Heads Roll on the South Side: Steelers Fire Offensive Line Coach Jack Bicknell

At this post-season press conference Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin declined to announce any staffing or personnel decisions, instead insisting that he preferred to take his time. Tomlin allowed Steelers Nation to ring in the New Year, but before 2014’s first weekend fell, he pulled the trigger on his first coaching change.

  • After just one season, Jack Bicknell has been relieved of his duties as Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach.

Bicknell was hired last year by Tomlin, after a stint as the Kansas City Chiefs offensive line coordinator, and he was brought in because of his experience with zone blocking schemes. The Steelers plans to use those however largely went out the window when David DeCastro collided with Maurkice Pouncey 8 plays into the season vs. Tennessee.

  • That injury forced Kelvin Beachum to play a center, and forced Bicknell to do what his predecessor Sean Kugler had been forced to do – play musical chairs on offensive line. 

The Steelers line struggled mightily during the team’s 0-4 start as Fernando Velasco learned the offense and Mike Adams clearly found himself in over his head at left tackle, as Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 35 times in the season’s first nine games.

Yet the offensive line improved markedly. After taking so much punishment, opposing defenses only sacked Roethlisberger 7 times in the final 7 games of the season as the passing game took off. The running game lagged, but by season’s end the team was running the ball with consistent effectiveness.

Surprise to Most, Except One…

Given the line’s improvement down the stretch, Bicknell’s firing turned a lot of heads. ESPN’s Scott Brown cited a league source that said that Bicknell was “stunned by his dismissal.”

The members of the Steelers press corps also expressed their shock and disbelief almost to a man. That is all of them except for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s Gerry Dulac, who termed the move as expected…

…Dulac wasn’t being contrarian, he in fact had a scoop on his hands, which Steel Curtain Rising’s Watch Tower will discuss very soon. Stay tuned.

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Watch Tower: Dissecting Scottie Montgomery’s Resignation, Plus Heyward vs. Hood

The NFL press credential unlocks access to a world that fans only dream of visiting – the NFL locker room. Many argue that social media diminishes if not eliminates the need and role of the traditional press.

  • There’s some truth there.

The internet, YouTube, blogs, streaming video, Facebook, and Twitter connect players, coaches, scouts, front office staff, and owners with fans in ways that Joe Gordon, Steelers Communications director during the Super Steelers era, never dreamed of.

  • Yet a press credential remains invaluable.

Simply because it gives accredited members of the Pittsburgh Pro Football Writers Association daily access to those self-same players, coaches, and scouts.

Yes can Steelers.com picks and chooses post-game quotes that Twitter, Facebook, ESPN.com, FOX Sports quickly recycle. Sure, Art Rooney II can change the spin of a story by using a video interview to explain that he didn’t mean the Steelers offense needed to run more just that it needed to be able to run better.

  • These mediums have their impact, but they also have their limits.

And that’s because beat reporters establish build relationships players and coaches. They make small talk by the water cooler and in the lunch room. They’re privy to numerous 60 second “off the record” 1-1 elevator rides, parking lot exchanges and, yes, urinal conversations.

Credentialed Steelers press writers have an excellent feel for what gets said in private, behind closed doors, when the tape records and cellphone cameras are put way.

The Watch Tower has long suspected that many if not most of the Steelers press corps writers frequently know a lot more about the stories than reaches the light of day. And that’s what makes our first case so interesting.

Revisiting the Recent Resignations Steelers Assistant Coaches

Steelers Nation knows well how Mike Tomlin said his coaching staff would be back in January 2012 after the Steelers suffered their playoff “Tebowing” in Denver only to have Art Rooney II pulled rank and fired Bruce Arians.

  • The move drew a firestorm converge, and the attempt to pass it off as a “retirement” made the Steelers look bush league.

Mike Tomlin started the Steelers 2013 off season off with three coaching changes, which collectively got less coverage than the Arians fiasco.

Perhaps that was a mistake, because it appears there was a story behind the story…

  • …Depending on who you listen to.

But this plot takes an interesting twist. This is no case of local rivals peddling competing stories or even of the local press vs. the national press. No, this time the Watch Tower shines its light on divergent stories coming from the same publication….

Ed Bouchette vs. Gerry Dulac@ 30 Paces…

In just two days in mid February PG Plus readers got a treat that gave them their money’s worth for a month. On Monday the 11th, Ed Bouchette directly suggested that the resignations of Tomlin’s assistants were less than voluntary. And in doing so, he reported several interesting new facts.

Bouchette characterized Amos Jones move to Pittsburgh West, aka Arizona, as a “side ways move” and pointed out that Jones joined the Steelers as an assistant and only got the special teams coordinator job due to Al Everestt’s mysterious firing.

Although he doesn’t report any new facts, Bouchette reminded readers that Jones didn’t get the job after Bob Ligashesky got fired in 2010, and suggests that Tomlin either told him he would be demoted or suggested he find a new job or be fired.

Scottie Montgomery’s resignation is Bouchette’s next target, and hits the bull’s eye by unearthing new facts. Bouchette begins by reminding us that the Duke PR department was nebulous about what Montgomery’s new duties would be, and that a move from Pittsburgh to Duke is hardly a step up the career ladder. Then he delivers the goods, commenting:

We were told that Montgomery did not exert enough control over the wide receivers the past season and, with Hines Ward no longer around, the students ran the classroom and became more undisciplined. Their performance on the field certainly would back that up.

Although Bouchette does not mention this, the hiring of Richard Mann provides further evidence to support his claim. Anyone who saw his draft day press conference could easily see that Mann exudes and air of “Been there, Done that.”

Bouchette closed by taking a look at Sean Kulger’s decision to accept the head coaching job at UT El Paso, suggesting that he might have at least been motivated by a philosophy class with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Haley’s new offensive line coach Jack Bicknell has in fact installed a new, run blocking scheme.

So here we have an inside story from the Dean of the Pittsburgh press corps telling us that Tomlin’s coaching changes were as much about house cleaning as they were climbing the career ladder. Case closed, right? Not so fast.

Dulac began by attacking the notion that the changes were a case of “rats leaving a sinking ship” and went as far as to state:  “And none were made because of any conflict or dissatisfaction with Coach Mike Tomlin.”

Dulac pointed out that Kulger’s chance to return to his alma mater was simply “too good to pass up.” In discussing Amos Jones move, Dulac reported that Jones got more money and a longer contract than was presumably available in Pittsburgh.

In discussing Montgomery’s return to Duke, Dulac says:

But Montgomerie [sic] was said to very friendly with Tomlin and, according to one assistant coach, was reluctant to leave Duke the first time to join the Steelers.

Bouchette vs. Dulac Who to Believe? 

So here you have two reporters for the same publication, telling very different stories based upon what they see from behind the scenes on the South Side. Who to believe?

Of all of the moves, the departure of Kulger’s appears to be the most straight forward. He got the chance to return to his roots, and presumptively would have stayed in Pittsburgh had that opportunity not surfaced.

There’s likely truth in both men’s rendering of Amos Jones’ departure. Jones quiet likely could have stayed in Pittsburgh, but only in his old role as a special teams assistant.

In the case of Montgomery, the Watch Tower is prone to believe Bouchette. The wide receiving corps was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s strength last year, but “Young Money,” aka Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, played more like a penniless group of receivers, much to Ben Roethlisberger’s chagrin.

  • There is one thing that both Bouchette and Dulac agree on, one that is perhaps a little disturbing for Steelers fans.

In discussing Montgomery’s move, Bouchette observed this “If Tomlin – or someone above him – didn’t force Montgomery out, his move to Duke is a strange one indeed.”  Dulac went a step further, and finished his article suggesting:  “Of course, sometimes what Tomlin wants and what actually transpires are two different things. Just ask Arians.”

While the idea of Art Rooney II involving himself in Mike Tomlin’s staffing decisions  isn’t in and of itself bad, one would hope that Art II would emulate macro-manager Daniel Rooney and not micro-manager Daniel Snyder.

Which Way is Cameron Heyward Heading?

One of the the most important story lines at Steelers training camp in St. Vincent’s will be the development of Cam Heyward, the Steelers 1st round pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Cam Heyward’s limited contributions as a rookie drew good reviews, however opinion of his second year development remains split.

Ralph Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review wrote a feature-length article admonishing Hewyard to “step it up” commenting that:

The Ohio State product begins his third season amid a cloud of uncertainty.
He isn’t likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup, but he can dictate how much playing time he’ll get — and how his future will be shaped.

To back up his argument, Paulk cites any number of statistics on Heyward’s production, and quotes Heyward himself discussing how he’s fallen short of his goals.

However, Kyle Curry of the Pittsburgh Sporting News also ran an article on Heyward last week citing statistics that show Hewyard out performing Ziggy Hood on a snap-by-snap basis, and he informs that Ed Bouchette is reporting that Heyward has a chance to replace Hood in the starting lineup.

Heyward’s development, and the press’s coverage of it will be interesting to see.

Bob Smizik on Mike Wallace

The final off season installment of the Watch Tower would not be complete without comment about retired Post-Gazette columnist turned blogger Bob Smizik’s criticism of Steelers salary cap management and free agent decisions.

  • Mike Wallace, as everyone knows was one of the top available free agents, regardless of position and was expected to command at least 10 million per year and he eventually got closer to 12.

Keeping Wallace, in Smizik’s view was essential for the Steelers, and the retired scribe all but implied that the Steelers needed to do what was necessary to keep him. And in the same breath, he slammed the Steelers for being so tight against the cap that they couldn’t make an offer.

  • That’s right – slam the team for not writing Wallace a blank check in one breath, while slamming them for salary cap problems in the next.

Sounds like the same guy who criticized the Steelers for drafting Rashard Mendenhall without taking Willie Parker’s feelings into account, and then complained when Mendenhall wasn’t getting more carries early in ’08….

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Steelers Wide Receivers Coach Scotty Montgomery Heads to Duke

Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting, as are numerous other sources, that Pittsburgh Steelers wide receivers coach Scotty Montgomery will return to Duke University as their offensive coordinator.

Montgomery played for Duke and coached their wide receivers for 4 years before Mike Tomlin named him to replace Randy Fichtner 2009, who he’d moved to quarterbacks coach. Now Tomlin will have to hire a new wide receivers coach.

Motive Behind Montgomery’s Move?

In many ways the move is a step up the career ladder for Montgomery, and Tomlin has repeatedly said he would not stand in the way of an assistant who has an opportunity to grow professionally.

  • Still, its fair to muse over whether the move was 100% Montgomery’s idea.

Similar speculation surrounded Amos Jones’ departure to Pittsburgh West. Jones’ special teams under performed, albeit that unit was much farther below the line than the wide receiving corps.

Jones was close to Tomlin, with long ties dating back to 1999 when both coached at the University of Cincinnati and it’s much easier to see him “encouraging” a friend to seek employment elsewhere as opposed to firing him outright.

Montgomery doesn’t have those professional ties to Tomlin, yet in contrast to Bill Cowher, Mike Tomlin has a slow trigger finger when it comes to firing assistants. Could Montgomery have been encouraged to shop his resume?

None of this speculation would mean anything save for a report by Gerry Dulac in PG Plus that he expected a offensive coach to be fired (unfortunately no link can be provided, as PG Plus cannot process non-US credit cards.)

Todd Haley was safe, Sean Kugler was already headed off to UT El Paso, Kriby Wilson is a Tomlin favorite.  That left Fichtner and Montgomery.

  • Perhaps Dulac was wrong and no assistant was on the chopping block, and perhaps this was entirely about Montgomery climbing the career ladder.

While it’s understandable hold Montgomery responsible for the regression of the wide receiving corps and seek out Montgomery as a lighting rod, such analysis is flawed.

If Montgomery does bear some responsibility for the slippage in Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders’ play then he also deserves credit for developing the latter two so quickly during their rookie and “sophomore seasons.”

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Steelers Hire Jack Bicknell Jr. as New Offensive Line Coach

Make that one position coach the Steelers will need to replace this offseason. It’s being reported by several outlets that Pittsburgh has hired Jack Bicknell Jr. to be the new offensive line coach for the 2013 season, replacing Sean Kugler. Kugler, who filled that role for three seasons, left following the 2012 campaign to be the new head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP).

Bicknell spent the 2012 season as the offensive line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, but was let go when head coach Romeo Crenell was fired and replaced by Andy Reid, who decided to go with his own staff.

Bicknell, 49, spent more than two decades coaching in the college ranks and  was the head coach at Louisiana Tech for eight seasons from 1999-2006.

The Steelers are still in search of a special teams coach after Amos Jones left this past weekend to fill the same role on Bruce Arians’ staff with the Arizona Cardinals.

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BTSC Reports Pittsburgh Steelers Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler to Accept UTEP Coaching Job

Behind the Steel Curtain is reporting, citing the Twitter feed of Asher Wildman, that Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Sean Kugler will leave the Pittsburgh Steelers to accept the head coaching job of the University of Texas El Paso Miners (full disclosure, I also write occasionally for BTSC.)

Kugler played for the UTEP minors and began his coaching career at Boise State.

Asher Wildman is the sports anchor of KVIA 7 a local station in El Paso and broke the news late in the evening of December 7th. As of 11:00 am Eastern time December 8th, neither the Post-Gazette nor ESPN are confirming the news.

Steelers Pay Price of Success?

The Steelers hired Sean Kugler after the Buffalo Bills fired him following the 2009 season. While the Bills had indeed given up a tremendous number of sacks that season, Kugler had managed an offensive line that was ravaged by injuries.

The experience served him well in Pittsburgh, because in Pittsburgh Kugler had regularly had to shuffle offensive lineman in and out of position due to a constant cycle of injuries. Kugler has managed the situations well, and has played a role in the development of high draft picks Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Mike Adams.

Moreover, it is under Kulger that the Steelers offensive line, once a road grading unit the NFL defenses feared, has regained at least some its ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage.

Assuming the news is in fact confirmed, that will signal that Kugler’s success with the Steelers has not gone unnoticed. Losing Kugler would be a blow to Pittsburgh, but Mike Tomlin has repeatedly said he will not stand in the way of any assistant coach who wants to climb the career ladder.

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Keith Butler to the Colts?

Steelers Linebackers coach Keith Butler is not a man driven by impulse. He passed on the chance at the defensive coordinator’s headset in Pittsburgh West. He also had a shot in 2009 to join Tony Soprano’s staff in Miami. Again he said no.

At the time the word was that Butler had been tapped as Dick LeBeau’s heir apparent, and seemed content to wait his turn in Pittsburgh. And Ed Bouchette reported in the Post-Gazette that Butler has a handsake agreement that he’ll get the job when LeBeau retires.

Butler’s patience, however, may have worn out as reports indicate that he will follow Bruce Arians to join Chuck Pagano’s staff in Indianapolis. Butler confirmed that he will interview for the position, and makes no secret about his desire to coach as a defensive coordinator, however Bouchette reported that Bulter insisted that a move to the Colts is not a “done deal.”

The move marks the second significant shift in Mike Tomlin’s coaching staff, following Arian’s departure and it is likely the their will be more turnover, as Randy Fitchner and Sean Kugler are the top candidates fill the offensive coordinator slot which of course means that Tomlin would need to fill their positions as well.

Rumors that Jim Cadwell, who coached with Tomlin in Tampa, might be taking the Steelers offensive coordinator job have turned out to be false, as it was announced that the Ravens had named Cadwell as their quaterbacks coach.

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Steelers Draft Marcus Gilbert in 2nd Round

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft.

Gilbert is on offensive tackle from the University of Florida.

The real story of the round is that the Steelers tried unsuccessfully to trade up to get a top corner. It is uncertain how far up they wanted to go, but they almost got a shot at Brandon Harris, but the Houston Texas made a trade with New England and took Harris.

Versatility a Virtue or a Vice?

ESPN’s write up on Marcus Gilbert explains that he has the ability to play tackle or guard, listing that as one of his assets.

And Mike Tomlin loves players “position flexibility.”

In this case, the Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette is not so sure.

Writing in PG Plus last night Bouchettee opined:

It should make everyone a little nervous when line coach Sean Kugler listed among his attributes that Marcus Gilbert can play tackle AND guard.[Emphasis in original]

Did they say that the day they drafted Anthony Munoz? Well, of course, Gilbert is no Anthony Munoz. But they didn’t say that when they drafted Marvel Smith, either, and he too was a second-rounder.

Truthfully, I do not know enough about Gilbert, or any of the other players on the board when he was taken to offer a prediction about how his career in the NFL will turn out.

By the same token, I don’t know why being able to play more than one position should be considered as a potential liability….

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Marcus Cannon, Keith Williams in Pittsburgh for Pre-Draft Visits

The Steelers, like any other NFL team, are loath to tip their hands leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, but if pre-draft visits are any indication, offensive tackle is high on their Christmas list.

TCU offensive tackle Marcus Cannon visited the South Side meeting with Sean Kugler and Mike Tomlin today. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette projects Cannon as a second round pick. They also report that, despite being a behemoth at 6’5” 358 pounds he is considered to be very athletic.

The Steelers also worked out Keith Williams of Nebraska, who played 13 games at left guard for the Cornhuskers last fall. The post Gazette projects Williams as a mid-round pick.

Of confirmed collegiate pre-draft visits, the Steelers have enteretained 5 offensive tackles more than doubling the number of players at other positions who’ve made the trip to Pittsburgh. Williams, however, is the first guard that they’ve worked out in advance of the 2011 NFL draft.

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Do the Steelers Have a New Keydrick Vincent?

“…Last season ended in disappointment for the Steelers. Expected to contend for the Super Bowl, they instead failed to make the playoffs.

Secondary breakdowns humbled their once vaunted defense. Injuries and subpar performance on the offensive line rendered the Steelers running game, once known for bludgeoning opponents into submission, a shadow of its former self, while the quarterback was left running for his life.

This year was to be different. A mandate to reestablish the run came from the highest echelons of the Steelers hierarchy.

A single ball has yet to be snapped at Heinz Field but management’s goal already appears to be in jeopardy as a budding starter on the Steelers offensive lineman has been lost for the season due to an injury…”
Edward M. DiPaola, Pittsburgh Press Review Gazette, Summer 2004

There is not, nor has there ever been, a Pittsburgh Press Review Gazette and you can consider the equally fictional “Edward M. DiPaola” to be a composite scribe.

However, the above missive aptly describes the situation the Steelers found themselves in during August 2004. Six years later, Fate has landed the Steelers in a similar spot.

Things looked bleak then, but does anyone remember the results?

The offensive line did dominate the line of scrimmage, the Steelers running game reasserted itself with a vengeance, and a rookie would become the first NFL quarterback to win 15 straight starts.

Remembering Keydrick Vincent’s Lesson

How did it happen?

After all, losing Kendall Simmons to a torn ACL early in training camp was a blow that seemed to portend disaster.

The answer is that Keydrick Vincent stepped to the fore, and started the entire season at right guard and the Steelers never missed a beat.

Could something similar happen this year?


The odds may be against it, but let’s look at what history teaches us.

Important differences between 2004 and now exist of course. Keydrick Vincent, whom the Steelers signed as an unrestricted rookie free agent, had 11 starts under his belt and had appeared in 11 other games.

In contrast, Tony Hills has done a lot of nothing since being drafted in the 4th round in 2008.

Still, special teams coach Sean Kugler came to Pittsburgh with a reputation as a coach who did something with… very little in Buffalo, and Kugler has both options and time to plan.

In addition to Jonathan Scott, Ramon Foster, and Trai Essex, the Steelers also signed unrestricted rookie free agents Dorian Brooks, guard, out of James Madison and Kyle Jolly a 300 pound tackle out of North Carolina.

If you think it is preposterous that someone no one ever heard of can come in and contribute at right tackle on the offensive line, then you need to remember Larry Tharpe.

In 1999 Anthony Brown and Chris Conrad alternated starts at right tackle in what seemingly devolved into a quest to reveal who was more inept while Larry Tharpe sat on a couch somewhere.

In 2000, Kevin Colbert brought Tharpe to the Steelers, and injuries to rookie Marvel Smith and Shar Pourdanesh forced Tharpe to make 5 starts where he clearly outshone the previous seasons starters.

Integrity demands acknowledging that Steel Curtain Rising enthusiastically joined the chorus that greeted the news of Willie Colon’s Achillies tear with dismay.

The truth is Colon’s loss represents another serious set back for a team already reeling from a turbulent off season.

Will the Steelers be able to compensate for Colon’s loss? There is no guarantee that they will. But history shows that they certainly can.

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Keith Butler to Stay with Steelers; Ray Horton Out?

One of the perils of blogging is thinking you’re smart to upload some tid-bit while eating breakfast before work…

…Only to come home to discover that what you wrote is now irrelevant.

And so it is. In Friday’s morning’s post Steel Curtain Rising’s waxed on the impending loss of linebackers coach Keith Butler, along with some other assistants.

In spite of his name, Dolphins coach Tony Soprano was unable to make Keith Butler an offer he couldn’t refuse. At least when it came to assistant coaching positions. The Dolphins offered Butler their defensive coordinator position, but he declined, meaning Butler will be back with the Steelers next year.

This is a mild surprise, as position coaches normally leap at the chance to become coordinators. Butler has been mentioned as a possible successor to Dick LeBeau, so perhaps, and this is pure speculation opted to stay with the Steelers out of a desire to get first crack at the Steelers defensive coordinator’s position.

Steel Curtain Rising has zero information, but we will ask this question of the PG’s Ed Bouchette and/or Gerry Dulac should they conduct chats next week. Stay tuned.

Additional Coaching Moves

The Pittsburgh Tribune Review is reporting that the Steelers are interviewing former San Francisco 49er’s special teams coach Al Everest. I neither know anything about Everest nor about the state of San Francisco’s special teams over the three seasons that he has coached them.

Anyone with ideas, please feel free to chime in on the comment box.

Like Everest, yours truly is not in a position to opine on Sean Kugler, the Steelers new offensive line coach. However, Bltizburgh, from the website Behind the Steel Curtain, has written and extensive post praising the Steelers for the hire. Click here to check it out (and WHERE does this man find the time to write such thorough posts?)

Ray Horton’s Headed Out?

Finally, Gerry Dulac reported in PG Plus yesterday that one of the reasons why Ray Horton is interviewing for the University of Houston’s defensive coordinator job is because Tomlin may not have decided to retain him….

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