opt to sign him to an extension, as they very frequently do with the players that they believe will be key players for them down the line and have already proven themselves?
And how much more can Dunbar get out of him, and the rest of the defensive linemen? Was it really Dunbar’s influence that led to him having his strongest season, or would he have performed similar due to a natural growth rate had Mitchell remained in his role?