Film Room: Steelers ‘Effort Plays’ That Highlight DL Coach John Mitchell’s Legacy

Wednesday, Pittsburgh Steelers’ longtime coach John Mitchell officially announced his retirement. Solely the team’s assistant head coach since 2018, he previously served as the franchise’s defensive line coach since 1994. An old-school type, Mitchell taught technique but was also known for preaching fanatical effort and demanded his defensive linemen to run to the football. That was passed down from player to player over the years.

In honor of his retirement, here’s a handful of my favorite effort plays by Steelers’ defensive linemen over the years, all stemming from Mitchell’s teachings.

The first one is old-school. Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks. Not a play Steelers’ fans will remember well, effort plays usually mean linemen are running further and longer than they’re supposed to, but one I haven’t forgotten. Seahawks’ RB Shaun Alexander has a lane left side and takes off down the sideline.

Aaron Smith, #91 and LDE on the left side, defeats the backside cut block and chases after him. Alexander breaks into space for 21 yards. While he wouldn’t have scored on the play, Smith is the one who runs him out of bounds to stop the bleeding. Take a look at the play.

This is my favorite “effort” play of all-time and had nothing to do with a tackle. 2015 against the Arizona Cardinals. Larry Fitzgerald takes a tunnel screen and cuts across the field down the right sideline. Despite having almost no shot to make the tackle, Stephon Tuitt comes screaming across the bottom of the screen, arms pumping hard, and taking a wide angle to *potentially* meet Fitzgerald far downfield.

I don’t have him circled but just watch around the hashes. You’ll see a Steeler running full sprint downfield (with a Cardinals’ lineman chasing him, good on him too). That’s Tuitt.

Another effort play. Late in the game in a blowout win over the Houston Texans, watch Tuitt race down the middle of the field to help make this tackle. Pittsburgh was up 27-0 and Tuitt is running 35 yards just to clean this one up. In context, this is even better.

Finally, a couple Cam Heyward clips. A man who plays with as much effort and motor as anyone you’re going to see. I could have an article fully dedicated to that but here’s just two clips. Love this one against Frank Gore a couple years ago. Heyward rushing upfield, touches the quarterback just after he releases it, but still busting his butt to follow Gore all the way downfield as Gore weaves in and out of some ugly tackle attempts.

Heyward finally tracks down and catches up to Gore, bear-hugging him and taking him to the ground. An ugly defensive showing overall but like so many other times, Heyward cleaned up the mess.

Last one and this clip is more memorable. 2021 against the Los Angeles Chargers, tracking down QB Justin Herbert to save a touchdown. Unfortunately this one is better-remembered for what happened after this play, Heyward falling on Herbert after losing his balance trying to get up, but the effort here is what I’ll take away from this snap.

That’s what you needed to play for John Mitchell. That was the gold standard. If you didn’t run to the ball, you didn’t play for him. That was instilled once Mitchell got there and passed down from player-to-player along with Coach Mitchell’s teachings. And it’s what Heyward is doing with the new group of guys, meaning Mitchell’s legacy will live on for years to come.

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