Scapegoating Saxon? (Maybe, Maybe Not) Steelers Fire James Saxon, Running Backs Coach

Mike Tomlin promised changes at his year-end press conference and he is making good on his word as heads continue to roll on the South Side. The Steelers announced today that they have fired running backs coach James Saxon, marking the 2nd coaching change of this off season following Joey Porter’s dismissal last Friday.

While Joey Porter’s dismissal was not a great surprise, given his off the field issues and the lack of development of Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones before him, James Saxon’s departure is not a move many predicted.

James Saxon

Mike Tomlin has fired James Saxon. Photo Credit: 12up.com

The Steelers hired James Saxon in the spring of 2012 after Kriby Wilson left to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings (accompanied by rumors that he could not get along with Todd Haley.)

During his first season, Saxon has worked managed the three back rotation that was Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, and Jonathan Dwyer which truth be told, was starting to function well at mid-season but got untracked after Willie Colon’s season-ending injury.

In 2013, Saxon oversaw the development of Le’Veon Bell, as Bell ascended from a 2nd round pick that many questioned (although Merril Hoge didn’t) into the NFL’s best running back. Saxon also managed to coax respectable performances (the fumble against Denver notwithstanding) out of Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman during the 2015 playoffs when DeAngelo Williams was hurt.

Most recently, James Saxon has helped James Conner and Jaylen Samuels make the transition from college to successful NFL running back.

Is Saxon Breathing Truth into Dick Hoak’s Parting Words?

In January 2007, Dick Hoak retired as Steelers running backs coach after serving in that capacity since 1972. When asked to reflect on his time, Dick Hoak c explained, “They say you’re hired to be fired in this business, so I guess I beat the system.”

  • One has to wonder if James Saxon making Dick Hoak’s words come true.

Mike Tomlin left little doubt that he was going to make changes to his coaching staff in the wake of the Steelers collapse from a 7-2-1 team to one that failed to make the playoffs. But to the naked eye the question must be asked, “Why fire James Saxon?

While it is true that three of the season’s pivotal plays involved fumbles by running backs, fumbles are hardly something you can blame an assistant coach for. Moreover, Jaylen Samuels came into the NFL with very little experience rushing the ball, yet he had the look of a quality number 2 NFL running back against both the Saints and the Patriots.

  • The easy conclusion is that James Saxon is a scapegoat or a fully guy.

But the easy answer isn’t always the correct one, especially when it comes to NFL assistant coaches. After ensuring a horrendous start and devastating injuries, the 2013 Steelers offensive line improved by the end of the year.

That story should serve as a word of caution that the easy conclusion might not be the right one. Fans have very little insight into what the tasks an NFL assistant coach is actually responsible for. Officially, Chan Gailey was the Steelers wide receivers coach in 1995, but his role in running the offense increased, leading the Steelers to fire Ron Erhardt after Super Bowl XXX.

Going further back, Tony Dungy joined Chuck Noll’s staff as a defensive backs assistant, yet research profiling Tony Dungy career as a Steelers assistant coach revaled that he spent much of his first year dealing with linebackers.

  • Of course we know that because the Steelers let reporters interview assistant coaches back then.

Today they do not, which means our understanding of the Steelers James Saxon firing will probably never move beyond speculation.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

4 Lessons Learned & Random Thoughts on Steelers Growth Since Vikings Loss in London

When the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff for their 2017 home opener against the Minnesota Vikings this afternoon, 1450 days will have passed since these two franchises last squared off. Normally you don’t think of intra-conference games marking milestones, but this one does.

Because if the Steelers post Super Bowl XLV rebuilding project began with the Tebowing in the playoffs against Denver in January 2011, the rebuilding effort scratched rock bottom on September 29th, as the Vikings dropped the 2013 Steelers to 0-4.

  • To put this into perspective, the previous Steelers head coach to start 0-4 was Bill Austin, in 1968.

With that in mind, let’s look at how the Steelers have changed, and remained the same, since then.

Le'Veon Bell, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Le'Veon Bell backflip touchdown, Steelers vs Vikings, Steelers London

Le’Veon Bell scores his first touchdown in the Steelers loss to Vikings in London. Photo Credit: Daily Mail Online

1. Sort of Failing at Left Tackle is Like Being Sort of Pregnant

By the fall of 2013 the Steelers had relegated their “Plug ‘n Patch” approach to offensive line building to history. Indeed on that day they started Ramon Foster, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert just as they will this afternoon (and they would have started Maurkice Pouency had he not been hurt.)

  • They also started Mike Adams at left guard.

Mike Adams didn’t represent any sort of Jonathan Scottesque attempt to get by on the cheap at left tackle. No, the Steelers invested a 2nd round pick in Mike Adams and made it very clear from the get go that they wanted him to win the starting job. He couldn’t do that as a rookie (and surprise, they turned again to Max Starks), but they gave him the job 2013.

  • The move was an epic fail, and the London loss to the Vikings was its supernova.

Adams struggled all day, and first and only time in his career, Ben Roethlisberger played like he had happy feet. The Vikings ended the game by sacking Roethlisberger, and while Adams didn’t directly allow the sack, he clearly didn’t win his battle at the line of scrimmage which helped collapse the pocket, paving the way for a sack.

The Vikings game in London marked Mike Adams final start at left tackle and Kelvin Beachum’s assent to the role.

2. Le’Veon Lived Up to the Hype, Jarvis Didn’t….

While neither he nor Mike Tomlin uttered the word “Rebuilding,” after the 2012 Steelers 8-8 finish Kevin Colbert as much as admitted changes were needed. Ergo, two key building blocks would come early in the Steelers 2013 Draft Class. One worked out, the other didn’t.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette scribe Ed Bouchette isn’t one to exaggerate, but even he seemed to be drinking a little Koolaid a big when he declared in July 2013 that Le’Veon Bell’s preseason debut “…will be one of the most-anticipated debuts by a Steelers rookie running back since Franco Harris took his first bows 41 years ago.”

  • Le’Veon Bell’s debut didn’t come until London thanks to his Lisfranc injury.

While Le’Veon Bell’s statistics were rather pedestrian on that afternoon, he did score two touchdowns, and flashed some of the ability that the Steelers offense has come to depend upon.

On the flip side, Jarvis Jones, who’d boldly requested number 95, was making his third start at outside linebacker for the Steelers. Jones had one tackle on the day and by any measure must be considered Kevin Colbert’s only true first round bust.

3. How Long Does It Take to Rebuild Defense? Four Years

One striking observation is that there’s been very little turnover in the Steelers offense since that fateful London day. Sure, Health Miller retired and the entire tight end depth chart has turned over (thanks to David Johnson’s waiver). But the line remains intact and that was the first game that the Killer Bees, Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown played together, and the trio has powered the offense since.

  • On defense you find an entirely different story.

Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark were still manning both safety spots. Ike Taylor was still starting at corner, and Cortez Allen, the unit’s rising star, returned to the line up to get burned on a 70 yard touchdown. Aside from William Gay, who was back after a one year hiatus in Pittsburgh West, the entire Steelers secondary has turned over since the London Loss.

Looking at the linebackers, Vince Williams was making his first NFL start, and if the rookie looked woefully unable to fill Larry Foote’s shoes, no one can argue he hasn’t grown into the role. But Vince Williams is the only Steelers linebacker left from the London Game (remember, James Harrison was in Cincinnati.)

If the Viking’s victory in London marked the Vince Williams first start, it also marked Ziggy Hood’s last one, as Mike Tomlin would name Cam Heyward starter after this game. The other starters that day were Steve McLendon, who was just taking over from Casey Hampton, and Brett Keisel. 1450 days later, the story remains the same on defensive line. Cam Heyward remains, everyone else is playing elsewhere or has begun “Life’s Work.”

4. Assistant Coaches Do Matter – See Mike Munchak’s Influence

People forget this, but Mike Adams wasn’t the only Steelers offensive lineman under fire 1450 days ago. Just one week earlier, in the Steelers loss to the Bears, Steelers coaches had rotated Kelvin Beachum on at both tackles.

While the Steelers offensive line improved during the course of 2013, Mike Tomlin quickly fired Jack Bicknell at season’s end and replaced him with Mike Munchak, and no one argues that the Steelers offensive line is far better for Munchak’s influence.

Young Money had been all the rage prior to 2013, but the promise of those young receivers was largely unrealized, as even Antonio Brown’s play was a little uneven by the end of 2012. Mike Tomlin responded by replacing Scottie Montgomery with Richard Mann, who has clearly transformed the Steelers wide receiving corps.

As Dick Hoak reminded everyone on the day he retired (after nearly 3 and half decades of serving as a Steelers assistant coach) NFL assistant coaches are “Hired to be fired.” He’s right. Often times assistant coaches act as the fall guys when either head coaches fail or draft picks flounder as busts.

But the additions of Richard Mann and Mike Munchak show that good assistant coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL.

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.

Steelers set to hire Mike Munchak as offensive line coach

Steelers insider and beat reporter Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is reporting that Pittsburgh will hire Hall of Fame guard Mike Munchak to be the team’s new offensive line coach.

Munchak, who was the head coach in Tennessee the past three seasons, compiling a 22-26 record before  being fired following the 2013 season after reportedly refusing to part ways with several of his assistant coaches, will take over for Jack Bicknell Jr, who was let go by head coach Mike Tomlin after the regular season.

Munchak played at Penn State under legendary head coach Joe Paterno in the late 70s and early 80s, before landing in Houston in 1982 and playing 12 Hall of Fame seasons that included nine trips to the Pro Bowl and 10 seasons selected as an All-Pro.

After retirement, Munchak stayed on with the Oilers organization as an assistant coach and was named offensive line coach in 1997 after owner Bud Adams relocated his team to Tennessee, eventually re-naming it the Titans.

  • Munchak coached the offensive line for 14 seasons before taking over for Jeff Fisher as head coach in 2010.

According to Bouchette, Munchak coaches a zone blocking system, similar to what the team wanted to implement last season after drafting running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round.

Munchak becomes the Steelers fourth offensive line coach since Tomlin was hired in 2007.

Thanks for visiting. Click here to check out the rest of Steel Curtain Rising. Or… Follow @SteelCurtainRis

Please lend a hand by sharing this on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc... Thanks.